angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Shame

“Britain’s Shame” – the price for trying to be “Great”?

Last month I wrote about how the words “Britain” and “shame” rarely appear in the same sentence. This month the two words have been inseparable. “Britain’s Shame” even became the title for BBC’s Panorama programme on the horrifying and heartbreaking fire at Grenfell Tower on 14th June. The programme opens with the accusation that shoved these two words together to sit unwillingly and uncomfortably side by side for all the world to see: “They were warned several times, countless times; they were warned probably until the day before the fire…”

IMG_1336.jpg‘Falling on deaf ears’, Koestler Trust entry from HMP Standford Hill

I don’t feel in any position to write about the tragedy that has ended or blighted so many innocent peoples’ lives. It is too sad and it is too soon. But I do feel in a position to talk about the shame that surrounds it, the shame that needs to be looked at and above all felt so that vital changes can be swiftly made before another tinderbox of neglect ignites.

For well over a year, with Brexit and the recent elections, we the British public have been being fed narratives about what will make us “great”. Boil them down and they are usually about economics and what apparently will make life better, above all, for “hard working families”. I don’t agree. No country can be great while a large proportion of its population have to foot the bill for the high standards of a minority. So many people in this country are living in sub-standard, unsafe conditions and struggling to make ends meet in spite of working their bollocks off. Our prisoners are too. And like our fire-hazard clad tower blocks, prisons are also just waiting to combust.

Some of the world’s greatest thinkers knew this. They knew that for a country to be truly great, you have to look at the standards of life of the poorest, the most vulnerable, the weakest and the troubled. And when we do that, Britain falls very short of the greatness to which it so aspires.

Fyodor Dostoevski: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Winston Churchill: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country…”

Nelson Mandela: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.”

For years prison inspectors, charities, prison reform campaigners, enlightened politicians, prisoners and officers alike have been warning the government that the prison system is not fit for purpose. Suicide rates have doubled in four years; assaults and self-harm incidents have reached record levels; overcrowding, understaffing, underfunding make our prisons not only unsafe but also “shameful places” of wasted opportunity and wasted human potential; warehouses of broken and dysfunctional humanity being held often in little more than cages, then ejected back into society only for half or two thirds to return within the year.

Last year’s Queen’s speech announced the long promised Prison and Courts Reform bill as the “biggest prison shake-up since Victorian times”. It had made real progress through parliament, received broad parliamentary support and was welcomed by campaigners – like me – who had been consulted and listened to in ways we hadn’t been before. There was a genuine excitement and will to reform our prisons and this law would have required the government to respond to the consistently bad findings of the Prison Inspectors. But, in another U-turn by the Tory Government, it has been omitted from this year’s Queen’s speech. And so once again the momentum behind vital prison reform gets reduced to a stutter as ministers get re-shuffled and implementations of good ideas get delayed.

Screen Shot 2017-06-29 at 09.53.08.png

The government and those responsible for the mistakes surrounding Grenfell Tower need to feel the shame of the wholly avoidable tragedy. And we as a nation, need to feel ashamed about our treatment of prisoners. It is all too easy to look at them as second- or third-rate citizens, who have lost their right to fair treatment; who are at the bottom of the pile of people to care about just as some of those in power look on the inhabitants of social housing. Some prisoners, yes, it is harder to care about them. But the vast majority are just people, people who deserve help to make their lives work for themselves and ultimately us. They are just people, 70% of whom have some kind of mental health issues, 52% of whom are dyslexic, 50% of whom can’t write, 25% of whom have spent time in care, others who themselves were victims… Disadvantaged people who didn’t have the advantages that so many of us were fortunate enough to take for granted.

Let us feel ashamed for a moment, because shame can lead to genuine humility and lasting change, above all in attitude. Germany’s emergence out of the biggest and darkest pool of shame in recent history is a good example of how facing ones shame can lead to better policies. If any good at all can come out of the devastating tragedy of Grenfell Tower, may it be that those responsible listen to the warnings and pleas for help or change coming from all those affected by, or connected to, the various areas of British society that are not “great”. For to ignore them further would now not just be negligent but criminal.

Advertisements

Daring to look your family’s past in the face

Last week a Chinese schoolboy approached me after my talk The other side: The Second World War through the eyes of an ordinary German family. Slightly trembling and in broken English he asked me if I had been frightened looking into my family’s past. In my talk I describe the journey I started 10 years ago, of peering deep into the darkest episode of modern history to discover what role my family, above all my German grandfather, a decorated Wehrmacht General, had played, or may have played. I knew the boy was asking this question for a personal reason, the shadows of his own family demons were almost visible, passing like clouds over his terrified face.

My grasp of Chinese history is woefully thin. I wracked my brains for atrocities or events that this boy’s family member(s) could have been involved in. Tiananmen Square in 1989 sprang to mind along with the general sense of horrors perpetrated by Chairman Mao’s regime. But actually it didn’t matter whether I knew the precise what, when, where and who of his story. What mattered was the impact it was having on his life.

It has happened before that my story has resonated with people of different nationalities. I have had a number of young German pupils as well as elderly men or women come up to me after my talks to shake my hand, and thank me. Sometimes the older people are in tears. It seems that in my story they recognize a story that is also theirs but which they themselves have not been able to tell. Recently I had a young Russian sixth former offer me an apology on behalf of her grandfather in return for the apology I had offered for mine. Hers had fought in the notoriously fierce battle for Berlin right at the end of WW2 in which the brutal rape of German girls and women from 8-80 years old had not only been commonplace but also positively encouraged. The girl who approached me knew her great grandfather had been part of this and, though she was born 50+ years later, she wanted to say sorry to me.Allemagne, Berlin. 2 mai 1945. Le drapeau rouge flotte sur les to”ts du Reichstag

I was born 20 years after the end of the war and, similarly, my grandfather had been part of Hitler’s massive invasion that swept through her grandparent’s land killing tens of millions of Russians. I too had needed to say sorry for that. So here we all are, the third and fourth post-war generations all with something in common: a shared sense of guilt and shame and a need or desire to apologise… for something we didn’t do.

main_1200It’s so strange, that people who have genuinely committed horrendous deeds can often feel no guilt or shame, but rather justification, as so many Nazis did. And people who have done nothing wrong – rape victims, survivors, children – can feel guilt and shame for their mere association with bad deeds, even if they happened long before they were born. For the latter, once identified, the sense of guilt can generally be more easily dispelled with facts. As Brené Brown brilliantly defines in her inspiring Ted Talk Listening to Shame https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYV0 the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is for something you have done. Shame, however, is for who you are. And that’s what makes it a lot harder to shift. Shame is a widespread and international epidemic. It can be a debilitating state of low self-esteem, isolation, disconnection, violence or self-harm, depression, fear of being vulnerable and showing yourself, of excelling or even of feeling worthy of love, joy and the good things in life. But there are ways through it.

And so I found myself reassuring the frightened Chinese boy at my side, that whatever his family member had done, he himself was not guilty. He had not done it. What he might feel, however, is shame. And of course fear. I certainly had felt fear of what I might discover but I now know that the very first step towards shedding the shame is to overcome that fear and to look the deeds of the relatives and forefathers in the face.

%d bloggers like this: