The left must admit the truth about the assaults on women in Cologne

4000Deborah Orr

Oh dear. It’s leftageddon. Two matters close to the progressive heart have been pitted against each other. In one corner, the right of women to stroll down the street, wearing what we like to wear without being mistaken for a walking, gilt-edged invitation to cop a free feel. In the other, the right of men, women and children to flee war, oppression and privation to seek refuge in other countries, without being seen as a swarm of subhuman parasites who will destroy any naive host who welcomes them. Tricky.

News of events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve filtered out slowly, but it has become glaringly obvious that during celebrations in that city – and, to a lesser extent, other German cities – many women were targeted by gangs of men who surrounded them and subjected them to sexual assaults. The women, and witnesses, say that their attackers seemed to be from the Middle East or north Africa. Critics of Germany’s open-door refugee policy say they warned us. Nightmare.

Short of going full conspiracy-theory, and suggesting a) that rightwing German men have slapped on the fake tan in a fiendish effort to engineer a revolt against German immigration policy; or b) that rightwing German men have slapped on the fake tan and dresses, then made it all up, to the same end, there appear to be few uncomplicated ways to blame the right for all this.

I’m not counting the argument that says there is no hard evidence that these were refugees, because – let’s face it – it’s silly to pretend that the word “refugee” is synonymous with the word “saint” anyway.

Only a simpleton – or, more commonly, person driven by instinct and emotion – thinks you can counter the uncompromising prejudice of “all immigrants are bad” with the uncompromising prejudice of “all immigrants are good”. The debate is worth having because the story has presented itself to us, whether the story is true or not. It will keep on presenting itself, in some form or another, until we can achieve some measure of agreement over what the story means.

The stereotypical right tends to blame the stereotypical left for all its woes in an uncomplicated way. The stereotypical left tends to respond with similar clod-hopping generalisation. But the hopeful columnist can still believe it possible to salvage some nuance; perhaps even, heaven forfend, some useful and solid points on which both left and right can agree.

First, these were opportunistic, organised crimes. The fact that they were carried out in the open, in front of many witnesses, suggests that the perpetrators were pretty sure they would get away with it. Sexual criminals who get away with things tend to become more ambitious. There’s no denying that this is a serious problem.

Second, the perpetrators seem to have been absolutely correct in their certainty that they would get away with their crimes. The police were slow to respond to reports of sexual assaults, slow to admit to an emerging pattern of assault – or maybe even to piece one together at all – and say now that they are unlikely to be able to apprehend or convict any of these brazen serial sexual predators. So they have insight into European culture, even if it’s negative insight.

Third, however, refugees are most certainly not responsible for a general criminal-justice climate that struggles to treat sexual crime with the seriousness and urgency it warrants. Shoulder-shrugging and victim-blaming when women are sexually molested is hardly an alien new thing that could only have reached Europe because it has been nefariously smuggled in from abroad.

Fourth, common-or-garden reluctance to take seriously complaints from women about sexual assault is unlikely fully to explain the reluctance with which this scandal has been revealed to the public. Worries about stirring up racial bigotry were surely a factor, too. Quite obviously, such concerns were not unfounded. But trying to ignore or suppress politically unwelcome news is always a bad idea. Plus, it’s possible that the perpetrators understood, too, that a febrile, populist political climate could be exploited to their own advantage.

Fifth, how could anyone possibly imagine that among a million people from anywhere there wouldn’t be some proportion of nasty, sleazy misogynists? A British legal history that includes the withholding of all manner of basic rights from women suggests that there’s nothing racially or religiously inherent in chauvinism. People tend to believe what they’re taught to believe, and the unreliable evidence of what they see around them, until free thinkers and visionary leaders call them out on it.

Sixth, it is beyond doubt that there are people living in Europe now who have been brought up in a culture where a woman would be publicly and viciously punished for allowing herself to be the victim of a sexual assault. It is utterly unrealistic to expect all those brought up in fundamentalist religious cultures – conservative Islam being the largest, but by no means the only such culture – to be able suddenly and completely to ditch all aspects of the pervasive environment they were brought up in.

Men who have been raised to believe that only a worthless woman walks through the street alone – even when her head and body are covered – only come to an understanding that this is not the case through consistent intellectual effort. There’s no excuse for not making this effort. But the fact is this: some people will heavily resist it. That, too, is human.

Consistent intellectual effort needs leadership. Unfortunately, help with such effort from secular and religious leaders in the Middle East and north Africa seems to be in very short supply. In Europe, the leader who both champions and embodies such efforts far better than anyone else is Angela Merkel. It’s sad that folk are willing to seize on the tawdry, cowardly actions of a bunch of destructive, selfish, dangerous sexual abusers to disparage and traduce her bravery, optimism and humanity. Merkel is the one to take guidance and inspiration from, not them.

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