One of the things we can take some pride in here in Ireland is that we haven’t got pulled into an extreme racist and xenophobic type of politics as has happened in some other countries. Having said that, it was a great source of disappointment to see how one of the candidates in the recent Presidential election chose to target Travelling people as a way to win votes. Many people excused this on the basis that ‘he was only saying what a lot of people think’. This was echoed by a number of politicians, one of whom commented that “political correctness” had gone too far in this country. Unfortunately, this shows a lack of understanding of how prejudice operates.
For a start, imagine the reaction if the kind of remarks that were made had been about women, or people of colour or gay people. Large numbers of people hold negative views about each of these groups. Would the fact that lots of people hold these views be accepted as a justification for targeting these groups as part of a political campaign? Probably not. While there are lots of prejudices about groups such as these, Irish society has moved to the point where trying to mobilise people against these groups on the basis of these prejudices would not be condoned.
Despite this movement in Irish society, we saw the use of the divisive targeting of a vulnerable minority group in the Presidential campaign. This time it was Travellers but once this becomes acceptable it is only a matter of time before other groups get attacked. The temptation for opportunistic political candidates to build support based on people’s fears and prejudices is very dangerous for democracy and has no long-term positive effects for society. We are witnessing the hugely destructive impact of this type of politics in the US for example.
This approach also betrays a misunderstanding about the nature of leadership. What we saw in the election campaign was not leadership. It was a form of what James McGregor Burns, one of the clearest thinkers about leadership, has described as power-wielding. True leadership is something very different.
A central role of a leader is to think about people and their struggles. That means getting in close, listening to them and, from there, looking at what might make a difference. True leadership involves not just being aware of the fears and prejudices of the majority culture but understanding how these fears and prejudices arose and what can be done to move past them. And it means listening to everyone, not just those who are in positions of privilege or power or who are the majority group in the culture. The blaming of one group for society’s woes, especially a minority group such as Travellers, is never an accurate picture of the situation facing us.
At the same time, it is probably true that what was said in this election campaign does represent what many settled people think. The thing is that this tells us more about settled people than it does about Travellers. It’s worth thinking about the implications of having a large number of settled people feeling like this – both for settled people and for Travellers.
As a settled person growing up in Ireland, it was impossible for me not to internalise a range of negative feelings and attitudes about Travellers. Those feelings and attitudes were all around me and I couldn’t escape picking them up. As a young person, I remember asking why Travellers lived in such terrible conditions by the side of the road. The answer I got was because they were Travellers, which, of course, explained nothing and laid the blame on Travellers themselves.
The negative feelings and attitudes that we settled people carry are not a reflection on our goodness as people. Mostly, we are good people but, without wanting to, we’ve picked up a lot of oppressive reactions to Travellers. Among other things, we learned to fear them. We learned to distrust them. We learned to keep our distance from them. We learned to look down on them. None of that was our fault since it was part of the culture we grew up in and it’s usually not helpful to blame us for it. However, we do carry these prejudices and it is our responsibility to do something about them.
So what can we do about them? From work with other minority groups, we know quite a lot about how to free ourselves from prejudice. A starting point is to realise that prejudices can be overcome and the solution is within us rather than focusing on what Travellers ‘need to do’.
It also helps to remember that this is not an intellectual exercise. Even though, in our heads, we might not want to be prejudiced, the prejudices themselves operate at an emotional level and no amount of discussion or intellectualising will eliminate them. We can think of a series of steps in this process of healing from prejudice.
- Acknowledge all the thoughts, feelings, attitudes or behaviours that we experience in relation to Travellers. Do this simply as a statement of fact rather than attempting to defend or justify these.
- Tell the story of all the messages we got about Travellers, our early memories connected to Travellers, or any of our experiences around Travellers. Focus in particular on the feelings connected to these memories.
- Talk about the feelings that come up for us around Travellers in the present. Take ownership of these feelings rather than trying to justify or explain them on the basis of how Travellers are.
- It can be particularly helpful for a group of settled people to come together to listen to each other talk about these things. The important thing is just to listen and not get into a discussion about what people say.
- Notice all the ways that these thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviours keep us separate from Travellers and prevent us building close, friendly relationships with them.
- Decide to get to know Travellers, listen to them and learn from them.
As we do this work, remember that we are good people and our lives will be enriched by the connections we build with Travellers.
Unlike with some other types of prejudice, we don’t have many examples of settled people taking on the work of eliminating their prejudices towards Travellers. Were we to do this, the benefits for society generally would be enormous.