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Nowt s'queer as folk

Friday 7 December 2018

When I was growing up in Yorkshire, the phrase above (Eng.trans: 'There is nothing so strange as people') was a commonplace, used as a coda to any tale of bizarre human behaviour. This bit of pithy wisdom came to mind recently when a visiting friend from Oxford was bringing us up to date with gossip about mutual friends and acquaintances. It seems that a woman I knew closely for many years (call her M) is the only one of that circle who voted for Brexit, and remains vociferously proud of it. When asked why, M starts ranting about "...invasion of immigrants ... swamping English society ... destroying English culture..." - to which a friend retorted "But M, what's your problem with this? You never even see an immigrant!" Which is true enough since M lives in a very comfortable middle class area of elegantly antique houses, and devotes her time to university lectures and choirs.

So what is M's problem? It is evidently not based on real, lived experience - so she has chosen to imagine, or adopt, a problem. But what urge makes you want to feel threatened? Now, the particular case of M is only significant because it illustrates a much wider social trend, not only in Britain in relation to Brexit, but also across Europe, and indeed world wide. Politicians everywhere can whip up support immediately by talking about the Immigration Threat (and then about how they can make it go away).

The issue of immigration does not seem to be much subject to the application of rational arguments and objective facts. In the case of Britain, there are authoritative academic studies of official government statistics which show that immigration provides real net benefits. It is not just that immigrants supply necessary workers in many areas, but also that immigrants clearly pay more in taxes than they withdraw in social benefits. And yet a recent TV report here in Spain showed a Brexit supporter bitterly claiming that Immigrants from the EU just come to the UK to live off unemployment benefits.

What is going on in the minds of some folk?

Setting aside possible individual psychological causes, I would note three widespread human tendencies: the Lightening Conductor Effect, the US/THEM Function, and the Cabezudo Response. It would seem that these ways of thinking are deep-seated in all of us, as reactions to threat. In times of generalised change, insecurity and instability, such as the present, they become much more active, and more dominant in our collective views of the world. To be precise then...

Lightening Conductor Effect - If folk perceive that things are going wrong, they feel uneasy. Especially if 'things are going wrong' in such a complex way, for so many different possible reasons, that the mind boggles. In such a charged atmosphere of indeterminate threat, it helps to direct the fear at a single clearly-identified point, so... ZAPP! the lightning falls on immigrants.

US/THEM Function - Folk find security in groups, because groups help to formulate who you are - "I'm the sort of person who supports that football team, or belongs to that tribe" ... so "I'm one of US". And one of the most effective ways to define 'US' is, of course, that we are not 'THEM'. Immigrants are, obviously and helpfully, very much THEM.

Cabezudo Response - The Spanish genius for creating fiestas and enjoying participating in them includes the use of all sorts of larger than life figures. One of these types are the Cabezudos: giant caricature heads that you place on your shoulders (as in the image at the top of the page). I suggest that this is the attraction of nationalist fervour - a clearly-defined identity, that you can easily put on, and which makes you much bigger than you really are. And much bigger than immigrants, of course.

As we say in Yorkshire, "there's nowt so queer as folk" !


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