Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Exposing the Affinity Myth

When we hear people dismiss what we have to say about their ideas or behaviour on the basis that we cannot possibly understand them, because we do not share their experiences, how should we react?

It has become so common that we could be talking about anything, and someone would play the ‘But you are not like us, so you’ll never get it’ card. The difference could be linked to a religion, a sect, a purported ethnic group, some tradition or custom, socio-economic background, or even experiences tied to a particular locality or a close-knit community. The idea is that since we are ‘different’ from them, we cannot sensibly make any comment about them, least of all criticise them in any way.

Now while it’s obviously wrong to go on about certain aspects of other people’s lives or actions without any real understanding about them, it is equally mistaken to assume that we have to be, from their point of view, practically one of them before we can grasp the rights and wrongs of what they are up to. Understanding comes from a combination of knowledge and imagination, and group affinity is seldom, if ever, a necessary prerequisite. To debunk the myth more swiftly, let us consider three claims relating to the importance of ‘being one of us’.

[1] You cannot understand what is different from you.
The notion that an observer must be just like the observed to know anything significant about the latter may sound plausible at a very superficial level, but does not actually bear the slightest scrutiny. Entomologists can learn a lot about insects without being remotely like insects themselves. Astronomers can predict the behaviour of distant planets without possessing much resemblance to a planetary object. Oncologists do not have to be suffering from cancer themselves before they acquire expert knowledge on how to diagnose and treat the disease. Understanding of behaviour, of what constitutes a normal pattern, and what indicates deviation from the norm, come from systematic studies and review of evidence. Being the same type as what is studied is certainly not necessary. Otherwise it would take a sociopathic serial killer to explain one.

[2] You cannot understand without emotional connections.
There are times when being able to relate to the joy or despondency of another person is crucial to sharing their feelings. But even in such situations, it is a matter of degree rather than an absolute either-or. Only those totally lacking in empathy are unable to take some delight in seeing others happy, or feel sad at the sight of someone sobbing inconsolably, even though they are relative strangers. At the same time, a clearer understanding, or a more objective assessment, may require precisely the distancing of emotions. It is more difficult for us to consider if someone has done something wrong and should be penalised, if we were too close to the person in question. If our judgement were to be affected by intense love, anger, fear, or admiration felt for the individual being examined, we might well not truly comprehend what has been done. Often the more detached we can be from a given subject, the better we can come to understand it.

[3] You cannot understand what it is like without having had the same experience.
It is sometimes claimed that men and women cannot possibly understand what the other sex experience. Similar divides are deployed for people with diverse religious beliefs (or those with none at all), ethnic backgrounds, or even class differences. But the key here is one’s capacity for psychological understanding and moral imagination. The development of one’s emotional intelligence enables one to have gradually higher degrees of understanding of what others may be going through even though one’s physiology, ancestry, habits, or income may be very different from them. Conversely, anyone who insists that no one can understand anyone else except those who are virtually identical to oneself slides down a solipsist path that closes off all avenue of understanding. We are all unlike in some ways, and interpersonal understanding is built on mental bridges that overcome those dissimilarities, not on futile insistence on eliminating them all.

So don’t be deflected by the affinity myth. If anyone tries to play the old ‘you’re not like us, you’ll never understand’ card, that’s already a good indication that their attempts to hide from critical appraisal by others is an all too familiar one.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

What do we mean by ‘Civic Engagement’?

‘Civic engagement’ is sometimes taken to mean involving citizens in doing good work in their communities, when its use should be focused on engaging citizens in democratic political processes. In the former sense (incorporating cash giving, volunteering and helping strangers), the UK, for example, performs better than other European countries according to the annual survey commissioned by the Charities Aid Foundation (2016 figures). However, in the latter sense of democratic participation, the UK lags behind most other European countries (e.g., France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, and all the Scandinavian countries [Note 1].

And in supporting people’s involvement as citizens in their collective self-governance, we should not make the mistake of thinking that this requires any reduction to the diversity of cultural backgrounds in society. There is a vital difference between socio-cultural identity on the one hand, and civic-political identity on the other.

There is no question that the civic identity of citizens, whose rights are protected by their government, and who are responsible to that government and their fellow citizens in relation to a legally defined set of obligations, is of the utmost importance. But some commentators have wrongly conflated the need to remind citizens of what it means to be a British (or an American) citizen, with the desire in some quarters to champion particular social and cultural identities as the defining features of being British (or American).

Any country with citizens that have a diverse mix of socio-cultural identities will actually have a stronger sense of shared civic identity if they have more opportunities to interact freely and positively. There is evidence that mutual respect and integration are enhanced by people getting to know each other more, while prejudice is fuelled by the lack of experience of people with apparent differences. For example, according to research findings, individuals who come into contact with immigrants more often are less likely to have anti-immigrant prejudice, and more likely to be among those who voted ‘Remain’ in the EU referendum [Note 2].

So instead of pandering to the prejudiced calls to cut diversity in order to promote civic cohesion, the government should ensure there are more opportunities for people to interact with others from diverse backgrounds so that there is less misunderstanding, less alienation, and a greater sense of togetherness. This would also suggest that policies to segregate schools by faith or allow selection by religion within a school are likely to be inimical to civic integration [Note 3].

Of course, the ability to communicate in English is a vital dimension of being a citizen in a predominantly English-speaking country, and every encouragement and support should be given to all citizens to be reasonably proficient in English. Refusal to try to learn or get help to understand English should not be sanctified as an emblem of diversity, but discouraged as a hindrance to civic solidarity. However, we must bear in mind that, just as some citizens have to rely on sign language or cannot read English because of their visual impairment, people who have come from abroad and may not initially be able to grasp English should be given sympathetic assistance in learning to communicate in a different way.

People from English-speaking countries should also remember how common it is that we ourselves do not speak the language of the places we visit, or even settle in as expats. As for naturalisation and arrangements such as the citizenship test, again we need to separate out concerns with civic identity from those about socio-cultural identity. The emphasis should be much less on selective cultural knowledge, and far more on civic-political information relating to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, legal and political procedures, and how to access and check guidance on appropriate civic behaviour (e.g., registering to vote, paying taxes, learning about public policies, reporting crime, etc).

Note 1. Source: ‘The End of Voters in Europe? Electoral Turnout in Europe since WWII’ by Pascal Delwit, published in The Open Journal of Political Science, 2013, Vol. 3, No.1, Table 3.

Note 2: ‘Examining the role of positive and negative intergroup contact and anti-immigrant prejudice in Brexit’ by Rose Meleady, Charles R Seger and Marieke Vermue: published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, June 2017)

Note 3: In existing Church of England free schools that are bound by the 50% cap on religious selection, 63% of pupils are classified as ‘of white origin’, but in Church of England secondaries that religiously select all of their places, 78% are white. Source: government’s figures as reported by the British Humanist Association, 2016.

[The above observations are taken from a longer paper on civic engagement and integration written in response to the House of Lords’ Select Committee's Call for Evidence on Citizenship & Civic Engagement. For the full version, see: ]