Contact.

The end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 have provided enough news-worthy material to fill out the introductory credits of cheap dystopian sci-fi films for the next ten years at least. Footage of rampant police shootings in America bookended 2014, leading swiftly in to Australian hostage takings under the guise of IS, shootings on the streets of Paris (not to mention the under reported attacks on French mosques following the initial outburst of violence) and on home turf we are faced with the rise of soft fascism in the form of a leering middle-aged man from Kent and his fellow (similarly middle-aged, similarly leering) UKIP-ers. Arguably, bubbling under the surface of each and every one of these issues is the creeping tendril of inter-group hostility; an issue which I don’t claim to have the answers to in any way (intergroup dynamics have been a steady feature of human existence for thousands of years, and debatably serve important evolutionary purpose) – but one that is interesting yet to explore.

If we touch briefly upon the examples mentioned above, it’s easy to see why intergroup conflict certainly plays a large role in the genesis of each issue. Historically, America is founded upon hostile relations between a White majority and Black servitude – an issue which, despite having been tackled initially by the abolishment of slavery, and in the 20th Century by the Civil Rights Movement – still has massive ground to cover. It’s immediately obvious in the news reporting of contemporary issues; whilst media outlets press the violent riot aspect of the response of the Black communities whose members have been killed in cold blood by police officers, White teenagers who commit actual felonies are playfully compared to Bonnie and Clyde. Is it any surprise, given this status inequality, that people who have been historically oppressed want to have their voices heard?

The three other news stories I briefly alluded to above – the Australian hostage taking, Charlie Hebdo shootings and rise of UKIP in the UK, all rely on one crucial conflict, which news organisations would be keen to boil down to “Western World vs. Islamic State”. Obviously, the minority members of the organisation which refers to itself as the IS are not representative of the broader Muslim community, but that disassociation is hard for many people to grasp; particularly when the emphasis always falls upon the religious leanings of those involved. Similarly to the US race relation issue, this particular intergroup conflict can be dated – in this case, most recently to the second Gulf War and invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. With broad societal groups come norms, cultural practices, and in the most abstract sense, a “homeland”. With the 2003 invasion of these nations by the US and UK, differences in cultural practices and normative behaviours were only emphasised by the Western media in attempts to justify the invasion. By turning the spotlight on practitioners of Sharia Law, reporters acted to demonise an entire sub-continent – and perhaps in a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy – the most hardline believers in these particular aspects of Islam have, obviously, attempted to defend their beliefs. This brief paragraph cannot begin to do justice to the complexities of the interweaving issues here – but I hope serve to make the point that, again, status disparity and in-group biased news reporting can both only act to aggravate both sides in an ongoing conflict.

What then, can be done to tackle such inter-group friction at a base level? If we accept that status inequality and biased media are two crucial aspects in the etymology of these issues then we can turn to the intergroup (developmental) literature for possible solutions. Most famously, Gordon Allport’s Intergroup Contact Hypothesis proposed that the best way to overcome intergroup hostility was to bring members of the opposing groups together, to breed understanding and common ground – but most importantly, argued that any such meeting must be upon equal footing. This is crucial – in the case of Ferguson and other police shootings, attempts have been made to bring together police officers and members of the Black community, but with disparate power relationships and historical status inequalities, contact on these grounds cannot act to benefit either party. Rather, policy makers and educators should seek to approach this issue from the bottom up. In schools, children should be encouraged to meet others from different ethnic, religious and broader cultural backgrounds. By forging cross-ethnic friendships, children begin to rely less upon stereotypes of out-group members, and focus more on the similarities they share with their friends. Not to mention, the other benefits that research has shown (see here, here and here for more on this issue).

Unfortunately, not all school contexts allow for such friendships and interactions. In large parts of the UK, for example, children attend predominantly ethnically homogenous schools. When not afforded the opportunity to form positive relationships with out-group members, is there an alternative? This goes hand in hand with biased media coverage – when children are not afforded the opportunity to meet people outside their immediate cultural group, and their only exposure is to images of terror and violence, it’s no surprise that we breed a culture where far-right leaning politicians can garner public respect. Instead then, can the media be used to present a more positive image of those out-group members so often scapegoated? Edward Schiappa and colleagues certainly posit so in their Parasocial Contact Hypothesis. Rather than the direct contact crucial to Allport’s work, Schiappa argues that the positive benefits of intergroup contact are achievable through parasocial means – that is, through film, television etc. In their work, the authors parasocially expose participants to gay male characters (Six Feet Under & Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) and find that prejudice is lowered amongst these participants compared with a control group. Importantly, for such parasocial contact to be successful, exposure to a broad range of characters from a minority group is essential. Reliance on stereotyped caricatures is not enough – rather, there should be some onus upon media outlets to present a fair and representative portrait of minority cultures in order for majority in-group members to reap the parasocial benefits.

Intergroup dynamics and conflict are, and will remain to be, an enormous point of contention for society. As much as we would like to believe we live in a free and equal world, on a monthly basis we are presented with a news item that begs to differ. By acting to recognise status inequalities of minority groups, encouraging inter-group contact and friendships amongst children, and tackling fair representation in the media, we can perhaps begin to instil in young people the sense that intergroup boundaries should not be so readily used as a basis for conflict.

Luke McGuire

January 21st 2015

p.s. See here for an interesting study on how intergroup contact can moderate anti-Muslim attitudes

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