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Blowing up redheads: M.I.A. – "Born Free" and its shock tactics

Controversy alert! M.I.A’s video for their single “Born Free” has caused quite a stir for reasons which will become apparent once you watch the video. So before we proceed, have a look (warning: this is pretty graphic):

M.I.A, Born Free from ROMAIN-GAVRAS on Vimeo.

Seen it? Good. Now, I don’t know what your reaction to it was, but I personally think this is a very positive piece of work. Its message is very obvious, and it delivers it in a visually arresting way using quite powerful imagery with significant historical resonance. For those of you whose history knowledge can’t quite make the connection: the first part of the video is based on various ethnic witch hunts orchestrated by several oppressive regimes over the years. There are, sadly, too many examples to cite in full, but think of the Jews being herded up by the Nazis in order to be transported to concentration camps. Substitute Jews with fat people and gingers, and you’ve got the metaphor.

The second part of the video is a reference to a particular atrocity whereby prisoners are rounded up and forced to run through a minefield. Those who don’t step on mines get gunned down, underlining the minefield as a device whose aim is purely sick entertainment. Real-life examples of this have been cited in Burma and Iraq.

Nobody in their right mind will argue that committing such atrocities against ethnic or religious groups is acceptable, and yet persecution of minorities happens on many levels, from teasing at school to the terrifying acts of inhumanity that this video references. The real question then becomes, is persecution of minorities acceptable at any level? Enter the fat people and gingers, both minority groups who don’t enjoy protection from discrimination by law, and who are still broadly deemed acceptable targets for teasing and, by extension, bullying. Is it so inconceivable that some insane oppressor in a position of power might one day decide that all redheads should be wiped from the face of the earth? To the rational mind, yes, but then rationality doesn’t gel well with Hitler’s vision of an Aryan master race either. If you can accept that as historical reality, then it’s not much of a stretch to envision something as unimaginable as the scene in M.I.A’s video actually being plotted by somebody, somewhere, sometime.

The message, then, is very simple. Discrimination of any kind is unacceptable, and despite most people being in agreement with this, breaking down the barrier of acceptability in relation to anti-ginger discrimination has always proved very difficult. I believe M.I.A’s intention, particularly considering the level of violence depicted in the video, is to contribute to that effort via a shock tactic. Whether it works or not remains to be seen, but anything that even sparks the debate is in itself a positive action.