The title really should be “Everyone’s a Little Bit In-groupy…” but it doesn’t flow so well…
For various evolutionary reasons, we are very distrustful of people in the outgroup. There would have been benefits for troops of primates who would be more genetically different to other troops and would have good reason, in a biological sense, to distrust and fight against the outgroup.
Humans, on the other hand, are in a position where we no longer feel we need to consider evolution when behaving. The problem is, those biological influences are still evident within our DNA as well as being culturally embedded. I would argue that racism is a form of outgroup discrimination that has its basis in evolutionary history. This means it is largely intuitive and emotional in its foundation. In order to not be racist, we have to employ rational thought to convince ourselves out of our emotional scenario.
As Jonathan Haidt would say, the emotional dog wags the rational tail.
When I look back on my political past, I can see a transformation over the years. I used to be fairly conservative but I think this was a result of my parenting in terms of genes and environment. As I have mentioned before, I was lucky enough to be sent away to boarding school at the age of seven. Irrespective of any other pros and cons to this education, one thing that I think happened was that I was freer to make up my own mind in a way distinct from children who live with their parents until they are eighteen or so. I had a plethora of experiences and beliefs and ideas thrown at me and I feel, in retrospect, that I was able to diverge from what my parents believed and believe. Looking at my political stance now, there is a great divergence!
I also think that I inherited my mother’s slightly more liberal outlook on life rather than my father’s much more conservative approach. He was in the Royal Navy and, in order to follow that career path, one has to have conservative and nationalist tendencies. Although my mother was also in the Royal Navy for the beginning of her working life, she came out and I think she has greater liberal tendencies, naturally speaking (and/or from her own upbringing?). She was responsible for all the childcare for the children when they were at home, and was not part of hierarchical, conservative structures for all those decades. She certainly doesn’t think what my dad does now. He has lurched to the right and reads almost exclusively the Daily Express and Daily Mail and rants to me about Brexit.
So genes and environment, unsurprisingly, played a part in my parents’ political development and likewise in mine to produce a spectrum of beliefs. My father has lurched to the right, my mother probably has, recently, inched a little towards the centre, and I have progressively moved to the left.
What I have done that I know my parents haven’t done is to properly analyse my own beliefs and the reasoning for them, most notably the motivations for the reasons and beliefs that I have held and hold.
Whilst many people at school were a good deal more conservative than me in a classic all-boys boarding school sort of way, I was always on the liberal side of things. This wasn’t an environmental thing but something that was far more innate, I believe. My sense of fairness, as Jonathan Haidt might point out about liberals, really drove me to believe the things I did at the time. We had some Malaysian students at school who observed Ramadan and had their food stored in the fridges in the Houses until after sunset. Many of the boys succumbed to classic ingroup vs outgroup behaviour and took it upon themselves to Sabotage their food. I took a stance and defended them vehemently at a great cost to my own social standing. I was a “Paki Lover”.
This is but one small example of the common sort of moral positioning that took place. There were some like me, and some in the middle and many to the right.
But I was still conservative in a way that I couldn’t help being as a result of who I was and where I had been. My first election was the 1997 landslide victory to Labour. I remember walking around my university accommodation and seeing these tables of students outside on a summer’s evening celebrating the change of government. It was euphoric and hysterical. I also remember thinking that hardly any of those students would have read the manifestos of the three main parties. I voted Liberal Democrat. At the time, I was becoming quite environmentalist and wanted to vote Green but was unable to since there was no candidate. I didn’t really actually understand the political spectrum myself, and wouldn’t have understood how far to the left the Greens invariably were.
What was also interesting, and pertinent for this article, was that I was very much anti-immigration. I reasoned this with a deep green approach to my political thought such that mass movements of people would generally not be environmentally friendly. But I wonder now whether this belief was not just a big example of post hoc rationalisation.
I remember arguing some years later, with a very close friend from school who was and is, for most intents and purposes, as liberal as me and who has always been really measured in his thinking, about immigration. I was quite frustrated at the time because I came to realise that my position wasn’t really very rational. It was quite intuitive and I was only really putting forward green arguments for my position because every other argument that came to mind seemed a little bit dirty to me. It was as if I was subconsciously realising how ingroup/outgroup my line of thought was.
This was the beginning of the final unpicking of the threads of whatever conservatism I still maintained. Shortly after that, I started my philosophical journey. With my philosophical analysis and learning, I had to radically reassess my opinions on immigration from a rational point of view.
These days, I maintain a slightly more nuanced view on immigration and wonder if it isn’t just implicit egotism at play. I realise how arbitrary and unfair immigration laws and national boundaries are from a neutral point of view (think Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance), but if I were to stop any immigration into my country, it would be to stop religious fundamentalist types of people. Of course, one can find arguments for and against this. Immigration debates often, at their core, come down to protecting one’s own back yard and resources from others in a selfish sort of way (selfish in its various meanings, including self-serving without such negative connotations).
A few years back, I wrote this on immigration (and a second part). Now, I don’t want to get into a debate about immigration here. But I do want to make the point that, in order to overcome intuitive beliefs about things that involve ingroup and outgroup psychology, one has to do an awful lot of soul searching and rational self-criticism.
The Brexit Party are literally copying formats and methodology from the Trump campaign and rallies. From slogans to chant to “boos” to all sorts, Trump is being replicated UK-style and it’s not pretty.
Take this in conjunction with all sorts of other facts and figures… In general, Leave voters are white, older and less educated – another connection to Trump’s base. A new survey indicates most people who voted to leave the EU believe those with parents born in the UK are ‘truly British’. As one Tweeter stated: “So Lenny Henry isn’t truly British; Andrew Adonis isn’t; David Baddiel isn’t; I’m not; Geri Halliwell isn’t; PRINCE PHILIP isn’t.” The same survey found that nearly 80 percent of Leavers thought English as a first language was important to British identity. That is not to say they can’t speak English perfectly, just that it’s their second language.
This points to classic nationalistic thought in terms of the luck of birth and inheriting a nebulous idea of identity on account of your birthplace, perhaps alone. Of course, there are some fascinating and worthy discussions of exactly what it means to be “British” – is it about abstract and arguable characteristics, or about more concrete facts like birthplace and nationality of parents?
And yet these voters don’t appear to be the sort of people who would concern themselves with sitting down and investigating such ideas and how they pertain to their political choices. It’s not a case of making sophisticated arguments about migration, but seems a real case of us and them. Arguing for Remain, I posit, is a complex and nuanced affair. It takes a lot of thought and understanding to firstly get to grips with what the EU actually is before then setting out the complex arguments to defend our continued place in it. Arguing for Leave is easy. Just evoke Braveheart and national identity: play to those base emotional and intuitive beliefs that are about and solidify the ingroup.
Look at this video of Owen Jones from The Guardian at a Brexit Party rally and tell me it is not more about ingroup/outgroup psychology than substantial political thought:
There are people here who claim to be fighting for democracy whilst arguing to silence the other side to their political coin, in this case, The Guardian. This sort of video really depresses me and reminds me again so much of Trump and his rhetoric.
I never thought I would say this, but I am depressed that the Conservatives now seem destined for destruction:
In total, the Brexit Party would collect 24 per cent of the ballot, with the Conservatives trailing on just 22 per cent, it was found. Labour would win with 27 per cent of the electorate backing them.
Modern politics seems to have devolved to a case of us and them. Perhaps it was ever thus, but it certainly seems to have changed dramatically over the last two decades, and particularly do over the last five years. Why is another question…