Friday, February 23, 2007

Bigots, building bridges and multiculturalism

According to the recently published ‘Human Beliefs and Values Survey’, Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of bigoted people in the Western world. The study of nearly 32 000 people across 19 European countries, as well as Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand, asked if people would like to have persons from different groups as neighbours. These groups included those of a different race, immigrants or foreign workers, Muslims, Jews and homosexuals. In Northern Ireland, 44% of the 1 000 respondents did not want at least one of the five groups as neighbour. Specifically, 35,9% of people would not like a homosexual living next door, 18,9% immigrants or foreign workers, 16% Muslims, 11,6% Jews, and people of a different race 11,1%. This was significantly higher than the average percentage across the countries surveyed, that were 19,6%, 10,1%, 14,5%, 9,5% and 8,5% for the same groups respectively.

The findings are startling. It is hard to imagine that nearly 20% of people across the Western world would be unhappy about a homosexual living next door, or, given Europe’s history, that nearly 10% would still be unhappy with a Jew living in their neighbourhood. Of course, one could see the glass half-full. After all, 90% of people have no problems with someone of a different race living next door. Arguably, holding a prejudiced view may also not be a problem, if you keep it to yourself and do not harm others. But, sadly, hate crimes have been increasing in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as the number of immigrants has grown. Racist attacks in Northern Ireland have a surged by 60% in the last year, while assaults on gays and lesbians have doubled.

One answer given to these problems is that we need to move towards multiculturalism. Multiculturalism implies a world where we respect differences, tolerate one another and allow different cultures to flourish on their own terms. Proponents of multiculturalism argue that this is the best option in a world where it is difficult to reconcile different values and beliefs. But is multiculturalism enough, given the astonishing statistics quoted above? And why is the term barely used in South Africa? Given South Africa’s history of segregation and ongoing problems with racism, it seems one knows intuitively that more needs to be done. If one wanted to be crude, multiculturalism that does not seek to bring people together in some way, or socioeconomic inequality that exists between groups, could end up akin to the perverse apartheid delusion of separate development. Some proponents of multiculturalism argue that groups will learn to coexist over time, if they have equal power and status. But this seldom happens.

Zygmunt Bauman lecturing 2006
Credit Jerzy Kociatkiewicz from Sheffield / CC BY-SA
Immigrant communities generally remain socially excluded and the result is, in the words of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, ghetto communities. Perhaps what is needed is interculturalism, where we move towards learning about different cultures and views, and engage with these in robust dialogue. This requires a recognition of interdependence that is neither assimilation nor simply coexistence. Granted coexistence might be a step along the way to interculturalism, but to seek a society that is multicultural, rather than intercultural, seems limiting.

That said, an intercultural approach can be threatening to those who see themselves as belonging to a specific community or ethnic group. But, as Bauman points out, the need for community, no matter how understandable in a world where society is so fractured, creates a double bind. As much as it provides the security of being with your own kind, the more you immerse yourself in your so-called community, the more you feel threatened by the other. Security and insecurity become intertwined, feeding “mutual derision, contempt and hatred” and making multiculturalism impossible. In short, we need to shatter the myth of the community, and, although it sounds rather schmaltzy, searching for our common humanity and celebrating interdependence while vigorously ‘dialoguing’ about our differences, seem a much better option.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 23 February 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

RAWA News and Anti-War Site

Today I was reminded, by two separate emails that the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan still requires ongoing attention. RAWA have now produced a great little news ticker to give you a news feed for a website on the situation in Afghanistan. I have installed in on my news page or if you want one for your site, click here. I was also emailed by a group called Arms Against War so I added a link to my site to highlight there efforts to end the war in Iraq.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

INCORE Summer School 2007

The INCORE Summer School provides a structured learning opportunity to analyse the dynamic and constantly changing field of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Focusing on the latest research and concepts in specific topics of conflict resolution, participants are invited to compare, contrast and learn from different perspectives.

The School offers a unique opportunity to create links between theory, practice and policy. Special attention is given to how the experience and research of both practitioners and academics can impact upon policy makers within the field of conflict resolution. Participants also benefit from the networking opportunities with other course participants.

The 2007 International Summer School will run from June 11 - 15 2007.

This year we are offering three courses:

* The Management of Peace Processes facilitated by Dr Cathy Gormley-Heenan
* Evaluation and Impact Assessment of Peacebuilding Programmes facilitated by Emery Brusset and Margie Buchanan-Smith
* Reconciliation in Societies Coming out of Conflict facilitated by Dr Brandon Hamber and Dr Wilhelm Verwoerd.

Detailed information about the 2007 Summer School, including online application details, click here.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Are we all torturers inside?

When I was flying from Johannesburg to Belfast recently, I was caught out by the new system some airlines have started of weighing bags before you check in. As a result, I was found to be carrying a 24-kg bag. I was subsequently reprimanded by an official, who claimed he was just doing his job and that I had to shed four kilos or pay for the extra weight. I removed two large books and a file from my bag, reducing the weight to 20 kg. I was then told I could carry the books on board in hand luggage. That said, I was lucky compared to the woman in front of me. Her bag weighed 26 kg and, when she pointed out she had no hand luggage, she was told by the same bureaucrat to “make some hand luggage” of precisely 6 kg of weight. She had to run around the airport trying to get a plastic bag so she could carry some of her clothes on to the plane. She then had to deal with other people “just doing their jobs” who refused to give her a large bag unless she made a large purchase. “I am just doing my job” has to be one of the most inane excuses in the world. It is a phrase that I most associate with bureaucracy and, at the risk of being melodramatic, Nazi Germany and other atrocities. Remember the case of the American soldiers who tortured Iraqi prisoners and then took photos of them – they, too, claimed they were just doing their jobs and carrying out orders.

Of course, the annoying airline bureaucrat who enjoyed bossing me and others around cannot be compared a torturer, but the process that led to his unquestioning rule enforcement has, at least to a degree, the same root cause. Like the American marine or ‘grunt’, as they are known, who tortures someone, our friend, the baggage-weighing man, also finds himself at the bottom of a heap of bureaucratic power. No doubt, he was ordered to ensure passengers’ bags do not exceed the weight limit. Whether people do this or not is irrelevant to him personally, but he feels the hand of the rational bureaucratic machine on his shoulders and that his competence will be measured by carrying out instructions. The result is an unwavering and illogical set of actions, because, in this case, extra weight would mean little (other than more profit for the airline), considering the aeroplane was half-full. But why are we, humans, so bad at resisting problematic orders? In the 1960s, Milgram carried out his famous experiment on obedience. He showed that, when people were ordered by an official-looking person to administer shocks to participants in a study (actors, who were not hurt) when they answered questions incorrectly, most people continued to ratchet up the power because they felt they needed to do what they were told. Over 60% of the volunteers obediently administered up to 450 V.

Despite Milgram’s highlighting our weaknesses over 40 years ago, people still carry out orders which are damaging. Soldiers who commit atrocities continue to use it as an unacceptable defence. It seems, as Milgram himself warned, that when individuals merge “into an organisational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of human inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority”. But Milgram teaches us more than the fact that people will follow problematic orders when instructed to do so. The real finding Milgram made was that most of us (okay, 65% of us) have a little torturer inside and, given the right conditions, we too might just “do our jobs”, no matter how unpalatable. So I forgive the baggage-weighing man in Johannesburg and his sardonic smile, because, apparently, there but for the grace of God go I.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 7 February 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.