Identity has been at the forefront of an increasingly politicised culture. Indeed, Matthew d’Ancona implies that the boom of the social media age has generated and exacerbated this. People have gained unprecedented access to opinions that mirror and reinforce their own. With much politics of old — and new — revolving around the handling of the economy, the recession of 2008 complicated the public’s grasp on evaluating complex economic strategy. This has created wiggle room for more populist society-based issues of identity and culture, which naturally emotive voters are drawn to understanding far more easily.
A screen director’s mission revolves around tactfully creating suspensions of disbelief, using a convincing creation of illusions — ring any bells? No? Perhaps if we remove the word ‘tactfully’ it might… Between politicians and the media, the public’s consumption of their biased cultural narratives can be puzzling. We so easily jump on bandwagons that seem ‘right’ to us, doing so without further research or questioning — perhaps reposting something that we haven’t fact checked, or that is obviously misleading. Widely shared snapshots of looting or riots were used to try and discredit the Black Lives Matter movement. President Trump himself tweeted on September 8th 2020 that the protesters were “THUGS”. In reality, over 93% of BLM demonstrations from May 26th to August 22nd were deemed peaceful. This racialised narrative of thuggery and lawlessness has long been used to tarnish the image of social movements that seek racial justice in the face of police brutality and systemic racism.
On all sides of any debate, we can be guilty of assuming our opponents are guided by ignorance, while we ironically dismiss their views without a second thought. Perhaps they are ignorant, but without further reflection on their reasoning, how can we be so sure? The problem is that we forget about our shared humanity, and instead elevate the importance of our own self-righteous convictions over real-world context — a notoriously dangerous and violent phenomenon throughout history: from the French Revolution of 1799 to the Russian Revolution of 1917, to the Iraq War of 2003. We are exposed to battles of words and rhetoric that lose their human touch and depart from lived realities. What may feel like genuine political engagement is actually often passive intake of single-sided information. In the realm of personalised Twitter and Facebook-based echo chambers that reaffirm pre-existing views, our psychologically rooted confirmation bias means we both curate and favour information that confirms what we already believe.
Hateful or discriminatory speech directed towards individuals or groups on the basis of arbitrary characteristics — such as race, gender, and ethnicity — should not be tolerated. Common humanity and empathy are the cornerstones for a cooperative — and therefore socially progressive — society where each individual mutually benefits from universal rights and freedoms. This idea exists outside of the socially constructed grounds for exclusion or persecution based on perceived norms from social conditioning or culturally ingrained superiority complexes. However, it remains important to understand why such discriminatory views are formed to work on prevention and solution. If reason and empathy can be garnered from such individuals, they might change their social attitudes and values.
We typecast Tory supporters as selfishly cold-hearted, and Labour supporters as overly-woke dreamers. In assuming misguided, malicious, or negative motivations behind the opinions of our detractors — our supposedly steadfast enemies — we overlook vital nuances and mutually agreeable interests. These realisations would not only diversify our understanding of political issues, but also unify us as a cohesive community with self-reflective and open-minded behaviours. By not reacting to a person’s intellect, character or potential humanity based on the politics they align themselves with, we can keep the conversation at a respectful and reasonable justification-based level — one that puts human experience, not widespread narratives, first.
Repeating inflammatory slogans that offend and generalise your opposition do little for social change. Communication is a crucial aspect of any human relationship, and the ability to manage interaction in a humble, measured, and non-reactive manner fosters understanding and empathy. Casual conversations have been presented as a promising way of reducing bigotry, as seen when over 500 voters in South Florida were asked to briefly imagine problems from the perspective of a trans person in the context of door-to-door canvassing. Anti-trans attitudes were subsequently reduced in the sample — remaining so even after three months — and pro-trans policy support grew.
A poll from October 2020 revealed that 55% of UK adults believed that BLM protests had increased racial tensions. Further dissected, 44% of ethnic minorities polled also agreed with this. However, the BLM protests simply brought pre-existing divides to the surface, with mixed reactions to the tearing down of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston epitomising this. At the forefront of many conversations about race seems to be white people wholeheartedly declaring that they, personally, aren’t racist. Such defensive reactions have been spurred on by notions such as white privilege. This could simply be a matter of miscommunication. Without a non-confrontational tone to clarify terms and mitigate defensiveness, it can be hard for someone to understand why they have white privilege; especially when they by no means feel privileged in their sense of the word, due to, for instance, the class ranks they feel they had to arduously climb. Anger at injustice is both understandable and justified, but patience and clarification go a long way in terms of explaining the systemic and implicit nature of racial bias; it is important that people do not feel personally attacked, but rather, become aware of the collective problem.
Rather than attacking someone for the views they currently possess, we can bridge the communication gap. Rather than labelling someone who does not necessarily understand the concept of white privilege as a racist, we can use non-antagonistic language that simply describes the statistically-supported lived situation of people of colour in comparison to that of white people. By having finger-pointing-free conversations with people, we skip the defensive reaction that spirals into an unwillingness to learn. Instead, we go straight to empathy and social data. What more could you want?
The blame for culture wars does not lie with the general population as a whole, but rather with agenda-pushing politicians and media sensationalists. This is clearly seen in government platforming of ‘left behind white working classes’, when this has nothing to do with race rows and everything to do with class; with economic inequalities perpetuated by that very government through austerity measures and trade union weakening. Such distraction techniques — it is being working-class, not being white that leads to disadvantage — are blatant attempts to scapegoat, subsequently scuppering social cohesion.
We, the people, must make ourselves aware of the narratives that we are passively playing our expected role in by buying into and perpetuating them, allowing politicians and media players to benefit from us being blindsided. We must take control of our free thought to instead listen to lived experience, have open-minded conversations, and evaluate a diverse range of views. Some academics have argued that increased media diversity and accessibility online (disregarding social media) has actually enhanced our information by presenting us with varying sources. There is no shame in changing your opinion in light of new information, but there is shame in failing to self-reflect.
There is no problem with giving someone the benefit of the doubt and approaching them non-confrontationally, but there is a problem with immediately antagonising people who don’t necessarily understand the issue. They may be products of their familial, generational, geographical, or educational environment. They may see themselves as victims. These social backgrounds are then weaponised by ambitious politicians and journalists alike. Meaningful change must therefore come from everyday interactions and integrations that foster empathy, diverse open-minded media intake, and from holding politicians and the media to account for encouraging cultural divides. Divides that lead people to forget their capacity for independent thought and humanity.