Sunday, 18 March 2012

Some thoughts on tolerance

Has your YouTube viewing ever led you somewhere unexpected? Mine has, and this week, I landed on Bronski Beat’s ‘Small Town Boy’. Before you judge, take a look:

If you don’t have time, the song is about Jimmy Somerville’s experiences growing up as a gay man in the 1980s, and forms a stark juxtaposition to contemporary attitudes to homosexuality. My memory of the 1980s is hazy, but it must have taken a degree of courage for Jimmy to have steel enough to play himself in this music video, when he knew full well that it would be played to a society that was still very uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality.  

I first came to London in 1997 to go to University. I was thinking recently about how much the city has changed in that time. To walk down Tottenham Court Road today is to be oblivious to the fact that at the end of the 20th Century it was liberally littered with sex shops and kebab houses. Every July, there was a Gay Pride parade, and it had a real tension to it. It was about one group of people publicly celebrating the very thing that other members of society vilified them for.

Where was the justice, or the compassion, when the Admiral Duncan was bombed in 1999? I remember seeing the ambulances lining up around the corner on Gower Street, outside University College Hospital, and feeling a lit bit useless - as a second year medical student, the most helpful thing I could do was steer clear of the place.

But times change, and Gay Pride still takes place every summer, and the worst that any one can really say about it is that there are rather a lot of whistles being blown. It’s almost as if it’s all a bit passe, and that’s a good thing. It means that the tension has gone.

Of course, my view from London is not reflected every where, but it is gratifying to see how tolerances can alter and grow, and that from being something that people had to be afraid of, being gay has increasingly, albeit not universally, become something that people can celebrate.

But one has to wonder whether the society that we live in today is actually a more tolerant one than Jimmy’s world of 1984. In some ways it is, but in others I wonder if we might have gone backwards.

On the 7th of July 2005, I was sitting in A&E, trying to decide how to treat a patient, when the Big Red Phone went off, and told us that there had been a major incident at Kings Cross. What followed was the most emotionally turbulent day of my life. Initially there was the confusion about what had actually happened, then there was the panic of dealing with injuries, then there was the realisation of what had happened and why. And mixed in with all of this horror, were some essentially human displays that reminded me that however wicked people could be, there was at least an equal capacity for startling kindness. I remember people walking for miles to get into the hospital to help out, I remember the catering people bringing me sweet tea and cake every half an hour, and I remember the roads being filled with thousands of people quietly making the (often long) walk home.

That day, we experienced something of the worst of humanity, but also something of the best, and underlying all of it, was some deeply held tension, that still exists today, and I think corrodes us a little every day.

We all get scared by things we don’t understand, and we see the reaction to the fear it induces every day of our lives. What we see much less often, is people taking the time to understand the thing that scares them, before they decide what they think about it.

I’m pretty sure that each one of us has built in the ability to soar to great heights of empathy and kindness, which is matched by an equal ability to plumb the depths of obtuseness. And I think it is when we fail to understand the basis of our differences that we succeed in being the latter.

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