What do you do when you meet someone whose views are not only deeply offensive and dangerous, but also just wrong? Should you speak up and call them out? Or should you put your head down and shuffle off, horrified but afraid to poke the beast?
It happened to me recently in the most unlikely of places. It wasn’t in a murky pub in the early hours of the morning, or in a dark, weird corner of the internet. It was a professional working in a busy establishment in the centre of the community.
This person – we will name him X – started a conversation with me about animal rights. It started with him asking me, in a forthright tone: “You know who invented animal rights, don’t you?” “Erm, no,” was my response. “Hitler,” he replied.
“Oh,” I responded meekly, hoping it would signal the end of the conversation. But it didn’t. X proceeded to inform me about all of Adolf Hitler’s supposed animal-loving credentials, including the much debated fact that he was a vegetarian, and that he loved his pet dog.
I was so confused by the bizarreness of it all I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I simply replied: “And yet look what he did to all those innocent people.”
I hoped that would be the end of it. I thought my response was enough to make my feelings about this awkward and uncalled for Hitler appraisal clear. But no, X didn’t want to leave it there. What he came out with next made my blood run cold. “What they say he did,” he said, looking me straight in the eye while my gaze was suddenly and unintentionally redirected to the floor. “It’s all propaganda,” he added, so cocksure of himself that I found myself speechless.
Stunned, I got my things together and left. I know I should have challenged him. When I replay the scene in my mind it involves me furiously arguing with X, not only for saying what he said, but to assume it was OK to say it to me when I gave no indication that I wanted to have that conversation. If he’s saying it to me so freely it means he’s saying it to others too – these conversations are happening out in the open.
I haven’t been able to shake the weird exchange from my mind. I’ve never heard anyone talking like that in real life. I’ve seen terrifying footage from the Charlottesville riots in 2017, where the most hideous concoction of neo-Nazis marched the streets chanting the kind of hate-filled bile that nightmares are made of, but to actually meet it head on in my own community is a different matter altogether. At the time I just couldn’t find the words to deal with it.
I can’t help but think that X would not have said what he did this time five years ago. In the years before Trump and Brexit holocaust deniers were not given a green light to spout their opinions in the open, but these are different times we are living in.
Earlier this year the UN’s special rapporteur on racism, Professor Tendayi Achiume, pointed to a Brexit-related growth in “explicit racial, ethnic and religious intolerance” in the UK in the wake of the 2016 referendum. It didn’t take me long to find out that she was right.