How Physical Proximity (and Social Psychology): Can Prevent Racism, Sexism and Discrimination in Our Society

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In previous centuries divisions of society were mended and band-aided by communal meeting areas: Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and other religious and civic halls. The decline of religion, or at least the decline of religious attendance, has seen the decline of these common meeting places for the collective consciousness of mankind. No longer can you strike up a conversation on the weekend with a stranger in a completely unrelated industry in a common place of mutual belief or worship. Even here, the common trait was “shared religion”, and so categorical divisions still occurred.

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The modern equivalent of a ‘meeting hall’ is the local coffee shop, bookstore, shopping centre, park, movie cinema, bowling alley, nightclub etc. But all of these ‘meeting halls’ are comparatively dull meeting places as compared to the halls of medieval times. What’s worse, all are “local” institutions, meaning that a person’s exposure is limited to people of a similar demographic background, depending on the demographic diversity of the suburb. Taken at a grander level, cities themselves do not engender the best or most comfortable place to meet or mingle with a diverse variety of strangers. Indeed, the city is a place that often reinforces social boundaries, rather than tearing them down:

 

The huge, rushing aggregate life of a great city – the crushing crowds in the streets, where friends seldom meet and there are few greetings; the thunderous noise of trade and industry that speaks of nothing but gain and competition, and a consuming fever that checks the natural courses of the kindly blood; no leisure anywhere, no quiet, no restful ease, no wise repose – all this shocks us. It is inhumane. It does not appear human… Why should not the city seem infinitely more human than the hamlet? Why should not human traits the more abound where human beings teem millions strong?

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Because the city curtails man of his wholeness, specializes him, quickens some powers, stunts others, gives him a sharp edge, and a temper like that of steel, makes him unfit for nothing so much as to sit still. Men have indeed written like human beings in the midst of great cities, but not often when they have shared the city’s characteristic life, its struggle for place and for gain.

 

…Its haste, its preoccupations, its anxieties, its rushing noise as of men driven, its ringing cries, distract you. It offers no quiet reflection; it permits no retirement to any who share its life. It is a place of little tasks, of narrowed functions, of aggregate and not of individual strength. The great machine dominates its little parts, and its Society is as much of a machine as its business.

– Woodrow Wilson, On Being Human.[i]

 

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Such passages as the above raise the inevitable question: how do we reignite a city’s life, repose and community spirit? How do we become more inclusive in a city that, by its very nature, drives people apart?

One answer is proposed by social psychology. If we can narrow our physical proximity to diverse strangers, we can overcome demographic collectivisation and ‘similarities attract’ principles that divide our society. To understand the need for physical proximity, it is necessary to establish why we are already living largely separate lives.

The first reason is the strict separation of space amongst the population. Key to this separation is private property. The law in the Western world enforces the idea that each man’s “home is his castle”. And more so, that any stranger that walks upon private property is trespassing; and thus can be sued for an infringement on ownership. For the last century, the Australian, American and other dreams have been sold to several populations around the world to reinforce this ideology. We are often judged by the homes we buy, the homes we lack and the homes we are currently renting. It is seen as both natural and respectable to desire home ownership. In Australia the current home ownership rate is steady at 70% (it has stayed near 70% since 1971).[ii] This proliferation of home ownership is grounded in the classic image of white picket fences and the aspiration-induced longing for wealth and prestige.

Leaving aside the historical reasons for this (particularly the fight for private ownership against communist collectivisation), governments have continuously supported the construction of new homes – with the creation, particularly in Sydney, of urban sprawl for kilometres to the West. The idea is simply that every man and woman deserves a house in which to raise his or her family devoid of inspection, visitation or forced communal interaction.

The trend is for families to split by this principle; kids are meant to leave home and establish their own way, with their own family, in their own house by a respectable age. The rise of apartment living has facilitated this demand. In 2001, 52% of all people living in high-rise apartments lived alone or in a couple without children.[iii]

By nature of the legal system, it is only by invitation or ‘license’, that strangers may enter our homes. Licenses can be revoked at any time, after which a stranger is trespassing. This applies to rental agreements and tenancy as well, even though tenants do not own the land. The law therefore reinforces the idea that only people we know can visit our homes. It is friends, family, associates, colleagues and acquaintances who come visit; it is rarely, if ever, strangers.

“Each man, then, does have this peculiar, inalienable right to live his life in his own house in his own way.” ~ Frank Lloyd Wright[iv]

This established norm raises two significant dilemmas when it comes to meeting strangers from diverse backgrounds. The first dilemma is one of restricted movement.

A recent study found that 90% of the population tend to, on average, visit only three places a day.[v]

“When we take into account where we must go (to work, to home, to bed), we have many fewer options for where we could go than one might think”[vi]

If our homes are one of the few places we tend to visit each day (and home ownership is so high), then clearly our potential to meet people is already limited.[1] It is often claimed that we have total freedom to interact with strangers, and that if we personally have limited interaction, it is by personal preference. However, the limitations on our daily movements suggest that our choice is limited. The choice ‘not to’ visit a large number of destinations each day is so predominant amongst the population as to make it not really a choice at all, but a common mandate of social interaction. By contrast, our patterns of movement are readily predictable, infrequently changed and in some areas compulsive due to our primary needs of food, income, recreation and sleep. Added to this is limited time. There are 24 hours in a day, and naturally a large proportion has to be spent on work and sleeping, meaning we have little time to deal with people, particularly strangers, who are markedly different to us. It is far easier to spend time with the familiar: people who are similar, and people we already know.

A solution to community divisions would therefore have to be drawn up with a consistent approach to common human movement. If we have a broad tendency to follow the same daily movement patterns then any increased interaction between different people must occur in the areas we visit most; the home, workplace or recreation centres. These three are prime targets because they tap into our existing behavioural patterns, rather than forcing us to adopt new or unusual movements (such as the often proposed ‘secular sermons’ or other community meeting plans) that would interrupt our daily schedule and have nothing to do with our primary needs. Our frequently visited destinations also have the advantage of providing physical proximity in which diverse interactions can be encouraged.

 

Option 1: Houses

Due to the above legal reasons houses are the weakest of the possibilities. Few strangers are legally allowed to enter our homes without permission, and most of our time at home is spent sleeping.

 
 

Option 2: Recreation Centres:

There is a common shout, breathless and all but a whisper, for city and urban planners and politicians to facilitate more pedestrian space, more space where people can in fact interact with each other. If urban planners construct environments that are beautiful aesthetically, moving emotionally and functional in bringing people together, then perhaps we could foster diversity in big cities through physical proximity. Perhaps planners could encourage us, through public space, to greet more, share ideas, and better understand each other through the sharing of unique beliefs and cultures. It is through public space, after all, that most of our interactions occur with strangers, including interactions of silence for silence. Equally, it is in public that we can “experience face-to-face mixing and mingling of people” that remind us of our “diversity” and our “commonality as equals”, not adversaries.[vii] Public space can therefore help bind the community together, rather than driving it apart.

Take for example Multicultural or World Fairs that bring people together from all races and cultures to celebrate diversity. The Australian National Multicultural Festival for instance, does just that. The Minister for Multicultural Affairs describes the event as follows:

“Whether it’s through food, dance, fun, performances or cultural activities [we] will all unite to bring to life a spectacular event for everyone to enjoy.”[viii]

(Emphasis added)

Perhaps in the reverie of multicultural celebration we can experience “interpersonal unity, wherein the conception of self and other are not distinct but are merged”.[ix] This concept, as expressed in chapter 2, is the highest form of empathy, where we view each other not as separate, but as part of a collective humanity. The contention is that when we celebrate our differences together, we also recognize our similarities. We gain a perception of how similar we each are, how our cultures interact as part of a collective history of humanity and how we share a collective space in the wider Australian society. In this way we perceive each other not as disparate and distinct, but as part of a rich tapestry of individuality. Through interaction in close physical proximity we break down traditional exclusionary practices and isolationist regimes. Crucially, these events tap into our existing behavioural norms. Hosted in public parks and squares, they are located in places we bypass in our daily lives. They cater to our basic need for food and entertainment, and are not too burdensome to visit.

Festivals and multicultural days are annual, rather than continuous. Social psychologists however, tell us that one off events are not enough to fight prejudice.[x] Prejudicial attitudes are only reduced by consistent contact over time.[xi] We must therefore look to a more fundamental, permanent and continual public space. We must continually welcome different cultures to this space, foster interaction and build a sense of empathy and mutual understanding. In that vein one solution would be a permanent cultural fair, a park or public place that continually has different cultures intermingling.

 
 

Multi-Religion Spaces:

The same argument can be made of Interfaith or multi-religious spaces. By creating spaces of physical proximity we can overcome our traditional barriers created by religious difference, and bring people from many different religions together into the same venue. These spaces already exist, and one such space is the Interfaith Centre of Melbourne:

“The Interfaith Centre of Melbourne recognises and celebrates the unity that is found in our diversity, that is, the unity of human values which are found at the ethical core of each faith.”[xii] (Emphasis added)

It is this unity of faiths that can lead to empathy between disparate religious groups and mutual understanding between traditionally “rival” religious populations. Instead of religions being exclusionary pursuits, pursued individually, they become a part of a fundamental core of society. Instead of religions serving their own interests, they create empathy between each other and secular groups, and thereby serve the community broadly. These types of interfaith spaces are mostly created for one off events. More fundamental and permanent links need to be established between religious and secular institutions.[xiii] In this manner, discussions on fundamental questions should not be solitary pursuits led by religious leaders. They should be community activities: open, shared and inclusive, and in public spaces, where a vast variety of people can contribute.

 
 

Small-Scale Urban Planning:

Along with large plans come the smaller and more everyday examples that politicians and urban planners may implement. These are spaces that make the public interact: consider giant scrabble boards, chess sets, light shows and the like. These encourage strangers to enter a space together, greet and meet each other and so on.

 

Cafes and Restaurants:

We can look to urban planners and politicians to create social diversity, or we can look to a broader base of implementation that already exists, that of the community itself. Restaurant and café owners (and other recreational facilities) can themselves invigorate social interaction and diversity through the implementation of new social norms.

Take for example Metro St. James café in Sydney, which implemented a rule that customers could get their meal or coffees for free if they gave each other a kiss.[xiv] The idea was novel and largely reported at the time (Valentine’s day of course), but it poses a distinctly creative way in which cafes and restaurants can control their physical spaces. By imposing new social norms (kissing for coffees), these spaces can alter existing behaviours and formulate (voluntarily) the creation of closer relationships in the community.

One could imagine a similar rule for the encouragement of social diversity. Simply, the idea of a discount offered every time you successfully introduce yourself to at least one person in the room. By imposing a social rule, recreation centres can become not only the host of friends and acquaintances but the host of the entire community; encouraging interaction between and within the community itself, regardless of demographic background, interest, ideology etc.

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Keeping this in mind, it is therefore quite logical that the philosopher Allain de Botton proposes the solution of the Greek Agape Restaurant. A restaurant in which social rules are overturned:

Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior … the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart, and kith favoured over kin. Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of occupying the same space, guests would – as in a church – be signalling their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.

Such a proposal is attractive mainly because it imposes social rules and regulations that mitigate common trends of staying within one’s own ‘tribe’. Forced to stay apart from their own family, close friends and lovers, people will naturally be inclined to socialise more readily with strangers. The idea of a large table in particular promotes a spirit of ‘dinner party’ reverie much the antithesis of common cafés, which tend to impose a strict ‘two person’ seating arrangement.

This idea has already been emulated in several cities around the world. Sydney’s own Table for Twenty invites you to sit at a communal table of strangers for an intimate dinner party with people you’ve never met. It claims to reinvent “the idea of the evening meal” by mixing total strangers with close friends, and potentially making everyone friends by the end of the evening.[xv] Owner Michael Fantuz says: “it’s a good excuse to get to know people and really aims to move away from [the usual] private, single table dining experience to something more laid back and communal.”[xvi] People from all walks of life come to the restaurant and it acts as a big family dinner table: sharing plates around and dishing up for others is expected, rather than opposed. Restaurants are one of the few places where strangers gather in quiet, intimate settings, even if tables apart. The idea that we can harness this physical proximity that already exists -to encourage diversity- is both intuitive and seductive to those wishing to foster diverse communities. Every restaurant is unlikely to become ‘communal’ overnight, though there can still be a push for one communal table at each restaurant we go to. By having one table as ‘communal’, customers can choose if they would like to sit together or apart, and individual autonomy can be retained.

 
 

Option 3: Workplaces:

In the workplace divisions occur primarily along industry lines. Law firms exist in their own buildings, as do banks and other corporate entities: and in terms of physical proximity there is often very little crossover between disparate corporations. While overlap does occur in certain industries that rely upon each other for production, resources or clients, generally industries ‘get on with the job at hand’ within their own physical space, to the exclusion of all others.

The root of this separatist mindset is the idea of specialisation, and by extension the classic concept of the division of labour. The idea is that the economy benefits if we narrowly define our job descriptions. If each worker specialises to become “masters” in their chosen speciality, there will be an increase in production and output overall because people (when specialised) become incredibly fast at producing their niche product. Division of labour has an unintended consequence, and the consequence is in the name. It divides people into defined specialisations, thus decreasing the likelihood of interconnection and broadly: the capacity of workers to navigate within and across industry divides. Instead of dynamic, flexible and interrelated workplaces, workers are often limited to meeting people within their own defined specialist area and other closely related fields. By extension, specialist fields develop into specialist industries, which create even larger barriers when they move into their own premises.

Outsourcing is a logical extension of this, where the most specialised and highly skilled employees are hired on a one-off or temporary basis to plug a hole in production. Outsourcing and casualisation decrease worker interaction and reinforce the norm of strict separatism, decreasing the amount of time individual workers spend with one another. Hired on a temporary basis, a freelancer or casual worker may never form friendships or relationships in the workplace and may instead remain a constant outsider. Indeed, it is rare for casual staff to ever properly integrate into a company’s core culture, largely because they lack incentives and constant physical presence to do so.

Company culture itself can become an exclusionary force, not only to casual staff but to all staff who do not ‘fit’ or ‘meet’ certain cultural requirements. Company culture is similar to a vision statement; it sets out the ideal hiring process, what drives the hiring and who specifically ‘fits the criteria’ for the company. Often companies have a public “cultural” or mission statement claiming that they are “diverse”, “inclusive” and stating that they hire “anyone” as long as they have a certain “work ethic”, “determination”, “talent” or “flare”.[xvii] On this basis, you would expect most companies to be very diverse spaces, filled with people from a diverse range of industries and all walks of life.

Why is this not the case?

The first reason is dress code. An employee generally has to fit a particular “look”, if they don’t fit the ‘look’, they don’t get the job. Professional industries require interviewees to dress in a suit, for instance. A few IT and creative firms require a “dressed down” appearance instead. “What should I wear?” is one of the most commonly asked questions prior to an interview. “Dress code” therefore acts as an instantaneous limitation on any claim of “diversity” in a company’s culture. An honest company would admit: “Yes, we are diverse, but only in so far as you fit a particular ‘look’.” Dress is one of the most superficial judgments of a person, and so to have it as one of the most defining features of the hiring process is somewhat irrational, particularly because it can be changed so easily. Would it not be expedient if someone is the best candidate to simply tell them to change their clothes? By this measure a diverse range of candidature can be accepted, even if conformity is demanded when they start the job.

Beyond the surface demands of “dressing well”, “hard work”, “people skills” and the like, come the more subtle nuances of a company’s internal culture. In Australia, drinking and sport are often fused with company culture in so far as weekly drinks, touch football or team sport are included as part of a package of “social activities”. While on the surface these activities are inclusive, on closer inspection they are fairly exclusionary. What of someone who’s religion bans them from drinking? What of someone with a disability or illness who cannot partake in social sport? What of someone who dislikes these activities? Again the issue of “interests” and “similarities” arises, where a company is catering to a certain population; a population that shares a core set of “interests” and similarities, rather than a diverse range of interests. Considering that these social activities may attract a certain kind of candidate to begin with, and therefore limit the candidate pool, the company’s culture may not be as “inclusive” or “diverse” as claimed. Furthermore, drinking and sporting events are used for social leveraging and networking, meaning that people who do not fit this IDEAL may not be able to advance far in the workplace. An environment like this poses the risk of “ingroup” formation (an ingroup forming who go to these functions, with a large amount of upward mobility) and “outgroup” formation (an outgroup who do not “fit” the company’s internal culture). To prevent this… workplaces should provide a diverse range of activities, so as to attract, keep, and promote a diverse range of individuals. This would be logical extension of a company’s commitment to “diversity”. Broad offerings result in broad candidature. To give examples: at any drinking event, non-alcoholic alternatives could be offered, and alongside touch football, other social activities could be organised such as talks, parties, functions etc… to cater for a diversity of tastes.

Beyond dress code and internal company culture is the natural limitation that companies only operate in a single industry. A company is only as diverse as the employees it hires and hence a company in a very niche field, hiring only niche-field employees, will not be diverse. Most employees at a company will share the same career aspirations (to work in that particular industry). Again, here we have diversity being limited by “similar interests”. Even if different positions are offered (say a secretary in a law firm) an employee may still share the same interest in the industry as a whole (the same interest in law). Diversity of ‘positions’ is therefore not real diversity, for a company may have a plethora of staff in a plethora of positions who all share the same interests. Actual diversity requires a diversity of interests, activities and positions (alongside the traditional diversity of culture, gender, race etc…).

It is questionable whether this kind of diversity can ever exist in the workplace so long as “company culture” is highly valued. Todd McKinnon, CEO of Okta for instance, argues that CEOs should:

“Reward employees who advance your culture, and be open and honest with those who don’t… steer hiring decisions for the people who will maintain that [culture’s] success”.[2]

If people don’t “fit” the company culture they will be discouraged in their position, fired or encouraged to conform. None of these is conducive to diversity. Strict hiring along “cultural” lines promotes cultural conformity, rather than cultural diversity. This conformity makes workplaces exclusive communities, rather than inclusive of broader segments of society. One solution to this is do away with culture altogether or make diversity in the broad sense a cultural requirement.

To this end we can look to the “culture” of co-habiting workspaces. Sydney Vibewire hosts an “innovation lab” where corporate diversity is encouraged. It is a lab of innovative thinkers and a place that brings:

creative and technical entrepreneurs, students, artists, filmakers and designers, engineers and accountants together to create a vibrant and diverse workplace.”[3]

The benefit of collaborative workspaces is that they allow multiple companies to do business under the same roof, and allow a variety of people to interact. These interactions can lead to unexpected innovations, creativity and collaboration. Instead of the workplace being exclusive, it becomes an inclusive place that welcomes many “cultures” into the same space, thus creating a broader homogenous culture of “diversity” and “inclusivity”, above conformity.

 

Option 4: Universities:

Specialisation of the workforce begins at Universities and other Tertiary schools, where students pick Degrees or Diplomas in their “chosen” profession. Often a student’s choice is made with the aim, or hope, of entering that profession on graduation (so Architecture students aim to be architects and so on). In theory, this is practical. In practice, it narrows a student’s perspective when it comes to concepts outside their chosen industry. It also reduces the capacity of students to intermingle, and creates new ‘categories’ and barriers within society on faculty and industry lines. Students, limited to their own faculty, tend to befriend those within their own faculty, rather than a more diverse range of peers. In terms of physical proximity, students are limited in class to meeting those in the same degree, rather than others in the school.

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In reality, students tend to break this trend and move outside their “defined” (And degree-specified) line of work when they graduate. Current estimates predict that most students will have up to twenty jobs in their lifetime.[xviii] Crucially, a student’s original job may not fall within their “chosen” profession (or may not even relate to their degree at all). Keeping this in mind, it becomes obvious that to prepare students for the world they will face, students need to learn a diversity of ideas from a diversity of faculties. Bringing students together in this way would have the benefit of allowing faculty-categorised disparate groups to interact and socialise. Once students gain the opportunity to socialise across divides, they will begin to realise that they all have similarities and again through physical proximity, become friends with one another. Through interconnecting students: industries themselves can become more closely intertwined. In short, a student’s natural inclination to stick to people within their own industry can be overcome by mixing students of all faculties.

Mixing students and offering a generalist education has already occurred in many institutions, particularly through the creation of Gen Ed courses. Gen Ed is a system that allows students to study electives outside their faculty as a component of their degree. In this way, a science student can take up French on the side, or an Arts students can delve into business. The University of New South Wales claims that “a general education complements the more specialised learning undertaken in a student’s chosen field of study.” Along with traditional professional skills, students gain a diversity of complementary knowledge that expand them both professionally and intellectually. Gen Ed is however limited to a few subjects across a degree. Hence, unless a student is willing to take up an entire new/second degree, they’ll never be exposed to the full range of subjects in a different course. This poses a dilemma, particularly for the generalist or “renaissance” student.

Student communities are currently helping to plug this gap. Students at ANU in Canberra for instance have created the Cross-Disciplinary Students Academy (XSA). XSA represents students “interested in exploring different perspectives” and those who wish “not to be confined” to their degree. By welcoming students to talk from a variety of different backgrounds (from the Arts, Science, Law, Medicine, Engineering, Music etc) XSA fights against the deficiencies of “over-specialisation” in modern tertiary education. Instead of producing narrow minded and specialised students, XSA encourages diversity, collaboration and “open discussion”, treating all industries as equally fascinating. It presumes that each industry has interesting knowledge, and that this knowledge “is valuable” when shared. More, it recognises that when people from different backgrounds come together, something brilliant is created. A space of unity is created in the shared celebration of ideas.

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Speeches, discussion groups and lectures occur between students of different faculties and by this means knowledge is shared. The process is most rewarding because it ignores the differences in industries and unites them together: often sparking talks mixing various ideas. Politics can be combined with technology for instance, which can be combined with science, or engineering or music or law. Together, different ideas merge and form something new, something altogether unexpected. By crossing faculty divides new solutions are discovered for broad societal problems. Policy discussion can occur between social sciences and hard sciences and engineering students. It is this combination of faculties that sparks creativity. Just like a creative team, students come together with specialised knowledge, but by sharing that knowledge, the entire team benefits. The output of the team is stronger, more cohesive and more innovative than the output of any single team member. Such is the beauty of collaboration.

There are several arguments against “diverse discussion groups”. The strongest is that of the corporate university itself: that university is a place of professional development rather than a place of personal enrichment. In light of the increasingly educated population, and the increasing demands of a requisite degree to get a job, some universities have begun to view students as clients instead of people… as part of a business model of delivering a “service” of education. By this measure, any extra-curricular activity is a waste of time that gets in the way of acquiring professional certification.

This model of education is inhibitive in two ways. Firstly, it prevents the flourishing of creativity and innovation that is so central a tenant to the founding principles of universities. Secondly, by disparaging extra-curriculars, the corporate university fights against its own mandate. With the increasing demands of employers, it is actually a benefit not a detriment to the “client” (student) to receive a broader, generalist style of education. Extra-curricular activities in particular appear on CV’s (and are so advised to do so by career counsellors), because they show a student’s well-roundedness, their ability to achieve things outside of the bounds of traditional education. Indeed, the University of Sydney’s Vice Chancellor Dr. Michael Spence once wrote in defense of clubs and societies that they “offer students the chance to acquire all sorts of additional skills that employers value, not least the ability to juggle [a student’s] time between their study and the very many other things that keep them busy on campus!”[xix] I would add to this that student discussion groups in particular, allow students to interact and become friends with people they otherwise would never meet. The true mark of a university is not in the courses it offers, or the business-like manner in which it efficiently dispenses students upon the world, but in the manner in which it forges friendships that last a lifetime. And that, with the benefit of hindsight, is what allows students to go on and forge lifelong business relations, networks and a general sense of connectedness with each other upon graduation; a sense of connection sorely lacking in the rest of the community.

 

Option 5: Schools:

A study of German adults after World War II found that those adults exposed to outsiders -people outside of their own ‘race’ or ‘religion’- at a young age were more likely to hide away Jews in their homes and thereby deceive Nazi authorities.[xx] Since that study, several others have reaffirmed the idea that when we are exposed to diversity at a very young age we are more likely to accept others, and are more likely to act in assistance of “outsiders”; people who are different to us. Ironically, this proves that there is a tiny bit of credibility to the old claim that a person is not racist, homophobic etc, because “I have a friend who is [insert category here]”. While having a friend of a minority or another group may make you more likely to be accepting of others (especially in your childhood), it is not, as these people tend to suggest, a blanket guarantee of being a decent human being. Still, the more friends we have that are different to ourselves, the more accepting we tend to become of other groups. This tendency has been proven in psychological testing.[xxi] Even if it is only a tendency, it is a tendency worth nurturing in the population if we are to ever have an inclusive community built on empathy and mutual respect.

By contrast, if we grow up in a homogenous society (a place where everyone shares the same demographic features of race, religion etc) we will not receive this ‘tendency’ of becoming a more accepting individual. In fact, people who grow up in homogenous societies and develop prejudicial views are less likely to become friends with outsiders, and more likely to stick to their own. Prejudicial adults are less likely to help outsiders. And it can be hypothesized that they are also less likely to empathise with outsiders. Instead of empathizing, they may focus on the outsider group’s “otherness”, develop a sense of xenophobia and even go so far as to discriminate.

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In homogenous communities, the dynamic of “us” vs. “them” can also thrive, where the outsider can be seen as a threat to the community’s continued survival or the community’s culture. So in the instance of refugees mentioned in a previous chapter, people of other races were seen as a security risk to the majority white homogenous community of the Queensland countryside. By framing it as an “us” vs. “them”, the life or death plight of refugees can be simplified and dehumanized as part of the “othering” process.

Keeping the above paragraphs in mind, it becomes obvious that the best thing we can do for our kids is to let them grow up in a diverse community, a place filled with people who are different to ourselves. In fact, it is best that we ‘normalise’ difference as early as possible, so that differences between kids is not particularly significant or determinative as they grow. Once difference is normalized, it becomes increasingly easier for kids to start to see themselves as unified, and develop empathy and mutual understanding for one another.

To this end it becomes worrying to observe the large number of religious, cultural, single sex and other divisive schooling systems in Western education. Instead of letting kids interact with people who are different to themselves, we build systems that promote homogeneity. The homogeneity of these communities is however a façade in that it does not reflect the reality that students will face when they graduate. Instead it is an artificial semblance of sameness, where “others” are not allowed. Others are strictly prohibited to the point where the school does not reflect the real world, yet when students graduate they are expected to integrate, care for and not suffer from prejudice, racist or sexist attitudes. Given we know inclusive communities have a tendency to encourage empathy, why do we still allow exclusive, homogenous schools to exist? Surely it is illogical to encourage artificial homogeneity in a multicultural society?

Religious schools in particular have been criticised for being exclusionary, reinforcing social boundaries and disallowing young people the opportunity to meet, understand and interact with people outside their own sect. While many religions have the same core aims and truths, these commonalities are lost in a system of competitive struggle for “my truth over yours” in schooling. Exclusion is formulated on the basis of atheists being ignorant of the truth of God, theists being ignorant of the truth that God doesn’t exist and other religions being ignorant of the truth that their God is not THE God. This overt simplification is catered to by the government’s legislation on schooling. Despite our constitutional right to freedom of religion or perhaps because of it, religious schools are exempted from anti-discrimination legislation, when accepting new students.[xxii] A school can reject you, as it goes, for not being religious enough. This caters to exclusionary practices and the deterioration of mutual respect and understanding.

In NSW, often a student requires one or more grandparents of the school’s faith before they can enroll. The stated aim of religious schools is to further that particular religion in society, to the exclusion of other beliefs within their own walls.[xxiii] It may be said that this discrimination helps parents who want their children raised in a particular sect. According to the National Catholic Education Commission of Australia, religious schools “fulfill parents’ rights in a democratic, free society to choose the schooling for their children which reflects their own values, beliefs and hopes as Australians”.[xxiv] Outside influences and secular influences, it is argued, may lead children astray from their parent’s chosen religious path. However, this argument dismisses the likelihood that enlightenment is founded upon debate and dialogue between conflicting perspectives. It is only through debate between religions, that some eternal truth of thought may be discovered, or some rationality may be founded.

 

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John Stuart Mill once wrote that:

“In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.” [xxv]

It is this openness to other’s opinions that should form the cornerstone of primary and secondary education. Instead of religious schools, isolated and exclusionary of others, we should form schools where peoples of all religions can come together to learn from each other’s faiths and principles, challenge their own convictions and discover truths of their own faith through rationality and contestation of ideas.

It is true that religious schools remain dominant largely for secular reasons; in NSW they perform better, and parents often send their children there for secular reasons as opposed to religious affiliation.[xxvi] In challenging this status quo, there may need to be a rise of secular non-government schools that cater to the demands of parents. A reallocation of resources is a contentious proposition. Instead, religious schools might merely stop preferencing members of their own denomination. In this way, a gradual shift in student demographic can take place, catering to the demands of the local community rather than the demands of a particular religious demographic. The school may keep its stated religion, but offer classes in other religious studies to all students as a method of broadening a student’s exposure to outside groups. A consequence of this would be greater inter-group empathy in society broadly, as students learn more about each other’s religions, and understand each other better.

Even if a school is not specifically a religious institution, it may still pander to exclusionary practices. In NSW, the Department for Education and Communities allows Government (non-denominational, non-religious) schools to teach ‘generalist religious education’ and ‘specialist religious education’.[xxvii] For specialist education the NSW statute mandates that “children attending a religious education class are to be separated from other children at the school while the class is held”.[xxviii] This practice dates back to 1880, when the NSW government declared that “in all cases the pupils who receive religious instruction shall be separated from the other pupils of the school”.[xxix] It must be asked of this ancient tradition, why? Why must religious students be separated from other students during religious classes? Surely this goes against the very nature of encouraging mutual understanding of religious faiths and principles?

The idea of separation pays credence to the idea that there is nothing to learn from another person’s religion. Yet comparative studies of religion have revealed extraordinary findings in the past. It is the ancient Sumerian myth of flooding in modern day Iraq that may lend credence to the biblical story of Noah’s great flood, for instance.[xxx] A verse of Sumerian myth was found in 1872 that predates the bible, and modern archeological evidence adds weight to the idea of a flood, by suggesting that ancient “devastating floods did sometimes take place in Mesopotamia”.[xxxi] Without this type of comparative religious study, no such consideration could ever have occurred. This is one example in a field consisting of thousands. Concurrent education, and comparative study actually builds and fosters a religious education, rather than destroying it.

In secular terms, the atheist has much to gain, in terms of understanding and respect, from being steeped in the cultural and religious traditions of others. Just as the religious student has much to gain from being taught secular ethics, morality and the criminal law. It is shared wisdom, debate and discussion that should be the cornerstone of Australian multiculturalism, not exclusion and isolation.

Instead of separating students into different religious classes, students at government schools should sample each ‘specialist’ religious class on a rotational basis. This would compliment rather than conflict with the generalist religious and ethical teaching already offered. It would compliment NSW government policy, for schools are required to have “inclusive teaching practices which… promote an open and tolerant attitude towards different cultures, religions and world views.”[xxxii] Inclusivity requires shared venues for discussion and debate, rather than exclusionary venues of isolated mono-thought. By sampling a taste of each religion, students can gain an opportunity to form bonds of friendship across traditional religious boundaries and foster mutual empathy and understanding between traditionally competing religious populations.

 

 This is an extract from my book: Us vs Them: A Case For Social Empathy”.

Buy it now in Paperback

Or on Kindle.

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@JoshKrook

——————–

[1] Our capacity to meet strangers on the Internet at home, and thereby ‘welcome them into our home’ is addressed in more detail in a later chapter.

[2] Todd McKinnon, CEO of Okta, ‘How To Build a Great Company Culture’, Forbes Magazine, (10/04/2013)

[3] ‘Vibewire: The Future of Work’, Vibewire, (October 14, 2013) <http://vibewireinnovationlab.com/?p=2810&gt;

Bibliography:

Feature Image: Mstyslav Chernov

Shopping Center Picture: Alina Zienowicz Ala z;

[i] Woodrow Wilson, ‘On Being Human’, The Atlantic Monthly (1897).

[ii] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Levels of Home Ownership, <http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/1370.0~2010~Chapter~Levels%20of%20home%20ownership%20(5.4.3)&gt;

[iii] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Housing and Lifestyle: High Rise Living <http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/7d12b0f6763c78caca257061001cc588/939bff64e38e18ddca256e9e002912f0!OpenDocument>

[iv] Donald Hoffman, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House: Illustrated Story of an Architectural Masterpiece (Courier Dover Publications, 1984).

[v] Christian M. Schneider, Vitaly Belik, Thomas Couronne, Zbigniew Smoreda and Marta C. Gonzalez, ‘Unraveling daily human mobility motifs’, Journal of the Royal Society Interface, (6 July 2013), vol 10, 84.

[vi] Matt Duckham, ‘Your Phone Knows the Places You Visit Each Day’ (8 May 2013), <theconversation.com/your-phone-knows-the-three-places-you-visit-each-day-13999>

.

[vii] Hannah Arendt, quoted in John Keane, ‘Senator in the City: Scott Ludlam’s vision’, The Drum (2013), <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-08-13/keane-ludlam-and-cities/4882620&gt;.

[viii] Joy Burch, Minister for Multicultural Affairs, ‘Buzz is Building for Next Year’s Festival’ (2013), <http://multiculturalfestival.com.au/about-us/ministers-message/&gt;.

[ix] R. B. Cialdini et. al, ‘Reinterpreting the empathy-altruism relationship: When one into one equals oneness’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 752-766.

[x] US Department of Defense, ‘A progress Report on Integration in the Armed Services’ (1954: Washington, US Govt Print);

Moscos CC, Butler JS, All That We Can Be (New York: Basic Books, 1996);

Thomas F. Pettigrew, ‘Intergroup Contact Theory’, Annual Review Psychology (1998) 49:65-85.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] ‘Our Philosophy’, The Interfaith Centre of Melbourne, <http://www.interfaithcentre.org.au/about.php&gt;.

[xiii] US Department of Defense, ‘A progress Report on Integration in the Armed Services’ (1954: Washington, US Govt Print);

Moscos CC, Butler JS, All That We Can Be (New York: Basic Books, 1996);

Thomas F. Pettigrew, ‘Intergroup Contact Theory’, Annual Review Psychology (1998) 49:65-85.

[xiv] Bianca London, ‘Pucker Up! The Australian Coffee Shop That Lets Customers Pay with Kisses’ (4 June 2013), <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2335624/Pucker-The-Australian-coffee-shop-lets-customers-pay-KISSES.html&gt;

[xv] See their website: <http://tablefor20.blogspot.com.au&gt;

[xvi] See the Table For Twenty Facebook page: <https://www.facebook.com/pages/Table-for-20-and-Sticky-Bar/31371833940&gt;

[xvii] Examples that use some of this language include:

Google (http://www.google.com.au/about/company/facts/culture/);

adidas (http://careers.adidas-group.com/culture-and-diversity.aspx);

Boeing (http://www.boeing.com/boeing/aboutus/culture/index.page);

Pratt & Whitney (http://www.pw.utc.com/Company_Culture);

Pepsi Co (http://www.pepsico.com.au/careers/why/culture.php);

Kellogg Company (http://www.kelloggcompany.com/en_US/about-diversity.html);

Coca Cola (http://www.coca-colacompany.com/our-company/diversity/workplace-culture);

Microsoft (http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/diversity/vision.aspx)

[xviii] Jeanne C. Meister, Karie Willyerd, The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop, and Keep Tomorrow’s Employees (HarperBusiness, 2010).

[xix] Dr. Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor, University of Sydney, Clubs and Societies Handbook (2013), University of Sydney Union.

[xx] Oliner, S.P., Oliner P.M, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (New York: Free Press, 1988);

Pettigrew, T.F. ‘Generalised Intergroup Contact Effects on Prejudice’, Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. (1997a), 23:173-185l;

Wright S.C., Aron A, McLaughlin-Volpe T, Ropp S.A. ‘The Extended Contact Effect: Knowledge of Cross-group Friendships and Prejudice’ (University of California, Santa Cruz).

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] The Australian Constitution, s. 116.

[xxiii] See, for example: <http://www.moriah.nsw.edu.au/MC-Our-Core-Values/default.aspx>;

[xxiv] ‘Australian Catholic Schools Why We Have Them? What They Aim to Achieve?’, Preamble, National Catholic Commission, <http://www.ncec.catholic.edu.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=61:australian-catholic-schools-why-we-have-them-what-they-aim-to-achieve&catid=36:policies&Itemid=64>

[xxv] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

[xxvi] Jennifer Buckingham, ‘The Rise of Religious Schools’, Policy Monographs, The Centre for Independent Studies, Australia (2010), 10.

[xxvii] Religious Education Policy, NSW Department of Education and Communities <https://www.det.nsw.edu.au/policies/curriculum/schools/spec_religious/PD20020074.shtml&gt;

[xxviii] Emphasis added. Education Act 1990 (NSW), s. 32(5); Objective 1, Religious Education Policy, NSW Department of Education and Communities <https://www.det.nsw.edu.au/policies/curriculum/schools/spec_religious/PD20020074.shtml&gt;

[xxix] NSW State Government. 1880. NSW Public Instruction Act, http://www.legislation.act.gov.au/a/1880-23/19890511-2616/rtf/1880-23.rtf.

[xxx] Barry P. Powell, Classical Myth, (Person Education Inc, 6th ed, 2009), pp. 59-61, 125-127.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Objective 1.3, Multicultural Education Policy, NSW Department of Education and Communities, 2005 <https://www.det.nsw.edu.au/policies/student_serv/equity/comm_rela/PD20050234.shtml&gt;

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