As Channel 4’s ‘Great British School Swap’ played out on our screens over these past few weeks, I am reminded of the invisible borders that exist in our country – and how simple it should be to cross them with no political system or violent conflict to keep people apart, but it clearly isn’t as simple as it seems.
In Solutions Not Sides, we want to try to help British young people to embrace complexity and diversity and not feel threatened by it or that they have to turn to crude stereotypes and conspiracy theories in order to make sense of a social or political situation. So, why is it that our natural tendency is to gravitate towards people who are ‘more like us’ and to, in the worst cases, demonise those who are a bit different from ourselves or that we rarely actually live our lives with?
Part of the problem is that mankind is not environment-restricted like most mammals. Having conquered the whole of the earth’s territory we experience a unique, ‘world-openness’, and as a result, human existence could potentially be plunged into disorder and instability, making it imperative that we humans construct a stable environment for our conduct so that the intrinsic world-openness of our existence can be transformed into a relative and manageable world-closedness.
Thus, the social order of ‘in-groups and out-groups’ is created and carries with it the psychological gain that choices are narrowed, and life becomes less overwhelming. The metaphor of a goldfish works well here – if you throw that tiny creature into the ocean, it’s not going to survive. It needs its safe and comfortable pond or tank walls in which to swim about. We then naturally have little desire or apparent incentive to reach out into the oceans outside of our little ponds.
But in reality, we all have numerous identities rather than a singular, one-dimensional self, so we must be wary of allowing this propensity to seek simplistic social structures to result in closed-mindedness. As we are seeing in our current political and media climate, when a particular aspect of a person’s or community’s identity is perceived to be threatened, that part begins to become a more dominant aspect of the sense of self, arousing the powerful negative emotions of anger and fear and deepening divisions.
Our democratic political system also permeates the relationship of identity to difference, creating a perception of ‘the other’, and this is partly due to the fact that democracy is a medium through which difference can (and arguably must) be expressed, but also where dogmatisation of identity can then become permissible. Difference of identity is converted into ‘otherness’ to secure its own self-certainty.
I was a white, British girl from Leamington Spa who had little experience of social diversity growing up. However, my experience of living in other countries and cultures and of working among the wonderfully diverse communities of the UK is that at rock bottom, we are all human beings. It may sound cliché, but it is too easy to forget that we all share the same basic needs (pretty well summed-up by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), and as the late Jo Cox MP put it: “we have more in common than that which divides us.”
Once fortunate enough to have experienced living life in the ‘ocean’ and being equipped with the critical-thinking skills to navigate complexity that education provides, the goldfish can become the dolphin - actively seeking out the ride on the big waves just for the joy of it. Diversity of culture, language, opinion, belief, gender, orientation, clothing, cuisine etc. can all be celebrated and expressed safely and without threat to anyone upon a foundation that, above all, recognises our right to those individual identities and preferences equally, whilst also exhorting us all to extend the grace of acceptance and understanding to those who are not exactly like us, but in the end are in so many ways the same. I wouldn’t go back to my little pond for anything – I hope the young people in the ‘School Swap’ experiment feel the same.