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Finding Common Ground

*Farhan Samanani [2013] is doing a PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge with the support of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. Picture credit of UKIP's Nigel Farage during the referendum campaign: Wiki Commons.

As the UK triggers Article 50 now is a good time to look back at the common factors that influenced the referendum vote and the US election. One was the widely-publicised fear that citizens were at risk of being driven out of their own countries. Donald Trump rode to victory proclaiming that "we are going to take our country back". He promised a border wall and 'extreme vetting' of arrivals from Muslim countries, despite the fact that net migration from Mexico has hovered around zero in the past few years, and illegal immigration has long been at a dramatic low. Meanwhile, during the EU membership referendum, UKIP (in)famously used an image of queuing refugees in Slovenia to suggest that the UK was at its 'breaking point', even though asylum seekers today make up a smaller share of migration than they have in the previous two decades.

This rhetoric is not new. It was present in Enoch Powell's renowned and reviled 'Rivers of Blood' speech in 1968. When the Great Famine plagued Ireland between 1845 and 1852, Irish migrants attempting to escape the blight were often treated as an invading force, a fifth column of Catholicism threatening to usurp local populations in both England and America. Very rarely have such fears come to pass. Even in the United States, where projections suggest that the country may become majority-minority by 2055, most of this change will be driven by children of existing citizens, who often don't identify unambiguously with their parents' backgrounds. In other words, America is becoming more diverse, and identities are becoming more complex. This has little to do with specific national groups, such as Mexicans or Syrians, who have borne the brunt of the backlash.

Such fears are very rarely accurate predictors of the future. They likewise tend to wildly misread the motivations of minorities or migrants, few of whom have any intent to usurp majority culture whatsoever. Most migrants are simply in search of a better life; most minorities simply the right to live their own. Yet the claims for equal opportunity, equal policing, non-discrimination, access to gender-neutral bathrooms and other such causes often vaunted by progressives are often reinterpreted by conservatives as sweeping threats to the entire nation. Why?

Friends and strangers

Part of the answer lies in recognising that seeing dangerous potential in unknown others is not just a habit of conservatives, but is something everyone does in certain instances. Research shows that humans have limits to the number of people they are capable of maintaining relationships with. Most famously, Professor Robin Dunbar has suggested that understanding others comes with a cognitive cost, and therefore that we tend to form relationships along a sliding scale of familiarity. We can consider 3-5 people close intimates - the sorts of people we feel we understand almost as well as ourselves. Beyond this are our roughly 15 close friends, our 45 friends, our 150 familiar acquaintances - all the way up to the roughly 4,000 people we are each capable of remembering the names of.

The more socially distant someone is from us, the less we think of them in terms of interpersonal connection: our close friends are simply that, but our more distant connections may include bosses, doctors, teachers and others we think of primarily in terms of a particular role. This suggests that we encounter two types of strangers. There are those we can understand, because we can recognise them as falling into a valued role, and there are those we will struggle to understand because we do not have a way of thinking about them within our own personal social universe.

How does this relate to today's politics of fear? We know that those living in areas with less diverse populations are much more likely to be afraid of migrants and minorities, while the opposite is true of those in highly mixed areas. What this suggests is that living amidst diversity helps form the habits of thought and the social categories needed to incorporate diverse others into personal worlds. Meanwhile, migrants or minorities may appear threatening because as categories, they simply do not fit into some social universes - or else they hover right around the edges, as ambiguous threats, offering no productive potential. And they are experienced as so broadly threatening because their status places them outside of, and in opposition to, all that is familiar and useful.

Yet, as the divisiveness of contemporary politics suggests, this is a diagnosis that not only applies to those railing against migration or diversity. For those on both the left and right, political opponents have slipped out of the domain of the familiar and into the realm of the threatening stranger, who stands against the familiar and the good. This can fuel a vicious cycle of misunderstanding and polarisation. It's becoming increasingly clear that this is a blindness found across the political spectrum - and one that we urgently need to treat.

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