Tom Sutcliffe: Prejudices that don't run so deep

Social Studies: Proximity rubs the labels off strangers and lets you see they're not that strange after all
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The Independent Online

Good fences make good neighbours, Robert Frost famously wrote, one of those lines which is almost invariably quoted (with little knowledge of the poem it comes from) as if Frost approves of the sentiment. In fact the poem interrogates it – a hand-me-down wisdom offered up by a neighbour when Frost mischievously questions the need to maintain a physical barrier between pine wood and orchard: "My apple trees will never get across/ And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him".

I found myself questioning the truism too yesterday, prompted by a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research which revealed – if "revealed" isn't too strong a word – that, contrary to received political opinion, support for the BNP is actually weaker in areas of high immigration rather than stronger. It seems that the less likely you are to have your prejudice against immigrants countered by actually bumping into one, the more likely you are to be able to carry it intact into a polling station. It's a fragile thing, bigotry.

For anyone of a liberal cast of mind this was good news – even if you might not want to depend too heavily on this finding in order to counter BNP electioneering. For one thing, as the report's writers themselves conceded, since immigrants themselves are highly unlikely to vote for the BNP the election returns might simply be evidence of "white flight". It may not be that potential BNP voters have changed their minds so much as the fact that they've moved to a constituency they find more congenial.

For another thing the IPPR's definition of "resilience" – the quality they identified as providing the best inoculation against BNP inflammation – seemed oddly circular in some respects. One of its criteria for establishing the "resilience" of a community, for instance, was Social Cohesion, identified by working out the percentage of residents who agree that "their area is one where people from different backgrounds get along". Hardly surprising, really, that the BNP vote might be lower in such places.

But there is a human truth contained in this report I think – which might best be summed up by paraphrasing Von Moltke's famous adage about military strategy. The new version would run like this: "No prejudice can survive contact with the enemy." That's the reason, after all, that bigots and separatists value fences so highly – because of the pernicious weakness of the human animal when it comes to fraternisation.

If no man's land is really that – an uncrossable barrier between two forces – then hatred of the Hun is relatively easy to maintain. Kick a football across it, and have it kicked back and you have a threat to martial spirit so grave that the High Command have to make the expression of the Christmas spirit a disciplinary offence. The effect works at a distance too.

Critics of Big Brother sometimes forget that more than one series of the programme offered the spectacle of a mass audience overcoming its own prejudices against people it might have been expected to find ridiculous or threatening. They had no idea that they could find Orcadian fundamentalists or Portuguese transsexuals quite so appealing, but by the time the final vote came round they did. And it was familiarity that pulled that trick off – the extended encounter with "otherness" slowly dismantling the wall that held them at bay – just as Frost's stone wall falls to frost heave.

The BNP fears multicultural society not just because they dislike its darker components but because they know it steadily and inexorably erodes fear and hatred of the other. Proximity rubs the labels off strangers and lets you see they're not that strange after all. Which is, paradoxically, why the BNP should be doing all it can to support faith schools and even, perhaps, government-funded madrassahs (and why a Labour government should be ashamed of promoting them).

The more apartness the BNP can generate, the fewer opportunities for a homogenising friction that knocks the corners off "us" and "them", the better their electoral chances. Because sometimes good fences make bad neighbours. The lines from Frost's poem that are really pertinent to this story are some of those that aren't fenced off by quotation marks, lines that judge the truism rather than endorse it. "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out/ And to whom I was like to give offence".

***

The news that the Royal Shakespeare Company has had to postpone the opening of its new production of Antony and Cleopatra after one of its leads was injured by a firearm during technical rehearsals suggests that this is to be a non-traditional staging. I don't suppose that high-concept productions are any more hazardous for actors than traditional ones – given all those flailing sword fights. But they do bring an unintentional comedy to the press releases if things go wrong.

I've seen a production of Henry V in which inattentive spear-carriers faced the real possibility of being run over by a British Army Land Rover and a famous Ninagawa production of Lear in which Nigel Hawthorne had to deliver the storm scene while large boulders dropped from the flies – a conceit that made careful blocking a life and death matter. One foot wrong during those rehearsals and the press office would have had to explain that a national treasure had been put into a vegetative state by a rockfall.

And when things actually do go wrong even more ingenuity is needed: Michael Boyd reassured theatregoers that the show will go on and has now been "restaged to accommodate a one-armed Antony" – another novel twist on one of Shakespeare's great tragedies. Naturally one wouldn't wish an injury on any actor ... but I did find myself wondering what would have happened if it had been a lower-limb put out of action, instead of an arm. The Battle of Actium on mobility scooters perhaps?

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk



For further reading: "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost; "Exploring the Roots of BNP Support", IPPR

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