THE BLOG

Terrorism, Tragedy And The National Mood: How United Are We?

26/06/2017 16:34 BST | Updated 26/06/2017 16:34 BST
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We're halfway through 2017 and the nation is in sombre mood according to the Queen, after several months scarred by violence and heartache.

Talk of 'the nation' puts the spotlight on the concept of a national identity, a sense of Britishness, a degree of unity.

But are we one nation, all responding in the same way, all sharing the same mood?

A year ago the country was split in half by the EU referendum, leading to political chaos. As Brexit negotiations began this week, bitter arguments between Remain and Leave camps continue.

Terrorist attacks highlight sharp religious and cultural divisions in the cruelest way, while the Grenfell Tower tragedy has revealed the chasm separating the haves and have nots.

We probably have been united in grief and shock after these devastating events, but our reaction will have been influenced by our social groupings.

As a psychology student, I'm fascinated by social identity and what defines us and our sense of belonging.

We're all part of many different groups, however mundane - the place where we work, our local pub, the school or university we attend, the football club we support.

In our daily lives we are grouped with other people in multiple ways, from the passengers we share the train with every morning, to the paper we read.

Research has found that we don't have to be connected to other people to feel an affiliation with them. Put a room of strangers into two groups and ask them to work together on tasks and immediately they feel an association with 'their' group.

Such associations might be temporary, purely for the amount of time we are in that situation. But how much deeper then is our affiliation with more important groups in our lives, such as family, friends, religion, the place we come from?

These are our 'in' groups and people outside of our groups might be ignored, treated with suspicion, or at worst with hatred.

We empathise more with people who are part of our group and to whom we can relate. Researchers found that football supporters were quicker to help someone wearing the same shirt, than someone wearing another club's shirt.

Similarly, we feel stronger emotions when a tragedy happens near to home, rather than if it happens thousands of miles away.

We all talk about 'them' and 'us' in casual conversation, often without even noticing it. It could be workers moaning about managers; men talking about women; teenagers about their teachers.

We probably never think about our national identity until it is called into question by something like a terrorist attack. Even then, it's unlikely that someone living in rural Scotland will identity as British in the same way as someone living in a London borough.

We might refer to ourselves as a united kingdom, but in reality our experiences and our regional allegiances shape our social identity more than sharing one flag.

On holiday in Crete last year the barman at our hotel said people from Crete will always say they are Cretan first, then Greek. Similarly I know people from Wales who describe themselves as Welsh first.

Most of the time these allegiances don't conflict. It's possible to be both Welsh and British, and even Scottish and British, although some members of the SNP might disagree.

It's only when there is conflict that these different identities matter. I think of myself as European as well as British, but obviously there are plenty of people who don't, hence the winning Leave vote.

Most people in this country don't identify strongly as Christian, yet don't like the idea of Islam becoming the biggest world religion by 2070, as predicted, because they see it as a cultural threat.

On the anniversary of her death, Jo Cox's husband Brendan reiterated her view that we have more in common than that which divides us. Certainly there are many people working hard to break down barriers and encourage understanding between different social groups.

We might have different ideas of national identity and what it means to be British but when it comes to suffering, maybe it's just basic humanity which unites us, regardless of which flag we live under.