Alastair Somerville

Dec 2, 2016

3 min read

Being really great

Both the UK and USA have had votes this year that have been surprising to about 1/2 the population and a matter of jubilation to the other half. Both events have led to some confusion as themes of hate and racism have been strong on the winning side but the losing side can’t believe that so many of their friends and family members can be that hate filled or that racist.

Identity is not a single belief

The self-identity of any individual (particularly in Western nations) is generally presumed to be a single thing that is internally consistent and valid over time.

However, we know we are made up of mixture of beliefs, memories and momentary experiences. Yet for social comfort, we each maintain the lie of a single consistent Me and extend that mutual lie to friends and family.

This social lie makes it very hard to coherently discuss events like the Brexit or Trump votes. We force ourselves to be singular and perfectly consistent and project that lie onto others. We are right, they are wrong.

Identity politics

Your colleagues, friends and family members are almost certainly not total racists or hate mongers. They may strongly believe in certain issues that have been arrayed or stacked alongside racist or hate speech.

In discussing how much people pine for the Old Days when jobs were well paid, industry was in this country and people knew their place, there are inherent issues about how some countries and people were excluded. However, that doesn’t mean people believe strongly that empire must be restored or civil liberties must be removed. The strong memories of a better, happier world aligned with beliefs in family life, Christian values, tightly held social norms do not mean strong alignment with other sordid things.

Identity politics has enabled many people to find their sense of self and community but it does reinforce the bias to believing that everyone must also have strongly held, consistent self-identity.

They don’t.

Things not to do

So they’re not terrible people but they are sort of helping terrible people do awful things. What can you do?

You cannot directly tell them.

The weak belief in racist hate is one column that supports their sense of self identity. It works alongside other columns of beliefs (in family, religion, science, politics, business, etc.) to maintain the structure.

You cannot pull one column out without bring the whole thing down. People fear that loss of self-identity and any attempt to break one column is fought back against. Thus an avowedly Christian person can end up defending the behaviour of a misogynist atheist.

It makes no sense. Yet it makes sense because defending personal self-identity in the moment is more important than long term consistency.

Things to do

Direct discussion cannot work without doing other things first.

Think of how builders repair structures. They scaffold and strengthen other parts before they begin work on the damaged area.

You need to boost the other beliefs of a person. Talk and understand what matters to them, what they love and identify with. Validate those strong parts of their self-identity before you try to invalidate the weak parts.

This is not a short chat. This is talking and being with a person when they do the things they love that you share.

Over time, the weak column of horrible beliefs can be removed.

Perhaps it’ll fall because the person spends more time with you and people you love who are different.

Perhaps you’ll finally be able to have a chat about the elections and find out that your friend or family member did vote that way not because they hate but because they fear.

The diversity of self

In the long term, we all need to get used to the idea of the diversities of self within us.

Don’t believe you are totally consistent as an individual and don’t project that belief on others.

Keep engaged, keep talking, keep doing.

You are great and so are your friends and family.

You can be greater together.

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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