Tag Archives: bigotry

‘A Magnet for Bigots’?

You would normally expect that if someone acted in a certain way, it would be possible to give an explanation of their actions in terms of the reasons why; unfortunately this is not always the case.

There are times when we are left analysing the situation to the point where we start to lose perspective, but we continue anyway in the hope that we can eventually make some kind of explanation fit. We have all done this before.

If you were in Neil Lennon’s position, I think it would be entirely natural that you would want to understand why you have been subject to constant abuse and threatening behaviour from other individuals who know nothing about you. It is natural that sympathetic observers of this abuse would want to fathom it out too, particularly when the episodes are repulsive and unprovoked, such as the most recent one from some Aberdeen supporters.

There is a great deal of mileage in Neil Lennon’s situation for those in the media with false axes to grind, or for whom creating an impression of professional closeness to him seems to have become a bit of a fixation. Whatever the motive, stories of this sort seem to sell newspapers.

We have been told that the abuse directed at Neil Lennon might be down to his ethnicity or his religion; we have also been told that it might be down to him simply being a controversial, confrontational and combative character who happens to attract bigots. This just keeps the story going.

Whether the people in the media or the ordinary man in the street find it best to put the abuse Neil Lennon suffers down to his temperament or his teeth, the various explanations offered do very little to shed any light on what is actually going on, or therefore how to deal with it effectively. We are asking the wrong sorts of questions.

The abuse directed at Neil Lennon is completely irrational; I think we all agree about that. There is no valid reason why Neil Lennon should figure in our thinking as someone towards whom it is appropriate to be violent or threatening. This is borne out retrospectively when the abusers in question are pressed for an explanation of their behaviour. More often than not they cannot give a rational explanation, other than that they just don’t like him, or that he brings it on himself, regardless of the language they originally used to express their hatred.

It is perhaps closer to the truth to understand the majority of abuse directed at Neil Lennon as examples of unthinking hooliganism that bears striking similarities to bullying. As with targets of bullying, it would appear that Neil Lennon has tried to change his public persona to make himself less of a target. This is an indication of deep emotional intelligence on his part; it is an alertness to how other people perceive him – justified or not – and a subconscious desire to make personal changes in order that this type of behaviour towards him stops.

There are groups of people in our society who behave like thugs and bullies, and sometimes only in very specific contexts, because they have been caught up in a moment in which their ability to rationalise their behaviour has been diminished by the effects of alcohol, drugs, sporting adrenalin or basic tribal machismo. The rest of the time, and towards other people, they can be perfectly reasonable and likeable individuals.

It is too easy to read more into these situations than is warranted by the evidence, just because it happens to sell stories or suit an agenda. This is bad enough in itself. But the big problem with this is that we run the risk of being part of the bullying process itself, rather than just a horrified observer and sympathetic reporter of it.

When you try hard to find a way of rationally linking this type of behaviour to something within the victim that attracts it, there is a sense in which you are legitimising it. You are unwittingly creating the emotional space for it to continue, forcing the person being targeted to make one or more of the changes they begin to believe are necessary to neutralise the effects of these apparent reasons.

If you try to depict Neil Lennon as some kind of controversial warrior, a magnet for bigots because of his ethnicity, religious beliefs or personality, or perhaps even a potent combination of these factors in a specific place and time, you are just as guilty of keeping the tedious and regretful narrative going as the individuals are who started it.

This is not to say that we should be silent on this, not by a long shot; rather it is to say that if we remain compelled to find one or three reasons why Neil Lennon attracts this type of behaviour, we may need to think about our own contribution to the problem, however unintended this may be.

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Confronting the Bigot Within

The underlying premise of most anti-racism initiatives appears to be that education in the virtue of tolerance is the key to eradicating it from our society. It is the most obvious place to start, but we need to go deeper.

There may be racist beliefs and attitudes within our subconscious mind that are responsible for more than the set of intentional actions and judgements that we would ordinarily hold up as prime examples of racist behaviour.

There seems to have been a recent rise in the number of high profile incidents of racism. It is interesting to note the ones involving professional footballers, who would otherwise insist – and I am sure they actually believe it – that holding racist attitudes and beliefs is wrong, and definitely not in their nature.

It is interesting in the sense that it throws some light on the possibility of individuals holding racist beliefs and attitudes without necessarily being aware of this being the case – to the extent that they would happily offer a strong rebuttal of what their behaviour would appear to suggest.

The same possibility holds in the case of other forms of bigotry. Keeping the discussion within the world of football, homophobia and sectarianism are other good examples of this.

Subconscious connections between many of our basic beliefs help form the bedrock of our judgements and perceptions. The problem is that many of the connections at this level are rarely formed intentionally. They emerge on their own accord through our upbringing into a particular way of life.

The way we perceive our environment and the judgements we make about the situations we find ourselves in may carry implicit commitments to beliefs we would not consciously recognise as our own. But that is the curious thing about some bigoted beliefs – first person authority is not always a given.

These are the toughest cases to tackle, because it requires some form of introspective acknowledgement that certain utterances and gestures may carry doxastic commitments that are irreconcilable with what you consider to be your everyday outlook on life. It is a hard thing to do.

The psychology of bigotry is complex. Getting inside the mind of a bigot is difficult, particularly in your own case. Access is ordinarily denied at the first point of entry. It is our subconscious gatekeeper’s job to stubbornly refuse this type of interpretation on our behalf and suggest a more respectable alternative.

And returning to high profile incidents associated with football for a moment, the challenge becomes even harder. The good efforts to tackle racism are often completely nullified by the use of expensive lawyers who are adept at creating that all important element of doubt, even in cases where there should have been none whatsoever.

Here we reach an almost insurmountable barrier. There is a possibility that unacknowledged bigoted beliefs may well be found within each and every one of us, which makes the challenge of eradicating racism from society hard enough.

It is made even more difficult by the fact that many high profile individuals appear to think nothing of appealing to ridiculously expensive mechanisms to guarantee the type of impunity the rest of us are denied – and the upshot of this is that racism, for very different reasons, is always likely to be a feature of our society, despite our best efforts to tackle it.

This doesn’t mean we should give up trying. It simply means that every single individual in our society – including those who have sufficient funds to opt out of our hard earned moral space – has an obligation to think about finding and confronting the bigot within.

Even though the very idea of doing that would feel unnecessary to those who can afford to ignore it, and contrary to everything the rest of us would want to believe about ourselves in the first place.

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Spiers On ‘the Rogue, Angry Underclass’

Graham Spiers has been honest enough in the past to recognise his gullibility in relaying the myths peddled by the former Rangers FC Owner, David Murray. He is the one who likes to take credit for having initiated the use of the phrase ‘succulent lamb’, after all.

And in an interesting and honest article today, he describes the intimidating treatment that certain individuals (himself included) have received from a minority of Rangers supporters over the years, for having had the audacity to speak out against what they believed their football club represented. He describes this minority as the ‘rogue, angry underclass’:

http://www.heraldscotland.com/sport/opinion/spiers-on-sport-coming-under-threat-for-criticising-rangers.1351601156

Whatever his motives are for writing this piece, Spiers correctly highlights an enduring problem in Scottish society: there is a hard core of rogue individuals who are intent on keeping racial and religious prejudices alive and certain football clubs – not just Rangers – have become perceived as significant outlets for that purpose.

In the case of Rangers, he is picking out specific historical prejudices that are so deeply intertwined with all that is wrong with the Scottish – British culture, and its perpetuation in certain local traditions, institutions and establishments, that reason and logic will never be sufficient to undo them.

Spiers captures this in his reference to a “faux Protestant culture around Rangers” as something that many fans want to bin, but which the “traditionalists” want to preserve. His contention is that most Rangers fans want to dispense with that type of nonsense as part of the assumed identity of their club, and I would think that he is right.

But for me the question that arises is this: is there something about supporting a football club like Rangers (or Celtic, for that matter) that makes it inevitable that the rogue element will always attach itself to it, creating an unsavoury dimension to the club that otherwise does not exist?

Perhaps it is similar to the feeling of belonging to a group, but taken to a different level. Perhaps supporting a football club gives some individuals their sense of purpose and identity – almost as if it were an alternative to, or in some cases extension of, belonging to a gang. It is the common, tribal prejudices of the rogue individuals interpreted into the fabric of the club.

This is an emotional investment gone wrong. Yet perhaps it explains why the rogue individuals feel they need to make a stance about something the rest of us will have no truck with, and why they believe they have a duty to protect and defend a culture – using intimidating methods, or otherwise – that most people have long since wanted to move away from.

Sadly, I think the rogue, angry underclass will be with us in Scottish football for as long as it exists in Scottish society; it will exist in Scottish society for as long as we feel snookered within the corrupt and elitist politico-economic frameworks that have shaped our lives for generations. And as Spiers might suggest, you could challenge that one, but at your peril.

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Sectarianism as a Political Tool (Some General Thoughts)

To some people, having a religion is about having a deeply personal relationship with their God.

It is an intrinsically private set of experiences that provides strength, purpose and comfort. As such, it remains a uniquely personal feature of their inner world. It helps define their sense of identity.

To others it is better described as having a firm commitment to a particular way of living. It is about being immersed in a set of sociocultural practices, participating in fixed routines and engaging in rituals that have a distinctly public, yet intensely spiritual feel to them.

Some find themselves shifting around somewhere in the middle; whilst others hold no such beliefs at all. To me, it shouldn’t really matter how religious beliefs are understood; nor should it matter which particular religious beliefs people live by, if any at all.

What does matter is that religious beliefs are authentically and honestly preserved by those who hold them, and not mocked, disrespected or vilified by those who do not. But achieving that is always problematic.

The honest preservation of religious beliefs is often left to interpretation, and influenced by other competing factors, occasionally leading to corrupted versions of how they were intended to shape values and guide behaviours. And likewise, the obligation not to be disrespectful towards other religious beliefs is not universally felt today, sometimes as a direct consequence, and other times without any sound reason at all.

But this is precisely the point at which sectarian conflicts begin to emerge, not just in this country, but in any country in which there are very complex historical relationships between religion, ethnicity and politics. Sectarianism is rarely a stand-alone problem.

Various histories of military invasion, occupation and aggressive intervention, typically with the primary purpose of economic control and exploitation, have created the right mix of ingredients for the emergence of violent conflicts, local skirmishes and global wars among religious fundamentalists, extremists and other terrorist groups at different times.

Encouraging the growth of certain forms of sectarianism – by means of discriminatory Government policies, blatant or otherwise, pushed through media propaganda and establishment institutions – can be a very effective means of ethnic management and political control in some countries.

In this sense, sectarianism is a political tool through which ethnic groups can be managed, manipulated for electoral support, and territorially adjusted when it suits for economic purpose. But this takes us a very long way from the original starting point of religion as a bundle of fortifying personal experiences or as a guide to a peaceful way of life.

Sectarianism used as a political tool is a deliberate attempt to create a dangerous climate of suspicion, distrust and hatred. In extreme cases it leads to appalling violence and shocking acts of terrorism; quite often because it is used within a context of greed, exploitation and corruption, but usually always because it has been intertwined with an array of ethnic management measures that run deep into the fabric of our global society.

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The Inexcusable Appeal to Heritage

Celebrating a heritage is good and important.

However, celebrating a heritage in a way that is felt to be offensive to other sections of the very same society surely cannot be considered in the same light. Clearly, there is something not quite right about it.

It is undeniably true that some of our current social problems – particularly sectarian bigotry and racial hatred – have their historical roots in many of the shameful ethnic and religious conflicts that ultimately helped form the much vaunted, and highly esteemed, constitutional structure of this country today.

Yet many people still strongly believe in the right to celebrate historical occurrences of this nature, because of what they are assumed to represent, and regardless of the negative impact the style and location of their celebrations have been known to have on others.

And they tend to justify their commitment to this belief by claiming that the historical occurrences in question constitute ‘their heritage’, and therefore feel entitled to immerse themselves in the traditional behaviours that help preserve it.

In other words, the idea of ‘having the right to celebrate your heritage’, becomes a means of intellectually legitimising a lapse into what could otherwise be described as offensive, or at times irrational, behaviour; and arguably, we have all been guilty of misappropriating history in this way, at some point or other. No side is entirely innocent.

Whether you respect this way of thinking or not, and it can be found on every side of the debate, I think there is something unsettling in the fact that there are many individuals who feel more committed to keeping historical injustices and prejudices alive, than they do about addressing the problems in society today.

I think there is a level of emotional inauthenticity in some individuals that makes it much easier for them to react with passion, and a sense of triumph, to a romantic version of destructive historical occurrences, than make the effort to shape a more cohesive and peaceful society for the future.

This is particularly so when the history that is perpetuated through cleverly crafted stories, rousing tunes and colourful ritualistic behaviours, is often made to appear more glorious to the insular and bigoted mind than it ever was. Ethnic discrimination, religious persecution, murder, terrorism, theft, misery, displacement, starvation and intolerable hardship; these are hardly notions worth glorifying and celebrating.

Yet sadly, it is not too uncommon to find these occurrences interpreted in today’s terms in a manner that is believed to justify celebrating them still, usually as having been the only rightful means of ensuring the removal of the wrong type of religion, or the wrong type of ethnicity, as barriers to the monarchical and constitutional objectives that were pursued at the time.

But this is the crux of the problem: in thinking this way, we are guilty of distorting the importance that certain occurrences in history may have for the way we ought to understand the world today – despite the fact that, given the utterly different world view at the time, they may have been regarded as absolutely necessary measures and completely within the law.

In other words, we run the risk of burying ourselves deeper and deeper into an inescapably depressing and anachronistic rut, every time we refer to a version of history to support an agenda that is no longer commensurate with how the majority of people live their lives today.

There is no getting away from the fact that there are elements on every side of the debate who feel the urge, from time to time, to make the inexcusable appeal to heritage to justify their own descent into offensiveness, their own mode of defiance, or their own form of retaliation. And this, as history has repeatedly confirmed, gets us absolutely nowhere.

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Are Anti-Sectarian Initiatives Counter-Productive?

Congratulations to Larkhall for being the first town in Scotland to receive the ‘Champion for Change’ charter mark by Nil By Mouth, in recognition of its work to tackle sectarianism in the community.

Local schools, community groups and Church Leaders worked together to promote sporting initiatives and creative projects aimed at encouraging tolerance and understanding between different religious and faith groups.

Without wanting to detract from the very good intentions, the enormous effort and hard work involved in bringing people together through anti-sectarian initiatives like this, it is worth sounding a quick note of caution.

A curious thing about the very idea of anti-sectarian initiatives is that, apart from the fact that many of us seem to lack agreement with regards to what ‘sectarian’ actually means, potentially diluting their effectiveness, such initiatives could also have the unintended effect of reinforcing existing divisions in our thinking.

This is what I mean: anti-sectarian initiatives are designed to educate us towards a better understanding of other people’s differences, typically in respect of certain ‘protected characteristics’ as referred to within the UK Equality Act 2010, such as religious and theological beliefs.

But the very act of focusing on such differences as constituting a protected feature of groups of individuals, who live ordinary lives just like everyone else, risks elevating religious differences to a defining status in the relationships we form with them.

The upshot is that rather than religious differences not figuring in our thinking as salient and distinguishing features at all, which is what we should be aiming for, there is a risk that religious differences become features that we need to learn how to constructively manage in our relationships.

There is something wrong with this.

As soon as we begin to think of others as being of a certain religion, and start to see them as being different from us in virtue of their beliefs, but to be respected and tolerated nonetheless, we are already heading in a direction in which we need to tread very carefully.

It is as if ‘being different from ours’ were one of the defining characteristics of their religious beliefs, such that we could not think of them and their beliefs without thinking about how they were necessarily different, and it is as if our moral duty were then to find a way of ‘tolerating’ that fact.

To talk of ‘tolerating’ other religious beliefs suggests that there is something we find offensive about them, almost as if we are talking about keeping a lid on our anger whilst we tolerate someone else’s annoying habits.

The implication is already built in that their beliefs irritate us somehow.

Eventually the lid will come off again. And it won’t come as a big surprise.

We are thinking about this in the wrong way.

That is exactly why those responsible for developing anti-sectarian initiatives need to be very careful not to frame the initiatives in such a manner that they either become ineffective, by working with poorly defined terms in the first place, or become counter-productive, by unwittingly reinforcing existing divisions in our thinking.

Otherwise, we are in danger of making the very same errors the initiatives were designed to avoid, with the message of hope – and the opportunity to bring about real change – completely lost.

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Passing On the Subconscious Commitment

Today heralds the official beginning of events to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

But rather than being a celebration of the Queen’s role as Head of State, which is meant to symbolise purpose, unity and strength, it is a glaring reminder of the cultural divisions and levels of inequality that actually exist in this country.

Despite this, many people will still feel compelled to celebrate the fact that the Queen has dedicated sixty years of her life to what they consider to be the good of their country; whereas others will regard this contribution with scepticism and feel resentment that their country is honouring the splendour of an individual they do not believe in.

But that is exactly the point: what some people consider to be for the good of their country, others will completely reject out of court. And this has nothing to do with disrespecting cultural diversity; it is more to do with owning up to deeply negative cultural identities and divisions.

When one set of traditions exist peacefully and quietly among others, there is an opportunity to learn valuable lessons about diversity, tolerance and respect. That is a thoroughly decent direction to be travelling in.

However when one set of traditions exists in order to reinforce the superiority of a particular group of people over others, or when its fundamental beliefs have been shaped from a blatant rejection of other traditions, there is every chance that anger, bigotry and hatred will take root.

People hold tight to what they believe in. When what they believe in contains the seeds of division, because it is a rejection of what other people believe in, rather than being an independent and positive position in its own right, it doesn’t take much to instigate conflict.

The deeply negative cultural divisions that exist in British society are not just to do with the way the country is split over the relevance and justification for the Queen’s role as Head of State.

But the Diamond Jubilee celebrations do hammer home some of the deep inequalities in our country and underline some profoundly disturbing features of our culture.

We put more effort into supporting deeply negative divisions than we do respecting differences. And we feel more inclined to revere unearned supremacy and elitism, than we do to acknowledge that this subconscious commitment is the very reason true equality will never be achieved in this country.

It is a commitment that has shaped our traditions and lingered in our psyche for generations.

And this weekend we are busy polishing it up, so it looks its best when we pass it on to the next generation.

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New Funding To Tackle Bigotry? – Some Thoughts.

The Scottish Government today announced new funding to the value of £272,000 for organisations working to ‘eradicate bigotry in Scotland’:

http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Releases/2012/05/sectarianism31052012

This follows the introduction of The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 that came into force earlier this year:

http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Releases/2012/02/offensivebehaviour29022012

It is hoped that the introduction of innovative community based projects will help to ‘root sectarianism out of our communities’. In discussing these projects, Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs Roseanna Cunningham said that:

“Hatred of any kind has no place in modern Scotland and we need to do everything we can to stop it wherever and whenever it occurs, whilst tackling the root causes”

Whilst I completely agree with the sentiment, and agree that some initiatives have had merit, I think that too many others have fallen short, or missed the mark completely, and as a result the problem of sectarianism remains very much alive.

Not because insufficient money has been invested in initiatives over the piece, but because the historical root causes of sectarianism in Scotland are often poorly understood, inaccurately represented and more often than not, debated with prejudice, on the street, in the media and in parliament.

There are various root causes that are important to think about:

https://liamconway.wordpress.com/2011/05/20/the-tangled-roots-of-sectarianism-in-scottish-society/

But here is another one: too many people obsessively refer to such historical events as root causes of sectarianism without fully comprehending their significance or enduring relevance.

And when our distorted historical interpretations are then transferred back on to the current set of problems, as we do when we are in search of solutions, the clarity required to properly address them diminishes, with the result that we create unnecessary laws and support many ineffective projects.

The terms of reference we use today are loaded with so many misleading associations and false assumptions that we are in danger of placing too much emphasis on certain aspects of the problem – such as football rivalry – and less on others – such as sociocultural elitism and psychological depravity.

If the Scottish Government is serious about ‘rooting sectarianism out of our communities’, then it needs to stop trying to patch up the symptoms. It needs to seek clarity with respect to the real causes of the problem, and make some courageous decisions to overhaul the political and economic frameworks that sustain them.

My guess is that they will just keep patching things up. It is much easier that way.

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Unconscious Bias & Blatant Bigotry

Most of us would be surprised if we discovered that there were unconscious biases behind some of our everyday decisions, judgements and utterances. Particularly when we would completely reject the accusation that we were bigoted, prejudiced or biased in any way.

The problem is that unconscious biases can be very difficult to detect. They are not reasons we would cite in explaining our behaviour. By definition, we are not conscious of them. So it makes perfect sense that we would reject any such accusation.

Unconscious biases are sometimes referred to in order to make sense of how it can be possible to declare commitment to very specific values and standards, whilst simultaneously behaving in a manner that would contain indications of contradictory beliefs.

This tends to be the case within the worlds of politics, media and sport. Despite the expectation that individuals participating, reporting, directing or governing are committed to strict codes of conduct and have strong moral values, we don’t have to think too hard to come up with examples of unconscious bias.

Scottish football is also a very good case study. Despite assurances to the contrary, there are many instances when journalistic commitment to impartiality is undermined by unconscious bias. This is particularly so in difficult and challenging times, when emotions are running high and there is so much at stake.

The majority of football articles are no doubt written in good faith; within the profession there is a firm commitment to the values of integrity, honesty and impartiality.

But what appears to be honest and impartial reporting can sometimes reveal a lot more about the extent of unconscious bias in the media than many decent journalists would dare admit.

Witness the style of language used in articles about Neil Lennon for example. Some are more complimentary than others, but many include words like ‘bully’, ‘confrontational’, ‘wrath’, and ‘self-indulgence’.

And contrast with the words used in connection with Ally McCoist. Some have been less complimentary in light of recent events, but many have included ‘dedicated, ‘fans champion’, ‘struggles on’, and ‘passionate’.

Unconscious bias typically operates under the radar. The sting is that it can evoke an equally unconscious response in impressionable minds. And although it wasn’t the intention, it can ultimately lead to a blatantly bigoted behavioural reaction.

The effect of unconscious bias in the media is to reinforce some of the negative cultural stereotypes that can aggravate the blatant bigotry witnessed in the streets, in the pubs and at football matches. And in that respect, it needs to take its share of the responsibility.

The Scottish media is not just describing certain situations from a distance; it is right there, in the thick of it.

Blatant bigotry in the streets is easy to detect. It is right there in front of our eyes. It is disgusting.

Unconscious bias in the media can be much more difficult to detect. It is hidden, but it occurs.

And we can trace its path right through to its visibly disgusting conclusion.

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Neil Lennon’s Dilemma

Neil Lennon faces a very difficult dilemma this summer.

After the game against Kilmarnock at the weekend, he was talking about how he had finally emerged from the shadows of some former Celtic managers; but at the same time, he was also thinking about the events that had taken their toll on him over the past couple of years.

Despite being thrilled about an achievement he described as the pinnacle of his career so far, and despite thinking about how he could build on it to compete in Europe, he said he would need to consider what would be best for him and his family.

One thing we know for sure about Neil Lennon is that he is absolutely committed to Celtic.

His emotional attachment to the club could be enough to see him through, at least for another year or two, to enable him to build on the good work he has started.

But there are times when other emotional attachments in life have to take priority.

Sometimes you get a glimpse into another person’s inner torment through a subtle glance they make, or in a miniscule change of expression. Sometimes it is the imponderable evidence that gives the game away.

By the time we get back to the rough ground of next season, it would be completely understandable if he had decided to walk away. Not from Celtic, but from the hatred and bigotry that must have had such a damaging effect on his life.

Fortunately, few of us will ever have to stand in Neil Lennon’s shoes.

Few of us will ever receive death threats; few of us will ever be vilified in the media.

Few of us will ever be sent packages through the post that appear to be explosive devices.

And therefore few of us will ever be able to understand the kind of darkness he has had to endure, just because of where he comes from, what people think he believes in, and because of the type of individual he has been made out to be.

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