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Resolving Intolerance, a New Year’s Resolution


Christmas night was, for my partner and I (and the dog), a mostly mellow affair dedicated to the simpler things: warm beverages, a box of plundered chocolates, a movie or three. And serving as backdrop: the festive glow of lights on our balcony overlooking the peaceful streets of Friedrichshain below.

Around 7:30pm my partner took the dog on his nightly walk. They’d not been gone more than 10 or 15 minutes when a crazy shouting started up outside. This was more vehement than the usual sports-enthusiasm and was only getting louder, so I rushed out onto the balcony to see what was up.

Just coming up the street alongside our building I spotted a doughy fellow with glasses walking his bicycle and roaring into the night things which were beyond my Deutschkentnis (probs because the Sprachschulen don’t put much emphasis on hate speech). If the aggressive pejorative specifics weren’t immediately apparent, the subsequent bellowing of simplistic German expletives—“F*ck Syrien! Verpisst euch!”—made it pretty clear what this fellow was about. He was followed by three other shrimpy guys. They were spaced out at even intervals as if the four of them together were enacting their own mini hate parade: asshole at the front providing the xenophobic volume, and the three behind for churlish antics.

The street was empty aside from these hooligans. I felt compelled to do something, to express my objection in some way. But what? Yell something back? Throw something? Call the Polizei? Standing alone atop my tower in the sky, my presence obscured by the light of blinking led icicles, I was too far away. Metaphor?

So I just watched their progress down the street: the bicycle man continued rolling while the shrimpy trio clustered briefly on one street corner doing some sort of little dance, perhaps goading one another, before following out of sight. I heard a raucous chorus of singing rise up in the distance, like an anthem, and eventually quiet returned.

With this discordant rhetoric I’d seen mostly only detailed on news reports having spilled briefly onto our quirky but usually harmonious neighborhood doorstep, I felt unsettled. The silence that had seemed before so peaceful, I now perceived as heavy-laden with apathy, discomfort. A sign of things to come?

A few days later I was crossing Frankfurter Allee by the Ring Center along with a group of people, one of whom was a woman wearing a headscarf and pushing a stroller. She had a little boy with her who was charmed by my dog—“Huuuuund!”—which meant my dog was in turn similarly fascinated by the boy. It became a bit of a cluster-fuck trying to cross. But in the brief chaos, I saw a hardened-looking older man crossing toward us push in close to the woman. He said something to her, and then was quickly gone the other direction. I didn’t catch what the man said, but I didn’t need to. I’ve seen that dance before. I’ve even been the recipient once or twice. The words themselves don’t matter. The sentiment is always the same.

The woman, a little ahead of me, turned her head so that I had a glimpse of her expression, a bewildered “wtf” look. I’ve had that same look. I wanted to catch her eye, to do some sort of check-in, even just to let her know that I saw, to let her know that I don’t agree. But I was caught up wrangling my over-eager dog who was excited about the little boy, excited about crossing the street, excited about turning the corner for the S-Bahn. I lost my chance. Or, in retrospect, I didn’t pursue the opportunity for fear of awkwardness or imposition. I did what was easiest, which was to carry on with what I was doing. Just like everybody else.

So maybe this is my American perspective speaking here, but it seems to me we need to do a better job of responding to and calling out intolerance when it happens. Myself included—and I hate confrontation. But I dropped the ball back there on Frankfurter Allee,  just like I’m sure I’ve dropped it before, not out of maliciousness but out of complacency.

In today’s increasingly diverse social climate, in Berlin as much as anywhere else in the world, it’s no longer enough to simply think “I’m not a part of the problem because I don’t agree with such-and-such intolerant perspective; it’s not my business; it doesn’t affect me” and then carry on. Actions are called for here, or more specifically, appropriate reactions. And they needn’t be grandiose things. As in the case of the woman on the street, perhaps all that’s needed is a simple acknowledgement and genuine concern, “Whoa, that wasn’t cool. Are you okay?

What do you think? A resolution for the New Year? Yeah, it’s more than a little foolhardy to believe we can solve all the world’s social injustices in 2016. But we can resolve to make a good start of it, oder?

By Eileen Carelock 
Eileen is a Berlin-based freelancer and tentative explorer of a tiny segment of the human experience. She ends up hanging out with her dog a lot; she also writes things.

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