How to address polarisation in communities

John Page is a British community organizer. He shared his experience with the Hope Not Hate campaign in the 2015 election, the organisation More in Common and ways of addressing polarisation in communities.

Could you tell us about the “HOPE not hate” campaign around the 2015 election?

In January 2015, I began to work full time for “HOPE not hate” in the run-up to the British 2015 general elections. A big concern was the rise of UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), an authoritarian populist party which stokes and encourages racism and divisions within communities. UKIP was saying to the voters, “Nobody ever listens to you, the problem is immigration and we’re the party who’s going to stop immigration, vote for us.”

In South Thanet, where the UKIP leader had a 10-point lead in the poll, we decided to talk about everything else apart from immigration. The key was to talk about the National Health Service because most people who were concerned about immigration were also shocked that UKIP wanted to dismantle the NHS, sell it off and privatize it. In South Thanet, there are also incredibly poor areas where the UKIP was surging. There, we distributed leaflets with a fat cat representing the rich in the UK, saying, “UKIP tax policy is great for me”. It was a simple message saying that UKIP wanted to cut taxes for the rich and do absolutely nothing for the poor. That knocked their votes on the head in those areas.

But the one thing we had decided was that we wouldn’t campaign against UKIP on the basis that it’s a racist party because there are many people saying “I’m not racist but I think there are too many immigrants”. The moment you try to say, “Don’t vote for UKIP, they’re a racist party”, the voters would feel that we call everyone we disagree with a racist. It would not have any impact and it might in fact entrench them because they would feel sorry for UKIP being called names.

How do you respond to statements that begin “I’m not racist but…”?

I used to assume that when someone says that, they are actually racist. But I saw it become more nuanced. If somebody says “I’m not racist but I feel concerned about these issues”, it doesn’t make sense to respond with, “But you are actually racist”. We have to engage with these people and ask what they are concerned about.

Unfortunately, in the UK, immigration has become a proxy for everything else. Whatever the problem was – housing prices going up, wages going down or public services under pressure – the answer was “too many immigrants”. So when someone says “I’m not racist but”, they are looking for solutions to these problems: finding a place to live, getting a good job, etc. They skip the analysis and just absorb the widespread narrative – the problem is immigration.

So I always try to ask people why they think this is a problem and empathise. In many cases, I found out that we actually have similar shared values about active communities, people being rewarded for hard work, children being properly educated for jobs they are going to have in the future… And then we start to talk about what needs to be changed to accomplish these things.

Could you tell us a bit about the organisation More in common and what it is trying to do?

More in common has been looking at the causes quite systematically, not simply just reacting to the growing authoritarian populism in the UK. They are trying to look at this scientifically, look at the research, engage with academics and experts and identify strategies of change that we can test. Rather than just thinking “we’ll do this because it feels good”, they want to take a quite rigid approach, not do anything unless they have reason to believe it is going to make a difference. We need to measure the impact and then pile up interventions that actually work to change the situation.

But nobody’s really certain what works. So there has been a lot of work done around how it works both on the individual and collective level, about positive interventions and interactions. There is a set of theories about bringing people from divided communities together and if certain conditions are met, you’re more likely to have a positive outcome, e.g. people need to come into the room, there has to be some legitimacy to the process and so on.

What tools and approaches did you find most effective in initiating dialogue in polarised communities?

We’re not in a stage where we’d have a blueprint yet but there are some key indicators. “More in common” decided to not be just a community building organisation. You can quite often have two strong communities living geographically close to each other and simply building both communities to make them stronger might make them more separate. Central to the organisation is the idea of bridging – creating opportunities for people to come together, informally, if possible, and break down barriers between the communities.

A very good example was an Iftar organised by a synagogue. What you have are two communities which are unfortunately very divided in the UK, also because of what’s happening in the Middle East, and which have some degree of suspicion about each other. However, the rabbi agreed that the Jewish community would organize a celebration for Iftar and the Muslim community would come. This event where people came together informally over food created an opportunity for massive bridging.

Another example is Bradford, which is a community that has a very high Asian population. To some degree, it’s quite a divided community. When they had the annual Remembrance Day service, it was overwhelmingly white and aged. These older people were very proud of their service they had given to the country and they felt put out at the thought that young Asian kids didn’t have any respect for what other people had been through. That was the narrative that was growing. A response to this was a project which involved going around schools and talking to largely Muslim children. Because of historical reasons, many of their grandparents had fought on the side of the British in WWI. This project explored what their family links were to WWI and then worked with the kids to organise an anti-racist wrap-up meeting around this shared history. It was a great opportunity for the kids to come together and discover their shared history, shared values, and so on.

Interventions like that can undercut the level of fear that people have of the “other”. It’s the fear that is exploited by authoritarian populists. They are parasitical of the fact that in many communities, people do feel quite isolated, apprehensive about the future and that they don’t know their neighbours. Tackling these issues through realizing that we actually have more in common and we should be working together cuts away the ground from authoritarian populists.

What is the first step we should take when we want to start working with polarised communities?

You should firstly buy the local newspaper and read the “Letters” page – find out what people there are making a noise about. Identify nominal leaders within the communities (e.g. elected politicians, trade unions or faith leaders) and go speak to them. Most importantly, ask them who else you should be speaking to in this community. There is a difference between people being in a position of leadership (like a vicar or a minister) and being someone who people in the community listen to. Sometimes it can be the same person but sometimes the dominant opinion-former doesn’t have a nominal leadership position, they just happen to be leaders. You should speak to those people.

Then try to find those concerns that are felt deeply across different communities in a way that might surprise people. Some might feel that a particular issue affects only their community. If they discover that people living in an adjacent community, who they do not feel much affinity with, feel exactly the same about a certain issue – then you have an objective basis to bring people together. Send a message: “The reason we’re here is that we all live in this area, we all care about this issue and maybe if we work together, we can find some solutions.”

Could you tell us a bit about “inclusive community narrative” and what it means?

One of the things happening in the UK as well as across other countries is that exclusive narratives are gaining an ascendancy. They prey on people’s fears and the idea of “the other”. People create a unified narrative by pushing everybody into a single space – e.g. “We all like the same music, eat the same food, etc.” That’s not particularly helpful. What’s far better is a broader sense of “us” which is inclusive of difference. In a community, you might celebrate Christmas but also Ramadan, etc.

Where I live, there is a very orthodox Jewish community and an Arabic community who are normally straight-laced. In this community, we celebrate Purim, a Jewish holiday. It’s such a colourful event. The children dress up, there’s music in the streets with loads of people and in the evening, you find that the Arabic men who are normally very well-behaved are a little bit drunk, a bit rowdy and in good spirits. That’s a part of my experience from my community, even though I’m not Jewish. That sense of inclusivity, my sense of “us”, includes the Arabic community and elements of the Muslim community.

Which of the approaches could be potentialy applied to the Central European context?

I’m not in a good position to judge that. What I can do is share some of our experience in the UK, but not in the belief that we can take all those ideas and apply them here. It’s about introducing ideas or things that work out for us and that we maybe do differently and allowing people to explore them. And in some communities, they might not work, but for some, if you do the same thing slightly differently, it could really work.

I’ve learned that some of the challenges we face are very similar across different regions. There is this damaging process of “othering” going on. The idea that “You’re just not part of our community, we don’t have to care about you” is not just damaging to that section of the community but also to the community’s sense of self-worth. It’s an opportunity for the authoritarian populists to say, “Think of yourself and forget everybody else.” The moment that starts happening, everybody loses.

What are the biggest challenges in your work?

It’s authoritarian populism and that people are very concerned about their future – about living in poverty when they’re old, the future of their children, a future with prosperity. That’s a realistic fear. The world is changing rapidly and it’s not easy to see how we can navigate these changes in a successful way. That creates the opportunity for the authoritarian populists to say, “Blame immigration, blame the ethnic minority, blame everybody but don’t come together as a community to say how we can collectively navigate these changes in a way that benefits everyone.”

We can go in two directions – come together and try to find solutions or just blame someone. Very often the people who get blamed are the people with the least power in the circumstances. We don’t tend to blame millionaires but e.g. the homeless, people who are in some respect already lost in this process. So it is this challenge whether we come together or if we follow demagogues who simply point fingers but do nothing to change the objective factors.

What about social media? Do you think that they divide society more or that they can have a positive influence?

I think that’s a really important question. It’s a debate that is raging in the UK at the moment. The far-right fascist and populists have invested heavily in social media, fake news, etc. One view is that we need to shift all of our resources into combatting this and there is an online virtual war going on between positive and negative stories now.

My personal view is that at the same time, we need to rebuild the community sense of identity which has been undermined. If people are isolated, they are more likely to follow the “blame side” because they feel alone and do not feel solidarity with people around them. That kind of isolation makes you more susceptible to populists’ messages. You need to combine community organising with positive online messaging