New Years’ Eve in Cologne: a clash of cultures

During New Years’ Eve in Cologne, a large group of men gathered at the station to rob and sexually harass (and in 2 cases, rape) women. There have been almost 100 complaints in Cologne, and reports have also come from other cities.

As if this in itself wasn’t terrible enough, it now turns out that most of these perpetrators were of North African and Arabian appearance.

This is very important.

An obvious repercussion of this – and the reason the police didn’t report this at first – is the anti-refugee rhetoric. Germany has been accepting more refugees than any other European country, with a million refugees already arrived in the last 12 months and thousands more entering daily. But Germany is also the home of Pegida, an anti-muslim and anti-refugee organisation.

It doesn’t even seem to matter whether or not these really were refugees or not. The opinions are set, and the damage is done.

I’m not actually even sure if it actually matters. Either way, there’s a clash of cultures happening, on different levels. And this is what I think we should be paying attention to.

Integration vs assimilation
First, we need to pay attention to our very definition of integration. I always see a lot of people shouting about the need for better integration. But be careful: what most people mean actually amounts to assimilation. The difference is that with integration, all cultures and religions can join society equally without giving up their own identity. With assimilation, new arrivals are expected to leave their background behind for the sake of full immersion in the new culture.

There are differences in each country as to what they expect from their immigrants and refugees – and of course, there’s a massive difference between an immigrant and a refugee. Great Britain has generally encouraged immigrants to keep distinctive cultural backgrounds, whereas France has always encouraged them to adopt French culture and customs. The Netherlands, as far as I’m aware, is somewhere in between these two.

Second, there’s a very likely chance that if these perpetrators themselves are not refugees, they are descendants of past refugees who have settled in Europe. This means dealing with double identities: often dealing with both the culture of the country they grew up in and the culture their parents raised them in. This can, obviously, clash horribly. Don’t get me wrong: more often than not it works fine, and people who have grown up with two (or more!) cultures can effortlessly switch codes depending on where they are and who they’re with and they manage to reconcile the different expectations, norms and values. But there’s always a group who ends up confused.

And if people from that group meet, people who all feel confused and treated incorrectly to some extent, strange things can happen. You end up with a kind of echo chamber, and a strange, often criminal energy. What you’d refer to as “the wrong friends”, except worse.

As for refugees
I also often see a strange expectation from the native inhabitants of a country for refugees to assimilate within weeks. How dare a refugee behave like a foreigner, don’t they know how things are done around here? 

Quick answer: no, they don’t know.

Aside from the fact that refugees are literally from a different culture and thus bring different ways of thinking, different norms and values and a different attitude, we are talking about large quantities of people who are essentially dropped in the middle of a strange culture, with no preparation, while having gone through intense hardship and often trauma.

Anyone who has spent anytime abroad, anywhere, probably has stories about culture shock. I know I do (I went through reverse culture shock when I came back from Japan). It’s shit. It’s absolute shit. But combined with trauma and enduring uncertainty? Tempers are going to be short, fights are going to happen, you’re not always going to be able to control yourself.

A complicated mess of problems
What might happen, is that groups of young men from different countries, all grouped together in small spaces, with very little money and possessions, are put in a strange situation: massive celebrations with fireworks and people and noise everywhere. Combine that with freely available alcohol, and a lack of inhibitions thanks to a culture shock combined with no idea how this new culture works and what they can get away with. On top of that, there’s the macho behaviour of young men, the need to prove themselves, and the often misogynistic culture of origin at play. They’ve been waiting to go through the asylum system for ages, they can’t do anything while they’re waiting. They’re fed up, they edge each other on, and things spiral out of control quickly.

It’s a very complicated situation, but it all leads directly to occurrences like this one. These men are lost in a mess of cultures and financial problems and seemingly everlasting uncertainty. What happens is a digression to, basically, basic instincts. What do you do when you’re cooped up together, with no money and no direction?

It’s a very cliche story, but you turn to crime.

Not staying an armlength away 
It’s undoubtedly wrong what happened at the Cologne train station. It should not have happened, and these men should have known better. I’m not in anyway trying to justify their behaviour. This isn’t honourable behaviour, I’m 100% certain that most of their parents are disgusted at this behaviour and these men would not have gotten away with it in their countries of origin. But the situation is infinitely more complicated than “these men are disgusting” and definitely way beyond “women should just group together and stay at armlength” (which is another discussion for another time).

And this is exactly why we need to NOT segregate these people. This is why we do NOT just send them away (or most* of them, at least), but guide them, teach them. This is why we need to communicate. Whether new refugee, or children of previous generations of immigrants and refugees, the point stands: include them in the mainstream culture, include them in groups that contain natives and other cultures so that echo chamber gets broken. Educate them, teach them how this culture works. Integrate them, guide them, care for them. And we need to do it all before mass attacks like this one happen again.

At the same time, we need to educate the people who already live here: these are your new neighbours, these are the people coming in, this is where they come from, this is their culture, this is what they can do for us and this is what we could do for them.

I’m 100% a supporter of better education of all parties involved, and of a better mutual understanding and affiliation.

Most* of these people could be valuable -young!- members of a graying society that’s in dire need of a replenished workforce. If only we could stop seeing them all as criminals right from the moment they set foot on our side of the border, effectively forcing them into criminality.

*I say most, because I’m not naive or an idiot. I know some people are just stupid and criminal and can not, in fact, be saved. Let the police deal with those. But at the very least, we do need to give everyone a chance.

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