In November 2021, the news hit Hastings that a group of refugees had drowned trying to cross the channel. It hit us hard, because being a southern coastal town, the victims of failed attempts tend to wash up on our shore. This has never been a problem we are able to ignore. Local reactions are varied as they are everywhere but on this occasion, as the news came out that those people had had a mobile, and had called both French and English authorities for help and been denied by both, anger rose.
Quite where that anger was directed depended on people’s knowledge and political position. Some feel that looking after refugees is our responsibility because our society, our government are as much to blame as any for the number of displaced people currently crossing Europe looking for safe haven. Some feel that the UK have done all they can, that money and housing are short, so we can’t help any more. Others feel that we have room, and we have housing, but we have a government that won’t allocate resources to match needs. Many more, regardless of their political stance, are unbearably distressed by the arrival of cold, wet, terrified people on our beaches, and want to help whatever the cost and whoever pays it.
I was particularly struck by one man’s comment that managed to cut down the middle of all those views. He said something along the lines of “if I was in their position I’d do the same, but how are we going to cope with them?”
That’s a discussable position, and a good starting point. But why is a middle-of-the-road, negotiable view of current events – any events – so rare? Why are we so ready to withdraw into opposing camps and shout about things, rather than trying to solve problems?
Party politics? Social media encouraging anonymous, irresponsible scatter-gun commenting? Shortage of money, housing and work making people defensive? I’d say yes, all those things but what we need are answers, and I suspect cross-cutting is one of them.
Did you, like me, immediately think ‘oh yes, that’s the difficult way of cutting wood’ – but I’ve just seen the term in an entirely different context. I have just started reading The WEIRDEST book…
If you’re not into seriously long psychology books, don’t worry – there’s a single-paragraph abstract of the book here.
In (very) brief, Henrich and his colleagues had a startling moment when they realised that almost all the psychology studies they were relying on for information about humans had used US university students as subjects for study, and they had precious little to go on as to whether there were other kinds of humans in other places who thought in different ways.
There follow 500-odd pages of ‘us and them’ discussions about different societies, about how our own society developed and why, and what the alternatives might be. One of those discussions hinges on a study of a people in New Guinea called the Ilahita, a society that, although broadly tribal, seemed unusually good at growing and assimilating in-comers without strife. The key point, the study found, was how the communities developed interdependence. Not the kind of interdependence that is vital for survival – our modern society has no shortage of that – witness the panic whenever supermarkets run out of anything, or the power goes off – we’re really useless at shifting for ourselves as individuals, however many cans of beans we have in the cellar. No, this is about social interdependence.
Ilahita communities were crosscut, in that every village was sub-divided into extended-family clans, but also into ritual-organising groups that cut across clan groups, and groups who worked together for other purposes that cut across *those*. It meant that people were used to being ‘the same’ as another person on one issue, but ‘different’ on another. As a result, they had no problems with the idea of adopting non-blood relatives, or integrating new people into a community when they needed to.
The idea struck a chord, and I remembered reading Always Coming Home – It’s an epic by Ursula le Guin, whose speciality was writing ‘what if’ books about different ways of living. In this particular book, she builds a detailed crosscut world, where people’s ‘kin’ allegiances were crosscut by membership of community ‘houses’ – and other group allegiances both distinguished and interwove them socially and emotionally.
Like many of us, I got deeply involved in politics during the last decade, feeling that the time had come to agitate for change. I joined first the Green Party and then, when Jeremy Corbyn offered a new way of going on, the Labour Party. The switch from one party to the other felt odd to me. I was aware of changed perspectives, and also of a change in who was rude to me, and who gave me house-room. I made a point of still trying to talk to, and work with, Green Party people, and was enthusiastic about the ‘Progressive Alliance’ for a while.
And then the ground moved. I was also involved with the women’s sex-based rights campaign, and was shocked to find that sizable elements in both the Green Party and the Labour Party had decided this was not acceptable and worse, they had decided being rude and destructive towards gender-critical women’s groups didn’t count as bad behaviour, because we were ‘the enemy’.
I stuck around in the Labour Party and then some other lefty groups for while, and tried to build bridges, talking to trade union people, to shadow cabinet MPs and other party members about how they had been blinded by the demonisation of the women’s groups, and talking to women about how our views of the politicians involved were becoming skewed and polarised. I thought about how (former?) comrades were completely unaware of how insulting and dismissive they were of my views on this issue, or how infuriating that was for me and, as a result, tried to think more about the affect my words had on others.
In February 2020, Woman’s Place UK ran a Women’s Liberation conference at UCL in London, to which over a thousand women came. I collaborated with a woman from the Green Party to present a workshop there about how to work on women’s issues within political parties. The women who came to that workshop, and worked together for the afternoon, included Conservatives, Lib Dem, Labour, Green Party and Communist Party members. They worked well together because we were all feminists and, as women, facing a lot of common issues.
The nature of that group was in itself liberating and I tried to bring that mood back to my other political groups. The trouble is, political parties are more or less the opposite of that Ilahita culture. It became too much of a strain for me in my local Labour Party, and I left and soon afterwards, I left the other lefty groups I was in, feeling suddenly aware of just how worn down I was by tribal disagreements and blindnesses – I still can’t decide whether that was sensible self-protection or a failure of nerve.
I still try to maintain the diversity of stance in the women’s groups I work with. When I find a woman backing away, thinking a group is too far this way or that way, I sympathise. There are always going to be people at the extreme ends of every opinion within a group, and it’s hard work being one of those people – but I don’t want them to leave, because it narrows the scope of the group and someone else finds themselves being ‘the extreme’.
I don’t think that would happen in a properly crosscut society.
There are so many current issues and behaviours that encourage polarisation. Brexit, responses to COVID (here’s an interesting take on that – I don’t agree with everything said in this article but there’s plenty worth thinking about ), the sex-based rights campaign and, of course, how we deal with refugees and other in-comers. But is it actually the issues that are divisive, or the way we approach difference? It’s well known, for example, that the damage wreaked by racism is much *lower* in areas with well-mixed communities, where people maintain allegiances to ‘their own kind’ but also manage to function in different aspects of the wider community.
I hope and trust that Hastings will resolve its differences over refugees because there are huge overlaps between the fishing community, the RNLI, the refugee support groups and the coastal-dwellers generally. At the moment, a minor altercation on the beach has become national news, and the national media are world champions at driving a wedge into a small dispute to make a big story – but I see that members of all those crosscut local groups are investigating, and trying to heal the division. Good for them.
Let’s mix it up some more, and get on with what needs doing. I place hope in the politicians I see around social media currently looking to be (or forced into being) independent MPs and councillors. That could be a disaster, a fracturing of power – but it could also be the beginning of people mixing it up more, and having complimentary allegiances that *work*.
If you’ve read this far, please join me in resolving to crosscut our lives more. Look at your communities, your allegiances, and your attitude to ‘others’. How can you broaden it, and learn some new angles? Also (I guiltily say to myself) look at who you think it’s okay to be rude to, and who you assume you have nothing to learn from, then look again, a different way. This is the call to adventure.