Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: The curse of whataboutery: this is a divided society that can't give up its prejudices

Weary of sectarian squabbling, Fionola Meredith is grateful for those people who refuse to be part of tribes

Do you ever get the feeling that this place is sick? I do. I need frequent trips away from Northern Ireland just to maintain some semblance of sanity. Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, 20 years after the obscenity of Omagh, and people are still at each other's throats, in words if not in action.

Slabbering and yabbering and nursing their bitter little prejudices like twisted, spoiled children. Fondling their grievances, enjoying the self-righteous feeling it gives them, loving the sense of victimhood.

Ever looking for an opportunity to sneer and score points and get offended by 'the other side'. Themmuns. The enemy. The focal point for a lifetime of obsessive loathing.

It is sick as hell, the way sectarianism is engrained in our society. It is a form of mass psychosis.

It's a cancer of the mind and soul. It eats away at all the sound, rational, compassionate, empathetic parts - you know, the things that actually make us human, the things that keep us connected to one another - and leaves a lump of hard, dead-eyed, calcified hatred. A walking, talking lump of hatred, a zombie programmed with the rules of the tribe.

Some of these zombies are barely literate, and operate through little more than a series of grunts. Others, the more dangerous kind, are silver-tongued, persuasive and articulate. They may sound normal and reasonable for a good deal of the time, occasionally humorous, sometimes even quite humane.

But the sickness is there, inside them, and it will come out, if you listen for it.

They are masters of the crude art of whataboutery, and they are the recruiting agents for their tribe, pulling in gullible fools who should know better. They are the ones who bang the drums that make the other zombies dance.

Sectarianism is colour-blind, or rather it can only see two colours: orange and green. This is the fundamental way it approaches the world. Everything must be divided up into these two categories, on the basis that you're either with us or you're against us.

There is no in-between. The sectarian mind, poisoned as it is, cannot comprehend the capacity for independent thought: the ability to see textures of good and bad, positive and negative. No way. Say a word against one of ours, dare to disagree, and you're immediately identified as one of Them, to be reviled for ever more.

Because you have to be one or the other, don't you? It's the number one rule of fight club.

Meanwhile, there's the rest of us. The ones who despise it all and want no truck with any of it, on either side. The ones who never voted for a tribal political party in their lives and never, ever will. The ones who don't do orange and green. The ones who couldn't give a monkey's whiskers about flags and emblems. The ones who look at effigies being burned on bonfires, or hear the singing of rebel songs, and turn away in sad disgust.

There are many, many people like that. But you don't hear a lot from them because the zombies make so much noise, and also because most of them have better things to do than waste their lives arguing with the sectarian undead on Twitter.

Of course, there have always been non-tribal people, right through the Troubles and beyond.

Recently I had the great pleasure of encountering a group of men who met as teenage breakdancers on the bleak streets of Belfast in the 1980s. They became the Belfast City Breakers (BCBs), and they have just marked their 35th anniversary. These B-boys, as they're known, were heedlessly, joyously anti-sectarian.

Like the punks a generation earlier, they didn't care which side of the peace lines they came from. They just wanted to listen to hip-hop music and breakdance together. All they needed was a ghetto blaster, a roll of lino, and a can of Mr Sheen to make the lino slippery enough for a head-spin.

After the Omagh bomb, the BCBs travelled to Omagh to perform in a fundraising event for the victims. A number of local boys were so inspired that they formed their own group, the Bad Taste Cru, which is still breakdancing and performing in championships all over the world, still celebrating the hip-hop values of respect, peace, love, unity and having fun.

You don't have to be a break-dancer or a punk to be against sectarianism. You could be anyone. The important thing is that such people exist. Because they are the antidote to that terrible sickness. They are the hope.

Belfast Telegraph

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