I started teaching English as a Foreign Language back in 1993, and over the years I’ve learned lots of things from the thousands of students I’ve been lucky enough to meet. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that we all share a common humanity – and that even though we are, of course, all different, we’re also all very similar. People of all different ages from all kinds of different backgrounds basically want the same kinds of things from life: they want to make friends and be liked and respected; they want their families to be safe and their kids to grow up in a decent world; they want to be able to do some kind of meaningful work, have enough to eat, a place to call their own, and so on. For me, one of the great joys of teaching has always been watching students find things that they have in common. I remember one class maybe ten years ago where a Somali woman in her 60s and a young Japanese man had a great conversation about the way their grandmothers always used to cook insane amounts of food for them every time they visited – and would insist on them eating as much of it as was humanly possible! It was a lovely thing to witness.
However, it’s not been a great time for those of us who believe that there’s more than unites us than divides us. All over Europe and beyond, we’re seeing the rise of politicians trying to divide and rule – keeping control over people who might otherwise oppose them by encouraging them to fight among themselves. The main way this is being done is by creating an Us and Them mentality, a feeling that there are other groups of people that are somehow so different to us that peaceful coexistence with them is impossible. The process by which we’re encouraged to see these groups as alien is often called othering – and politicians and journalists on the right here have been busy othering Muslims in particular, but also other groups such as refugees, immigrants and even just people who don’t agree with their way of seeing the world. As Londoners – and citizens of the world – it’s a way of thinking we find repulsive
Anyway, amid all of this, there was one good piece of news last month, as it was announced that the government was issuing pardons to thousands of gay men – including the famous Irish writer Oscar Wilde who had been convicted of offences that once criminalised homosexuality, but which aren’t laws anymore. England is often thought of as a fairly liberal country, but being gay was actually illegal until 1967, and many men were arrested and sent to prison simply because of their sexuality. Among those who suffered under these barbaric laws were national heroes such as Alan Turing, a talented mathematician who helped to crack German codes during the Second World War, but who later killed himself. He was granted a royal pardon by the Queen in 2012, paving the way for these other recent pardons.
In this context, pardoning someone means officially forgiving them for committing a crime and (if they’re still alive) freeing them from prison. While the recent pardons have been broadly welcomed, some people feel it’s too little, too late – and point out that a pardon has connotations of forgiveness for a wrong that’s been done. Of course, the vast majority of gay men who suffered in the past do not believe they did anything wrong – and by the standards of today, of course, they didn’t, which is at least a small sign of some progress.
- Have you heard of anyone in your country being granted a pardon? When? Why?
- Do you agree that we’re all different, but we’re all the same? Why? / Why not?
- Can you think of any politicians keen to create an Us-against-Them mentality? How do they do it?
- Have you ever felt that you were being othered? When? What happened?
- Do you know anything that used to be illegal in your country, but which has since been decriminalised?