Reports of rising levels of prejudice may just reflect over-diagnosis
Here’s a quick thought experiment. What if I told you that enjoying rich tea biscuits is a characteristic of Satanists? Now, some of you don’t like rich teas – you’re digestive people, you’re fine. But some of you prefer a rich tea. Now imagine that it wasn’t just me spouting off weird theories about how biscuit preference is a key indicator of worshiping the dark Lord and sacrificing virgins – what if everyone was saying it?
The Leader of the Opposition gave landmark speeches in which he talked regularly about how, whilst he understood that some people quite innocently enjoy a rich tea with their elevenses, we have to guard against all those rich tea Satanists out there? Newspapers published thundering editorials talking about how – when you look at it – all decent folk know that digestives are the biccy of mainstream, normal, non-Satanist people like us and that politicians mustn’t bow to the rich tea lobby? What if – at coffee mornings – you knew deep down that whilst you only enjoy rich teas and not all that black mass business, it was best to avoid letting anyone know lest they think you a servant of evil? Do you think you might, after a while, get a little bit worried that maybe you – an innocent rich tea enthusiast – might be a Satanist after all? Or at the very least that, buried somewhere deep in your subconscious (and despite the fact that you’d always, previously, been pretty certain of not being a Satanist) that you might have a tiny, weeny instinct towards the occult?
I only ask because it seems to me that today’s story about apparent “rising racial prejudice” in British society may not be what it has been painted to be. To recap, the Guardian is splashing on a finding from the British Social Attitudes survey which purports to demonstrate that self-confessed racism has risen – from around 25 per cent of us in 2001 to around 30 per cent today. Now I’ll leave aside some of the academic critiques of this conclusion, because I am not the best qualified person to have a go at the figures – for that I urge you all to await a detailed rebuttal from University of Manchester scholar and author Robert Ford. But taking the figures at face-value, I can’t help wondering whether the commentariat have got the notion of cause and effect a little back-to-front.
Lots of commentators are talking about how the rise of Ukip is fuelled by rising racism in British society. The story goes like this – racists don’t like immigration, neither do Ukip, Ukip are doing better than ever and so that’s both because the UK is more racist and because they are, in turn, fuelling racism. Fine. That’s one explanation. Here’s another. We keep calling people who object to, and are concerned about, immigration on the basis of economic and soft-cultural factors “racist”. These people are then alienated from mainstream politics because, try as they might, they can’t shake the sense that something is wrong with our open-door policies on migration.
They also – like our rich tea eaters – start to worry that if concern about immigration equals racism they must be a little bit racist. Now, they don’t feel racist. They don’t hate black people. They have black friends – although they also know that mentioning that as a defence will invite ridicule and worse – and they don’t want to be racist. But everyone keeps telling them that the only explanation for their concern about immigration is prejudice and so, little by little, they start to concede that yes – after all – they must be a little bit racist deep down. Then some nice researcher from the British Social Attitudes Survey knocks on the door and asks. And being a decent, honest enough kind of person they say “well yes, I suppose I must be a little bit racially prejudiced. Everyone says so.”
Does that make our survey participant an actual racist? I’ll leave that for you to decide. Does it make Britain more racist? Again, that’s very subjective. But the point is, so is this survey and so are the conclusions. Of course it might be that a third of us really are prejudiced against people who are of a different ethnicity. But it might also be – and, I’d argue, this fits better with the experience of modern Britain that most of us have enjoyed – that when you keep telling people that x=y, and they are pretty certain that they themselves are x, they’ll eventually and reluctantly conclude that they must in fact be y after all.
And this is the danger. Every time we call ordinary people, concerned about immigration, racists we break the very real taboo that exists in our society against actual racism. Over time we break people down and we convince them that their perfectly rational fears are in fact rooted in prejudice. And then we have lost them to the rather beautiful mainstream consensus against racial hate which has come to help define this country’s sense of itself. If anyone is to blame for these startling and worrying findings it isn’t Ukip. It’s the hysterical pro-immigration lobby who have refused to let up in their cat calls of ‘racist’ whenever anyone opens their mouth on immigration.