Them and us

It’s right that our politics should be principled and passionate. But often the partisanship in our region feels more like point-scoring than problem-solving, says Ian Wylie

We’ve just published our fifth issue, to which we’ve ascribed the theme “them and us”. To be honest, we don’t usually give a great deal
 of direction to our writers, photographers, illustrators and designers when we hand them the theme, whether that’s “cities”, “appetites”, “journeys” or (for our next issue) “home”. But we had a fair idea they’d enjoy sinking their teeth into this one, as it gave them licence to go deeper, finding and telling stories that confront us with what divides us, or makes us different… good and bad…as well as the people and organisations working to overcome division or celebrate difference.

Round-the-globe, 24/7 news and social media have shrunk the planet to the point where we can kid ourselves that we’re all connected, united in goals and aspirations. Yet at the same time, our world has never felt more unequal and separated by fault-lines of faith or race, gender or culture, income or ideology.

The north east has its own, unique challenges of inequality, prejudice, exclusion and conformity. Over 132 pages, we’ve sought to reflect and question the walls we (or others) build around us.


Our contributors report on the victims of prejudice and exclusion in our region: the Roma people, still facing exclusion after a thousand years of persecution; the schoolboy with Aspergers’, bullied and mocked for being different; the artists who battle the stigma of mental illness on a daily basis. But this “them and us” leitmotif has also given us the impetus to prod the hidden, subtler misunderstandings, myths and intolerances that lie within, the blind spots that make us quick to judge. We explore the thinking of substance abusers, spiritualists, the elderly, athletes who dope, convicted prisoners… even poets and tribute acts as we seek to know the people behind the labels we’ve foisted upon them.

Our conclusions? Most importantly, the enemy is not people, but fear and ignorance. We’ve all experienced, at some point in our lives, what it’s like to be the outsider, recalling moments when we were in the minority, the “them” wishing that we could join the “us”. Reaching out to the outsider means reaching back for that empathy.

Secondly, if that ubiquitous term “diversity” is to be meaningful, it must mean more than indifference or some insidious process of homogenisation. Rather than grudging acceptance, we should be hungry to hear and discover what we can learn from the different cultures, experiences and perspectives within our borders. History reminds us that it is often from the margins and radical edge that visionaries emerge with the ideas and energy to transform society.

And finally, while ideology and idealism are making a welcome return, we should guard against polarisation. If we are to solve some of our biggest problems – not least the diminution of our region’s economic base from manufacturing to service, even subservience – we cannot afford to be choosy about our allies. It’s right that our politics should be principled and passionate. But often the partisanship between our parties, cities, councils, factions and tribes feels more like point-scoring than problem-solving.

Gone are the days – if ever they existed – when the north east or its people could easily be defined, described or pigeon-holed. The mines, shipyards and steelworks are gone. But perhaps, one day, our region can be best known for building on its values of tolerance, respect, love and understanding to imagine and manufacture a better future.

Ian Wylie is editor of The Northern Correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter. The fifth issue of the magazine is available to buy here.

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