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How anti-racism strategies can backfire

While reading about refugee children in Sweden, I came across a study by Ann Runfors which looked at the way that schools on the multicultural margins of Swedish society instil identity in those they teach.

What Runfors found was that while the schools she visited worked hard to avoid emphasising the differences between people, with the aim to be anti-racist they instead reinforced a Swedes vs. Immigrants mindset.

In their desire to nurture an atmosphere of culture blindness and tolerance, the teachers in these schools avoided even asking where their students came from. The idea behind this was that if teachers didn’t recognise the differences between say Somalis and Kurds, or Afghans and Iranians, the pupils were less likely to see these identities as having an impact on who they should or shouldn’t associate with.

But the teachers still needed a way to describe the kind of behaviour which was desirable within Swedish society. And for this task they referred to “Swedes.” A Swede sees things this way, or does things that way…etc.

And who became the other to the teachers’ idealised version of a Swede?

Yes, you guessed it – immigrants.

In an environment that had been intentionally engineered to be prejudice-free, immigrant children were learning that they were not ideal citizens. They were second. Other.

The large group which was made up of many ‘invisible’ cultures was, according to the narrative told by the teachers, a unified block. This block represented the antithesis of Swedish culture.


I tell this story for two reasons.

First, that it is a reminder of the gap that can exist between intention and outcome. The teachers were not trying to educate their pupils to see themselves as lesser. This was an indirect effect of a well intentioned strategy. 

Second, it teaches us the need to reflect on the impact of our actions. It is easy to get busy with activities that are well intentioned but which reinforce destructive and inhumane power structures. It is important to seek the input of those who have a different point of view, especially if we are more closely aligned with the system of power than those who are affected by the things we do or say.

This can be applied to many contexts. It applies to the education of immigrant children, but it can also be applied to the #metoo movement. It has relevance to relief and development organisations, as it does the missionary world.

The more we are able to reflect on our own place in the world, the more we become aware of the voice that we have, the voice which can ask questions and challenge policies, which can prod and persuade and instigate change in the direction of a more just world.



Why silencing Jordan B. Peterson does little for our public debate

I grew up thinking that universities were places where ideas could be discussed, challenged, contested, and ultimately improved. I thought that they were places where anyone was welcome and where rigour of thought and evidence were valued more highly than political biases.

In this marketplace of debates, I assumed that populism and partisanship would be limited. Ideas would stand on their own merits without having to be labelled right wing or left wing.

So it surprised me when I discovered that the academy can be as susceptible to the marginalisation of views that have been prejudged as sitting on the wrong side of the political divide.


A few days ago I spoke to a friend in Canada who told me that an event at the University of Ottawa in which Jordan Peterson was due to appear had to be cancelled because of protests by students. They are angry at how his views have been adopted by the Alt-Right and used as justification for continued marginalisation of some groups. Because of this, he is prevented from submitting his ideas for public debate in the context of this university. 

My own opinion of Jordan Peterson is somewhat ambivalent. There’s a lot that I dislike about what he says and how he says it. He certainly loves a good argument and comes across as overly insistent on his view of the world. At the same time, he presents a way of looking at issues which is under represented within academia and our public debate. These are ideas which do not align neatly with a leftist liberal world-view, and which are therefore only given exposure in places where the debate is even more populist: Youtube, Twitter, glossy magazines and TV news programs. However, Peterson is an academic and works at the University of Toronto which is in the same province as Ottawa. In my view, he should be challenged by those who see things differently from him within an academic setting.

Of course, he has made appearances at other universities and also been rebutted in the intellectual press. I’m not saying that he has no platform, but I am arguing that the exclusion and attempts at marginalisation do us no favours. Calling him A Messiah-cum-Surrogate-Dad for Gormless Dimwits might be good for click-throughs, but it does nothing for the respect and openness that we need in our societies.

In a recent post, Ben Pollard refers to Bernard Crick’s argument that politics is “the negotiation of difference without violence.” He continues,

True politics is grounded in the ancient rituals of common life, not the divisive games of contemporary populism. Democracy began in the common spaces, the Greek agora, and the Syrian souk. Places where common rituals helped humans to negotiate their common good.

Ben Pollard, Politics is beautiful

I think universities should nurture this kind of common democracy, instead of pandering to the exclusion and polarisation of populism.


I want to live in a world where we learn to respect people who think differently from us; a world where a person’s views can be taken seriously and given the dignity of a reasoned response. I think that’s the kind of world where people’s minds can be changed. And even if their minds aren’t changed, their ideas are put through the fire of rigorous debate. Their thinking is strengthened. And those who disagree are also forced to explain why they disagree. They can’t fall back on lazy dismissals of “he’s right wing,” or “he’s not very clever.”

If there’s anything that is effective at enhancing the influence of an idea, it is dismissing it when it already resonates with a big enough number of people. Calling Jordan Peterson stupid just mobilises those who hate the left and see his ideas as justification for bringing back archaic practices. He becomes the underdog outsider who others use to give credibility to their own sense of victimhood.

Instead of lazy dismissals, I’d like to see more thoughtful deconstruction of ideas. I’d like to see those who are racist or chauvinistic or seem to be transphobic held accountable for these views, not just excluded from the public discourse.