The Only Surprising Thing About Northern Irish Racism Is The Surprise

To say that Northern Ireland has come a long way since its sectarian civil war is a cliche but it’s worth saying: we’ve come a long way. The soldiers no longer patrol the streets. The curfews no longer empty the streets at night. The bombs no longer tear through shopping centres and flesh. The Northern Ireland of my childhood has rebranded as the land of the Titanic and Game of Thrones, Liam Neeson and Snow Patrol. But a look at headlines coming out of the country today gives good reason to doubt things really did change for good.

Would you trust a Muslim to do your shopping for you? That’s a genuine source of debate right now as the First Minister Peter Robinson publicly defends comments by an evangelical pastor who said that Islam was “the spawn of the devil” and “satanic” and that when it came to Muslims, “I don’t trust them”. Fine, let the Good Reverend say that. We’ve heard this bigotry echo in holy walls before only it was about Catholics, or it was Jews, or still today, homosexuals. If you don’t like his recycled message of hate, don’t attend his services. A very different problem is the First Minister’s defence of the pastor. Unlike the church, I can’t just up and leave the country; I’m stuck here and I’m stuck here represented by this man whether I like it or not. A politician can never represent every one of his constituents’ political views but he must surely give them equal moral value as human beings. When our First Minister vilifies an already vilified minority as untrustworthy, we all do.

As she spoke out in defence of Northern Ireland’s Muslims on local TV, Anna Lo, an Alliance Party politician, choked back tears. Lo, the first East-Asia-born politician ever elected in the UK, had just announced that morning that she would not seek reelection because of the racist abuse she had suffered in the past year. The abuse came about because she supported Belfast City Council’s decision to fly the Union Flag only on royal occasions and not everyday at the City Hall. The decision provoked mass protest and rioting and Lo, one of many politicians to support the flag decision, was singled out for vicious racial abuse on social media and her party’s offices were petrol bombed. She was, she said, scared to walk in the streets for fear of racial taunting or worse.

Perhaps the only strange thing in all of this is that we bother to act surprised. In a country built on petty division between Catholic and Protestant, is more division really that unexpected? We are sending a message to our children from birth that what really matters in this world is your tribe and those who share your tribe. We do more than send them this message; we scream it at them. We scream it at them in their tribal schools that tell them “it’s best to keep away from those Others”. We scream it at them from the violent murals and tattered flags on their streets that tell them “from here to there is ours but go no further”. We scream it at them with their very names that mark them as “ours” or as “theirs”, that brand Podraig and William like cattle from rival farms. We scream it at them until we are blue in the face and then we act surprised that they actually listened. We scream it at them until their hearts turn deaf.

Behind the racial abuse of Lo, behind the mistrust of Muslims, lies the ugly truth that while the civil war may have ended, the divisions and mutual suspicions that fuelled it live toxically on. We must ask ourselves; did we stop the killing because it wasn’t getting us anywhere or did we stop the killing because we learnt to value the lives of others as we do our own? Is peace, if that’s what we have, simply more convenient than war or is it a precious gem to be treasured and fought for daily? To look at many of our leaders today is to see a class who think that reverting to the rhetoric of the past is a useful tactic to have to hand, not a moral regression.

Following #IStandWithAnna on social media is to see the countless many who do understand peace. The many who understand that peace is not merely the absence of war but the constant rejection of tribal devision and the building of friendships across divides. It is they who must scream back even louder at the sirens of division and wage peace. It is they who know that to fail to stand for Anna or for our Muslim friends is to pave a path to the past. The real line-in-the-sand in Northern Ireland is not between Catholic and Protestant or Nationalist and Unionist but between those who see tribes and those who see shared humanity. It’s time we got louder.

Secret App: A Masquerade Ball In Your Phone

It’s often said that in the Internet Age there is no more anonymity but this is only half true. Yes, thanks to Facebook I’ll know that that girl from my old English class in Year 12 has just broken up with her boyfriend and is playing Taylor Swift on a tear-filled triumphant loop on Spotify but the internet has also opened up so many ways to be completely expressive and yet completely anonymous. Take Twitter. While my own handle is @roryfenton (Hint: follow me. I’m lonely), many of the people I follow use anonymous accounts. @LetterOfNote shares interesting letters written by famous and not-so-famous hands. @IAM_SHAKESPEARE (“Willy Shakes”) fills my timeline with accidental innuendos from Shakespeare’s plays (today’s include “His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide” from As You Like It). These don’t, however, represent the bulk of anonymous tweeters. Less interesting or humorous are the countless accounts set up to anonymously abuse other Twitter users. When you see someone like Lenny Henry told to “EFF OFF BACK TO *insert misspelt African country*”, there’s a good chance that was sent from an anonymous account, possibly set up just to send that tweet. To exaggerate a little, it seems we’re stuck with either arseholery on anonymous Twitter or Too Much Information on nonymous Facebook. Yes I made the word “nonymous” up.

Into the fray steps new app Secret, aiming to provide an anonymous platform for users to share their biggest secrets with friends. Launched just weeks ago, I decided to try it out. I first heard about the app when it shot to fame after a Nike employee posted that the company was about to fire its Fuel Band staff. I say “Nike employee”, it could have been absolutely anyone because Secret is anonymous in extremis. Loading up the app for the first time you enter your email address but create no username or handle. When you post a “secret”, it is not linked to any particular user, not even to a pseudonym. You can publish “I like Steve” and immediately after “I have mixed feelings about Steve” with no way to tell it was the same person saying both.

Unlike Twitter, you can’t choose whom to follow. Your Secret friends will be automatically added using your iPhone contacts (an Android version is en route) so, short of actually asking them, you’ll never know which of your friends are populating your timeline. If you like a post (a “secret”), you can swipe right on it to “love” it just like a “like” on Facebook and you can comment too. Commenters are identified by little symbols beside their comments (such as a blue ship or a yellow flower) so you can have conversations on a secret and keep track of who says what but when you comment on another secret, your symbol will change, keeping your identity hidden.

When you love a secret, that secret will appear on your friends’ timelines, enabling secrets to go “viral” like a tweet being retweeted and until you reach ten friends using the app (I currently have an embarrassing 5) you can’t tell if a secret was posted by a friend or simply loved by them.

The app itself is one of the nicest apps I’ve ever used. Secrets come with the text itself (limited to about the length of a tweet) and a background, which can be a photo or just a colour. The result is a timeline that looks much neater than the clutter on either Facebook or Twitter, with text appearing in larger font. When I first got Secret my Secret-using-friend count stood at 1 so I had a timeline with a total of 5 secrets in it, none too exciting, mostly slagging off engineers. I decided to dive in and share my first secret: “I spent at least one hour of everyday for the past two weeks watching Graham Norton YouTube clips and now there are none left”. I gave it an orange background because that’s Graham’s colour. The fact that I’m sharing this “secret” in Felix gives away that I’m not all that ashamed of it; it wasn’t, really, a proper secret. Nonetheless within an hour my 21st Century need for sanitised human contact was satisfied by a pity love from that one friend and a simultaneous pity comment- “approved”. Thanks one friend. Happy with my first attempt at secretting, I invited a load of my phone contacts (they receive anonymous emails from Secret itself) and tucked myself into bed to dream-up new scenes for Graham Norton.

Upon waking, I opened up Secret to find my friend count had swollen to 3 friends. This three-fold increase actually had a huge impact on the number of secrets I could see, as not only did my friends’ secrets enter my feed, so did those they had loved. I could now get an idea of just what kind of thing people were posting. A typical “secret” is wildly removed from TV chat show addictions. Gentle reader be warned: Secret contains a *lot* about sex. Nothing especially explicit and seldom sweary, just people being really honest about their likes and dislikes. Of course, this could really just be representative of the kind of people I’m friends with- your timeline will be unique to your friendship group.

I decided to follow suit and send out a slightly saucier second secret, one I certainly won’t put in Felix. This one was a proper secret, enough to make me Google “secret app security” before posting it with all the caution of a mother duck setting her little baby duck on the pond for the first time. It was at this point, if I say so myself, I became a bit of a Secret Super Star. Extending well beyond my three friends, within an hour my secret had been loved by 20 different people and attracted approving and shocked comments respectively from a red cat and green bottle. I set my phone aside to do some revision (and, let’s face it, scrape the barrel of Graham Norton clips) to find my 20 loves now stood at 50 as I tucked myself again into bed, feeling smug. Bedtime for Rory is just early evening in the States, where the app is most popular. While I dreamily planned the interactions in a fantasy interview between Graham and Elvis, my secret sped down the zipline of friend-to-friend connections across the Atlantic and as I groggily opened the app that next morning, it had been loved by over 250 people. That’s 250 people who were sufficiently moved by my tale of smut that they moved a finger the full width of a phone screen in loving admiration. Red Cat and Green Bottle had now been joined by ten other friends, including a disapproving blue bicycle helmet. Helmets, eh?

Being, as I am, a Massive Big Deal, this wasn’t my first experience of Going Viral as last month I managed 500 retweets on what turned out to be the first photo of the UK’s first married same sex couple outside Islington Town Hall (seriously, @roryfenton, do it). Being Secret-viral, however, is a very different thing. I couldn’t help but be pleased that so many people were loving something I’d done and yet it was something I was far too embarrassed to actually tell anyone about. I took a screen shot of the wild number of notifications I’d racked up and tweeted it boastfully but without the content of the actual secret, nobody cared. In boasting about my Secret success, I was getting Secret all wrong; the whole point is the anonymity. In providing pure anonymity while among friends, the app works like the perfect masquerade ball where the fun isn’t in working out who everyone is or who has the most exciting disguise but in being completely and utterly open, throwing caution to the wind and just standing there in your brilliant, ugly, faceless, truthful nudity. In boasting about attracting so much “love” I was desperately grasping at identity, at a way of standing out. To fully do Secret is to fully let go of the self. It’s fucking deep.

As I got more and more immersed I started to notice two different categories of secrets. First, there are the secrets that aren’t really “secrets” at all but jokes of the “I’m secretly Batman” type. Funny, yes, but nothing that couldn’t be posted to Twitter. The second non-sexy category is something I really wasn’t expecting: there are some incredibly honest, highly private posts that you simply would never see on Twitter or Facebook. “I’m going to hurt someone on Thursday and I can’t help it but I feel so terrible”, for example, posted by someone about to break up with their boyfriend/ girlfriend elicited dozens of comments with advice and personal experience from other people who been through the same thing. “I’m worried my taste in porn conflicts with my gender politics” started a very frank, erudite debate on feminism and pornography between friends that could only have happened anonymously.

I am just over a week on Secret and I’m utterly hooked. When someone posts something highly personal to Facebook, it can feel fake, as if they are seeking attention or passive aggressively getting at someone else. On Secret these possibilities are stripped away as people fully, honestly expose a part of themselves in search of advice or maybe just the knowledge that someone knows their truth, albeit not whose truth it is. On Twitter I can follow anyone in the world and in turn be followed by anyone. With Secret, I know that I am hearing from friends and their friends which adds a weight and proximity to what they say. When I post a secret I could be receiving sincere advice from my best friend or a stranger on the other side of the world connected to me by a complex web of mutual acquaintance- I can judge advice on content alone. “I have chronic depression that once became so severe that I took several weeks of absence from work while I sought treatment. I told my boss and coworkers that I had mono. I didn’t want to deal with the stigma”. When was the last time someone opened up to you like that? Someone did to me, 5 minutes ago, on Secret. A friend of a friend. The secret has no comments (what could you possibly say?) but loves. Hundreds of them. Letting that person know that even if they don’t want to be named, people care. And as that person uses Secret they will see from others that they are not alone. Anonymity among friends is a powerful thing.

With fewer Batman jokes and more openness, Secret has enormous potential. It is wonderfully therapeutic to be so open and with fewer friends than fingers, each secret can be properly appreciated. The fact that only one secret fits on the screen at a time adds to this. If I were the app’s developer, I would keep “love” but stop telling people how much love they’ve received. That would stop the occasional jokey attention seeking and bring the level up to just letting stuff go. I look forward to seeing where Secret goes over the next months and years. It has found something very special that no other social network has quite managed. Give it a go.

And if you’re wondering, my viral Secret currently has over 450 loves #BigDeal #HashtagsOnlyWorkOnTwitter #ThisIsANewspaper #GodINeedToGetOutMore