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.
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.
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.
I’ve found the ideas in the book so engaging that I’m going to write about some of them before I’ve even finished reading it, since I think I’ve got a handle on at least the core of the idea, and writing about it will help me encapsulate what I’m thinking…
First off, I should probably summarise the idea of antifragility:
Whereas fragility is a state in which the more pressure something is put under, the more damage is caused to it, antifragility is the state in which the more pressure that something is put under, the tougher it becomes. This is not the same as robustness, since something that is robust simply isn’t affected by pressure: it becomes neither stronger nor weaker under pressure.
Nation States vs. City States
In part of the book Taleb juxtaposes the popular idea of the modern nation state with systems that have a more devolved approach to power. He describes how, prior to the rise of the Baath Party in the Levant, the region enjoyed 12,000 years of economic industriousness and prosperity. This was thanks to devolved networks of power that allowed local elites to run the regions. First it was the Roman Empire, then the Ottomans. Both had a relatively light grip on everyday affairs, so long as they received their taxes.
After this era, the Nation State Project took over, as western influenced powers insisted that this was the best, most ‘democratic’ and ‘civilised’ way to organise a nation.
Power became more centralised and the region which was governed by a single government became larger. Larger governments give the illusion of stability for a longer period of time, but when they fail, things are cataclysmic. This is because large states hoard more powerful weapons and possess more organised military, and because when they make a mistake its impact is amplified across a larger region.
When power is organised into smaller groupings, those groups may make more mistakes, but the mistakes have less impact. Mistakes made on a smaller scale allow for correction without the risk of mass-scale crisis. Decisions can be reversed.
Taleb compares the Nation State with how Switzerland is organised into smaller municipalities that are largely self governing. People vote more regularly in referendums on issues that affect them. They are engaged. Switzerland is one of the most hardy (antifragile) nations in the world, and the book argues that this is precisely because it’s government isn’t highly centralised.
When power is top-down and distant from the electorate, it becomes easy for those making decisions to lack empathy for those they are representing. They are just another name, another row in a database.
It also creates room for disproportionate influence of unelected corporate-funded pressure groups. In the Swiss setting, a lobby group would have to focus their efforts on the entire population to be able to sway lawmaking in their direction. In a nation state, they just need access to the corridors of power (which can usually be purchased in one way or another).
An example from my own life:
I occasionally email my local politicians in Wales: Members of Parliament who represent the interests of me and my neighbours in Cardiff North. The emails are usually related to some issue that I’ve become aware of, that I know that Parliament will have the opportunity to focus on: refugee reunification, aid to Syria etc.
Usually, after several weeks I get a response like this:
“Thank you for your email, which I take very seriously. You will be pleased to know that the Conservative Party cares more about this issue than you do. We actually have the _________ scheme and the __________ scheme already running to address this problem, and we’re doing better than any other government in the history of planet Earth. You really should be pleased that you have a Conservative Government.”
Of course the content of the email varies, but this is the tone and general message of the emails that I get back. Always.
A Cradle of Apathy
There are two problems that result from this system:
Apathy towards the political system
Reduced ownership for our surroundings
Ordinary people become alienated from the political process and make fewer attempts to redirect the attention of their leaders.
The leaders are left to their own devices to make decisions in their own interests (or the perceived interests of their electorate).
In a more devolved system, where I know the people making decisions and am actively participating myself (through referendums, community gatherings, submitting email feedback), the opposite is true:
The people are engaged because they know their input creates results
They take greater ownership
If I know that my input will affect my family and my neighbours’ family, I am willing to give it.
Conversely, if the political system is mysterious and inaccessible, it becomes irrelevant to my life until the Government begins infringing on my freedoms (by which time they have the legal and militaristic means by which to control me).
Can smaller groups be entrusted with upholding human rights?
I really like the idea of devolving power to its lowest possible level, having seen first hand the effects of apathy and disengagement. But I also see the need for some kind of centralised expectation on the way that the least in society are treated. In a globalised world, there’s a place for documents like the European Convention on Human Rights.
That said, the humane treatment of human beings is more desirable than words on paper. After all we live in a world where Saudi Arabia, the bastion of human rights abuses, can chair a UN panel on human rights.
I suppose the question could also be reversed: “can larger groups be entrusted with upholding human rights?”
Right now in Europe and America there’s been a surge of people voting for anti-immigration parties and representatives who would happily deny asylum to (and even deport) those fleeing war.
Our voting systems are built on the idea of anonymity, because anonymity encourages people to vote honestly, without the pressure to conform to our peers, bosses or family members. I think in principle this is wonderful, but I also wonder if it allows inhospitable values to fester like untreated wounds.
I’ve noticed people on Twitter recently asking “who are all these people voting for Trump? I haven’t met a single one.”
I’d guess that they have probably met several dozen, but the anonymity of the voting system means that you can vote one way and profess another. And perhaps that’s exactly as it should be.
But I’m not sure that it would be as easy to express anti-immigration views if you had to do so in front of your neighbours. If you have to look people in the eye (including the very families that you’re discussing) and admit that you don’t care for the outsider, the orphan, the traumatised, the widowed mother.
Is it possible that smaller communities could become more hospitable, more caring, if the individual members felt more empowered and more accountable?