Sunday, 6 June 2010

An Algebra of Xenophobia

I start from the paradoxical axiom, that:

    "There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who believe there's only one kind of people in the world".
The proposition is then that I belong to both kinds.
OK, it's a variation on a very old logician's joke, but playing with it for a while can illuminate a few political truths. People of the second kind might be humanists who believe that we are all of the same species and all have the same rights, regardless of skin colour, religion, culture and so on. The people who wrote the UN Charter of Human Rights were believers of  this sort (but so also were the Jacobins). However people of the second kind might equally be religious or secular pessimists who believe that all humans without exception are greedy, violent, egotistical, thoroughly bad lots: they long for the end of the world or the extinction of our species like a few Deep Greens or extreme Protestant sects.

In short, people of the second kind are either nice people or nasty people, who both have a fixed view of human nature, that everyone is basically like themselves. In political terms both positions could be characterised as "adolescent", and both lead inevitably toward forcing everyone to fit your view of human nature: nice people want everyone to be nice, and legislate appropriately; nasty people know everyone is nasty and punish severely.    

So what about people of the first kind, who believe there are two kinds of people in the world? Do they think these kinds  are "us" and "them". No, that's too simple and would require far more than two kinds. People of this first kind know very well that not everyone is like themselves. If they're nice people they know that, unlike themselves, many people hate others on grounds of skin colour, religion, nationality, sexuality, political views, wealth and so on.  They may pursue explanations of why people become this way, in terms of psychology, emotional development, fear, insecurity, bad upbringing and so on. But that's far too many "thems" to fit my axiom. If on the other hand they're nasty people, they know that the world also contains nice people (whom they believe to be deluded).

Both these positions, the first of which might be called "liberal" and the second "conservative", have "fallen" in the original Christian sense of that word: they've been ejected from any utopias that would require everyone to be like themselves and they accept the fact of difference. However they still legislate and punish more or less like the second kind, in the interest of maintaining balance and order.

No, my first kind actually refers people who are prepared to live at peace with the fact that not everyone is like themselves, versus people who experience that as a problem to be solved. The former position means living with many things you abhor and knowing there are many things about which you can do nothing. This position might be called "realist", "pluralist", or "grown up". A sad fact about the way the world has turned out is that this position doesn't really offer much help in formulating legislation, or choosing whom to punish.

And so from algebra to the real world: given Ed Ball's admission yesterday that New Labour "got it wrong over immigration", has the Labour Party moved from "adolescent" to "fallen", or from "fallen" to "grown up"? How could we tell? Will it last? Is it cause for celebration or for mourning? I'm afraid I can't help you with that one...

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