1. From Oliver Burkeman, “Are things getting worse – or does it just feel that way?”, The Guardian, July 20, 20181
Participants were shown hundreds of dots in shades from deep purple to deep blue, and asked to say whether each was blue or not. Obviously, the bluer a dot, the more likely people were to classify it as blue. But what’s interesting is what happened when researchers began reducing the prevalence of the blue dots they displayed. The fewer dots that were objectively blue, the broader people’s definition of “blue” became: they started to classify purplish dots that way, too…
It’s been argued that we live in an era of “concept creep,” in which concepts like “trauma” or “violence” have stretched to encompass things no previous generation would have worried about. Hence the idea that certain forms of speech are literally violence. Or that letting an eight-year-old walk to school alone is actual child neglect. Or – to pick an example from the current contentious debate over gender identity – that to question someone’s preferred explanation for their experience of gender is to deny their right to exist.
Subsequent stages of the blue-dot study showed that … if you ask people to classify faces as threatening or non-threatening, then reduce the incidence of threatening ones, they’ll define more neutral faces as threatening. Ask them to classify research proposals as ethical or unethical, then reduce the unethical ones, and they’ll expand their definition of “unethical.”
As co-author Dan Gilbert put it, “When problems become rare, we count more things as problems.”
2. From Aladin El-Mafaalani, “Fighting at the table,” CBC Ideas, June 29, 20172
A hundred years ago there was not one single country that was a free land for all peoples independent of skin colour, religion, gender or sexual preference.
There was never before a time in German history when integration was as successful as it is today. For example, even refugees can expect language classes, labour market integration, an apartment, education and training. Today, an adult Syrian refugee who came to Germany in 2015 speaks better German than many guest workers who have lived in Germany for more than 50 years. In the 1960s and 1970s I would have given German integration policy a score of 2 on a scale from 1 to 10. Today I would give a German integration policy a score of 7.
But today integration policy is seen as the most important issue in domestic policy. For an area of policy which has become the most important, a score of 7 out of 10 is apparently no longer enough.
I believe we completely have the wrong idea about what integration is supposed to lead to. When integration or inclusion or equal opportunity are successfully implemented, they do not lead to a society which is more harmonious or free from conflict. On the contrary: the central effect of successful integration is actually a higher potential for conflict.
I describe the general integration process like this: First-generation migrants usually sit on the floor while the established citizens sit at the table. At this stage the migrants are happy just to be there. The second generation sit at the table and want a piece of the pie. The third generation, the grandchildren of the migrants, want also to have a say in what is ordered. And since a liberal and open-immigration country has a new first generation every year, as well as a new second generation every year, as well as a new third generation every year, the situation continues to grow in complexity.
When I went to school in the 1980s and 1990s, I saw many headscarf-clad women entering and leaving my school every day, but nobody cared. They were not German citizens, spoke hardly any German. It was seen as okay because these were just cleaning ladies. It wasn’t okay any more when the headscarf-clad women started becoming teachers, educating German children.
I don’t want to start a discussion about teachers wearing headscarves. What’s relevant to me in this context is that this conflict arose only because the integration process had been successful. Integration changes a society. Unsuccessful integration leads to deviance, social problems, crime. But successful integration leads to fundamental change and to conflict.
People often assume that racism decreases when integration is successful. This expectation is an illusion. If more people are sitting at the table, is racism automatically supposed to decrease? It’s not possible.
Conflicts are very, very important. Conflicts are energy – energy for development, for improvement, for progress. Conflicts which are managed in a constructive way can bring about wonderful things; destructive ways of dealing with conflict can lead to disaster.
3. From David Goodhart, “Liberals are set on a collision course with democracy,” Prospect, April 20183
Ivan Rogers has written: “If you evacuate many domains of public policy of any real element of choice at the citizen level … then the only way to voice opposition becomes to voice opposition to the whole system and to argue that it needs to be demolished rather than changed from within.”
So illiberal populism is the product of elite-led undemocratic liberalism or what I have called (in my book The Road to Somewhere) liberal Anywhere overreach. Anywheres – the large minority of educated, mobile professionals with confident identities based on educational and career success – have ruled in their own interest and called it the national interest.
And this is not just about the shift to an open, high-immigration, knowledge economy, which tends to benefit the better educated 25 per cent of Anywheres and often disadvantages the more rooted, less well educated, 50 per cent of Somewheres.
Almost the entire policy spectrum is dominated by Anywhere assumptions, at least in the UK: the huge expansion of higher education and relative neglect of technical and vocational education; the way in which cognitive ability has become the gold standard of human esteem; the way in which many forms of group attachment (national, local, ethnic) have been diminished; the declining importance of the private realm of the family and the downplaying of gender roles that many still value.
4. From The Current, CBC Radio, September 19, 20184
Sophia Gaston: Linked to this but also separate is this feeling that governments have somehow neutralized what we mean by liberalism to the point where it’s become an entirely accommodating force, so it’s seen to be bending to the force of other cultures, not asserting or affirming the values and traditions of the nation-state. So these concerns about immigration and the rise of populism have necessarily come hand in hand because immigration has become really an issue of democracy. People feel that governments have not been listening to them, not been true to their promises. So citizens who are highly concerned about immigration are much more likely to be susceptible to anti-establishment messages.
Elif Shafak: I think it’s okay to have fear. But my point is, it is not okay when countries are guided by fear. Because when we are guided by fear, we have made the worst mistakes, and human history is full of these mistakes. But it has been also a big mistake on the part of the liberal intelligentsia, intellectuals, to look down on people’s emotions. If I belittle other people’s emotions, including their fear, what I will be doing is to push them toward the lap of the far right, because that is one public space in which their emotions are not belittled.
Yascha Mounk: We see immigration and security coming top of opinion polls of problems in Europe, time after time after time.
Sophia Gaston: When I do focus groups in Saxony and around Dresden, where Pegida and AdF have their real hotspots, people talk about immigration, absolutely, but they talk about suppression of freedom of speech even more. And they say, “Everyone’s just trying to silence us by calling us Nazis.”
Cruising down the Canal du Midi
A few years ago, four of us cruised down the wondrous Canal du Midi in France. Our rented barge was about four metres wide and the canal maybe ten metres wide, but quite often you’d come to a bridge over the canal and the tunnel through the bridge was at most a metre wider than the boat. Steering was more complicated than at first apparent; it took time for the boat to respond to adjustments in the rudder, and you wanted to keep the adjustments small, because large adjustments would result in large changes in direction which would require more large adjustments and then many smaller adjustments – all accompanied by much chaos and laughter. The lesson was: get insurance, stay alert for tunnels (and narrows and oncoming boats), and start making small adjustments while you’re still far away.
That is my depressing metaphor for our current situation. With respect to major social issues like climate change or the rise of the populist right, we needed to start making small adjustments decades ago. And getting back on course will take decades, and there will be much chaos, though likely little laughter.