Monday, August 20, 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. Multi-culturalism 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. 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.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 23 February 2007.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The woes of 'affluenza'

In his 1895, novel The Time Machine, HG Wells takes McEnroe’s view of affluenza to its logical (if not hyperbolic) conclusion. The novel centres on a time traveller, who travels forward in time into a world where the previously rich, because of their sedentary lifestyle, have devolved, rather than evolved, into a docile and ineffectual species called the Eloi. Members of the working class, in turn, have mutated into bestial creatures called Morlocks. The Morlocks live underground and toil to keep the Eloi’s world ticking over and bountiful. The twist, however, is that the Morlocks eat the Eloi from time to time to survive. Oddly, however, all have adapted to their roles and the strange world works with a de facto class structure still in place.

Of course, the real world is not as straightforward or as fantastical as Wells’s make-believe world. Many scientists and businesspeople come from wealthy homes and continue to evolve up the prosperity ladder. Some are even philanthropists. Children of high achievers, especially those that have to continue to work hard to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, are usually very motivated. They are not simply modern Elois. It is equally problematic to paint the working class as inherently brutish.

That said, children born into wealth, who do not need to work to keep their comforts, are, arguably, becoming more Eloi-like. The celebrity world is filled with the offspring of the wealthy who are layabouts with little social utility, typified by Paris Hilton, heiress to the Hilton Hotel fortune.

Now I am not recommending that the working class devour the rich or Paris Hilton, particularly. Publicly endorsing cannibalism seldom wins friends. But McEnroe’s comments and Wells’s novel provide food for thought.

Are sections of the wealthy slowly sinking into Eloi-like uselessness because people are too comfortable? Is the growing wealth gap alienating the needy from the world of cappuccinos and coffee shops, trapping them in a destitute and brutalising world? Will this, in turn, lead to violent revolution? Or is Wells’ two-tier world of haves and have-nots, which ‘functions’ in a perverse cycle of mutual dependence more realistic?

In terms of the latter, I was thinking of writing a science-fiction novel. The story will centre, as unrealistic as it might sound, on a world made up of people who have no choice but to work like slaves for $1 a day. These unnamed individuals work in dark sweatshops to create clothes with fashionable labels on them for others who inhabit air-conditioned shopping malls seldom seen by the sweatshop workers. The people in the malls lust after the clothes with fashionable labels, but only get temporary satisfaction from each purchase so they continually demand more clothes and varied styles. In turn, the sweatshops grind on indefinitely.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 3 August 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.