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'They are us': some responses from social psychologists

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 17 May 2019, 14:46

In this week's blog, Stephanie Taylor discusses some social psychological responses to the terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Nine weeks after they occurred, the terrorist attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand receive little media attention. There is still horror about what happened, but it is now combined with people's responses to subsequent awful events, including the April attacks in Sri Lanka. However, the Christchurch attacks continue to be discussed on academic sites, including in psychology publications. This week's blog will focus on some social psychological interpretations of what happened and why.

In the March edition of the journal of the British Psychological Society, The Psychologist, Stephen Reicher, Alex Haslam and Jay Van Bavel analyse the 'manifesto' of the Christchurch killer. They conclude that he was following a form of 'toxic leadership' which they associate with some current heads of state around the world. They draw a contrast with the positive, inclusive leadership presented by the New Zealand Prime Minister. You can read the article here


In New Zealand itself, the New Zealand Journal of Psychology produced a Rapid-response issue after the Christchurch terror attacks (The New Zealand Journal of Psychology Vol 48, Issue 1, 2019 (ISSN:1179-7924)). The lead article is by Margaret Wetherell, who worked at the Open University for many years and is an Emerita Professor in our School of Psychology. Professor Wetherell is more cautious than Reicher et al about what social psychology can contribute to our understanding of the attacks. She suggests that many conventional social psychological theories and concepts may be inadequate.

Wetherell's own contribution to the discussion is an exploration of the 'acceptable discourse' and the lines of logic and feeling that appear in public and personal responses. This is more difficult ground for the reader than the previous article because it challenges the ways of thinking, feeling and viewing the world which constitute a shared culture of privilege in the world today: 'the flow of ideology/identity/affect... which authorises and legitimates feelings and actions, and which formulates common sense'. Wetherell's article invites us to consider our own positions in relation to that culture, and the extent to which we either question or support it. You can read the article here https://www.psychology.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/Wetherell-6-9.pdf

Both the articles, by Reicher et al and by Wetherell, refer very positively to the public statements of the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ahern. She received worldwide attention for her inclusive identification with the victims of the attacks: 'They are us'.

Her statements deny any distinction between recent migrants and other New Zealanders, defining the national community, 'us', as united by shared values and aspirations rather than more traditional connections. She emphasised that the newcomers to New Zealand had chosen it as their country.

A similar idea to 'They are us' is repeated in a Facebook post circulated by many New Zealanders: kia kaha This is Not Who We Are! (The Maori words kia kaha mean 'stay strong' and were used by the Maori Battalion during World War 2.) Both Ahern's claim and the kia kaha post are examples of what Michael Billig (1992) called 'banal nationalism': the presentation of a national community to itself. (Previous posts on this blog discuss some British examples.) Billig described this presentation as 'banal' not because it is unimportant but because it reinforces the image of the nation through repeated, everyday acts and references, for instance, to 'we' and 'us' and, here, to New Zealanders as principled, strong and ready to fight for what they believe.

Many of us have felt an intense and positive emotional response to 'They are us' and 'This is Not Who We Are'. Yet it is important to be alert to how similar ideas can be used negatively as well as positively. The same 'common sense' and 'flow of ideology/identity/affect' can be invoked to legitimate very different feelings and actions.

For example, in a world of moving populations, it is obviously good to welcome newcomers. It is good to open the national community to more people than those with 'born and bred' connections of family and history. However, it is perhaps less good to imply that the only people who belong are those with the same values as everyone else, as if living together doesn't require some tolerance of difference. And while 'choice' can be positive, it also suggests that migrants always have alternatives, as if they have shopped selectively for a new country, rather than, in many cases, feeling themselves forced to go wherever they can, for reasons that may or may not be visible to others.

Social psychologists who study citizenship increasingly define it in terms of what citizens do rather than what they are. (This is a topic in the module Advancing Social Psychology DD317, in Block 3 by Rachel Manning, Eleni Andreouli and Debra Gray.) The interest is in the practices which make people part of the national society, rather than the laws which entitle them to passports. Again, this way of thinking is potentially both positive and negative. In the UK, it is invoked positively in campaigns that highlight how immigrants and refugees contribute to British society. However, a more problematic aspect appears in the case of Shamima Begum whose British citizenship was revoked because she joined Islamic State. If good citizenly behaviour should entitle people to official citizenship status (although it doesn't, in many cases), the logical converse is that bad behaviour becomes an excuse to exclude people from the national community. Yet every society has always had its dissenters and lawbreakers, as well as frankly unpleasant people, and sometimes we may find ourselves counted in the 'bad' category.  Our differences will require discussion and an attempt to understand what may at first seem incomprehensible. The negotiation will be laborious, and never completed but it is also necessary, because 'us' and 'them' are never entirely separate.

You can find information about social psychology at the Open University in the website for the Culture and Social Psychology (CuSP) research group http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp

The Level 3 module Advancing Social Psychology (DD317) is introduced here https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1258641

You might also be interested in the Open Learn short course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0


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Picture of David Riley

The positives of immigration.

I wondered what these might be and how effective these are nationally.

Again, this way of thinking is potentially both positive and negative. In the UK, it is invoked positively in campaigns that highlight how immigrants and refugees contribute to British society.

The positives don't seem to get national coverage  - but maybe I'm looking in the wrong place. I find the press othering/immigration rhetoric has subsided since 2016 but is still simmering.