Monday, 30 March 2015

UKIP and psychology of racism.

That UKIP voters dislike immigration is a banal truism. That UKIP voters have little personal experience of immigration, however, is more surprising. A recent DEMOS report showed a strong correlation between relatively white homogenous areas and burgeoning UKIP support. A weaker, though still significant, correlation was also shown between areas of low unemployment and high UKIP support illustrating that the 'they took our jobs' theory of electoral popularity some (not least the supporters themselves) have identified is also less than convincing.

An averagely thoughtful liberal cosmopolitan could draw the fairly simple conclusion that, whereas living in a diverse community like London tends to make one more open minded to living alongside the capital's rainbow of immigrants, the insular life of homogenous South Thanet (96% white British) only serves to reinforce the sense of Us and Them and so heighten intolerance of immigrant outsiders. However, if one was being less charitable, as those on the left who view Farage and his clan as nothing short of satanic seem to be, one could simply accuse UKIPers of gross bigotry and racism, chuck a few eggs at Farage's face and feel thoroughly pleased with oneself for a good job well done.

Now, I readily concede that the UKIP leader does have one of those faces that cries out for corporal punishment. And, even on their own terms, the party's policies are often deplorable when not merely incoherent. But seeing the bile being vented on social media by self-righteous 'activists' whose own smug visages seem no less deserving of an encounter with a blunt object, perhaps a little moderate corrective is in order.

I happen to be reading the developmental psychologist Paul Bloom's book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, and found his chapter on 'Others' - as in, evil immigrants, filthy foreigners, etc - instructive. The seeds of racism, Bloom argues, run deep and start to sprout early, but the picture isn't as simple, or as bleak, as it first appears.  To start with, babies probably aren't natural born racists at all; they simply prefer the familiar, regardless of race. But that's not the only reason to doubt the veracity of the notion that racism a naturally occurring inevitability.

Evidence suggests that as adults we tend to encode three pieces of information about a new person: age, sex, and race. Intuitively this makes sense. But, as psychologists Kurzban, Tooby, and Cosmides pointed out in an influential paper, if one considers the circumstances under which these kinds of psychological habits formed, the race component of that triad starts to look a bit odd. After All, our ancestors would have had no contact with anyone belonging to what we now call a 'different race' so why do we fixate on it now? As Bloom says, "race matters only insofar as it piggybacks on coalition".

Coalition refers to the simple practice of breaking the world into Us and Them by whatever means available, something that would have been invaluable in the violent localised inter-community conflicts that characterised early humanity. To test their hypothesis, Kurzban et al used a method known as the memory-confusion paradigm, which Bloom describes as follows:

"They gave people a series of pictures of people's faces, each with a sentence attributed to that person. Later, they asked participants to recall who said what. Given enough picture/sentence pairs, participants inevitably make mistakes, and those mistakes reveal what characteristics we naturally encode as meaningful. If one hears something from a young Asian woman and later forgets the source, it is more likely we'll attribute it to a young Asian woman (or another young person, or woman, or Asian) than to an elderly Hispanic man."

But Kurzban's study contained a twist. They used pictures and statements from an equal number of black and white people, but then randomly assigned them distinctively coloured jumpers. When they did this, the mistakes participants made were far more likely to be based on jumper colour than race.

Further evidence for the non-universality of racism can be found in research with children by McGlothlin and Killen. They designed a study using images of ambiguous moral situations containing an ethnically mixed cast and asked white children between the age of six and nine to describe what they saw. In some cases, the children displayed racial prejudice in how they analysed and recounted the scene, but only if they'd been to all-white schools. This supports what's known as the 'contact hypothesis' - the notion that, under the right circumstances, social contact diminishes prejudice.

So, the evidence clearly shows that coalition forming and group loyalty are powerful social forces written into our DNA which can lead to intolerance and racism. But they don't have to. In this light, the UKIP voters so demonised by the left are largely victims of circumstance. They fear immigrants for their 'otherness', and for how they'll change their communities, but don't realise that through the process of exposure they'll almost certainly change their own attitudes regarding the Dreaded Other.

As for the protesters who spoiled poor Nigel and his family's pub lunch the other day, someone needs to tell them that their one-off flamboyant efforts were wasted. What they really need to do is shut up and move in next-door.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Response to 'An open letter to Russell Brand'

Russell Brand staged a protest/publicity stunt at RBS. An employee called Jo who briefly interacted with Brand outside, and who seems to have been annoyed that his lunch got cold, wrote him an open letter as a result. It's been getting a lot of attention, especially in the right-wing press. This is my dashed off response to that letter.

In essense, I found the post deeply flawed and annoying when not merely tedious. It's just Brand's own rhetorical tactics - faux-familiarity and knowing faux-sympathy - made less earnest and more condescending without any of the much needed upgrade in quality control or practical empathy. Even more so than Brand's efforts, it seems to be pure choir preaching and, by its swaggering and obnoxious lack of self-doubt, it turns off someone in the middle, like me. For example, the blog's subheading, 'The worst thing about being cynical is being right', makes me want to actively assist this auto-fellatio enthusiast with a hand on the back of his head, if only to hasten the moment when he publicly chokes on his own cock. 

I mean, I think Brand is as much of a misguided simpleton as the next guy, except if the next guy is the author of this blog post who seems intent on giving Brand-mockery a bad name.

Leaving aside the completely unnecessary ad hominems directed at his messy past, it seems there are only two substantive points: 1) Whether or not his publicity stunt has a role to play in advancing the scope and depth of our public discourse (he spends a couple of yawn-inducing preliminary paragraphs 'showing' that a publicity stunt is all it was, as if that needed pointing out, but whatever - maybe he feels that his readership require baby steps... actually, judging from the parade of gormless comments beneath it, perhaps they do). And 2) The defence of the bank bailouts as being in the public interest rather than symptomatic of something deeply wrong with the system. 

There are also some accusations of hypocrisy sprinkled about, laced with crude attacks on the Beeb, which are entirely irrelevant, but if anyone thinks they're valid I'll treat them in a later post.

So, 1) Does the publicity stunt have merit? In the context of a broader strategy of public engagement, someone in marketing would certainly say yes. Any publicity is good publicity, so people talking about the topic you're interested in - as we are doing here and as the blogger has ironically encouraged with his post - increases public awareness and engagement, albeit somewhat superficially in the main. From the perspective of someone who supports Brand's position, as long as some of these new engagements lead to an onging and deeper engagement in the issue for a few individuals, this is clearly net positive. It also maintains momentum, which is crucial in social and political campaigning. So, strategically, this is a no-brainer. 

2) No mention of moral hazard, no mention of too-big-to-fail, no mention of implicit taxpayer subsidy of risk leading to increased profitability, no mention of regulatory capture. I could go on. If this guy actually thinks that the RBS bailout is net positive, even in purely financial terms, for the average citizen, then he's lost in a pit of ideological spin and self-affirmation that is likely terminal. As far as I'm concerned the matter is so clear cut it's barely worth discussion. (I say this as someone who supported the bank bailouts as being the least bad option in the circumstances. The point is, there was nothing inevitable about the circumstances. On this point, Brand and I are in agreement.) 


Ultimately, attacking Brand personally for his misguided and simplistic politics is a bit like attacking a hipster for being a fashion victim. It's shooting fish in a barrel and only serves to make the shooter feel better about themselves. It's pathetic. If you want to engage with the Brand/Farage phenomenon, have a crack at the populist political soup of dysfunction and apathy he/they bubbled up from. That's where the real questions lie. But the answers are harder divine, and generally more discomforting, too. Much easier to rattle off a flabby tirade at some easy target on the other side. And it makes your peers think you're cool. Just ask Farage and Brand: it's exactly how they've gained popular support themselves.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Efficient packaging from Fresh Direct

I recently ordered a 'bunch' of groceries for delivery from Fresh Direct, the New York equivalent of Ocado in London. Over packaging is the norm here as everyone knows but this is a high end grocer with an emphasis on fresh, organic goods (the goods arrive in recycled boxes no less!) so I dared to think that they might have a sane packaging policy as well. Sadly no. That one extra plum tomato apparently just can't quite fit in with the other 5. Dito for the two lonely carrots sitting next to their more sociable brethren.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Musings on mediocre air travel

Delta. To my knowledge not an airline of great renown, as evidenced by the fact that less than one in four seats on my incredibly cheap transatlantic flight are occupied. They have made an effort with the uniforms though; the entire crew dressed in black polo necks.

This swish retro look, that according to the Daily Mail 'never went out of fashion!' and according to the Guardian did go out of fashion but is now making a comeback (heaven help us), was somewhat offset by the largest and campest of our stewards who breezily reported 'sweating like a school boy in church' as he served me lunch. I liked his customer friendly version of the classic 'whore in church' phrase, substituting, as it does, the reference to female sexual and economic exploitation for an image of teenage guilt ridden masturbation. My appreciation clearly didn't go unnoticed as he quickly returned to surreptitiously top up my virgin mary with a free shot of vodka before smiling peculiarly and saying, "see! Treat me nice and I treat you nice". As he turned and presented his vast arse to my face another somewhat unpleasant image was thrust into my minds eye and my head started to spin. Just how nice could he treat me? And would it involve that great gluteal protuberance in any way?

I feel uncomfortably certain that New York has many more such thought provoking encounters in store for me.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Thomas Paine Quotes

Time makes more converts than reason - from the opening paragraph of Common Sense

Friday, 14 October 2011

Charlie Brooker Quotes

On reading Sky TV magazine while sitting on the toilet - "Visually inhaling crap at one and and rectally exhaling it from the other; my corporeal self simply a conduit for the elemental crapforce that binds the universe together"

On Jeremy Kyle - "Everytime I see him its as if someone has just walked over my grave."

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Quotes of the day

Proust (paraphrased): Classically beautiful women should be left to men with no imaginations.

Stendhal: A man can acquire anything in solitude except a character.