Monthly Archives: November 2013

On social distance, a great TED-talk and refugees

Image from

Image from

Nickey (check out her awesome blog here) suggested I’d do a blog entry about social distance, so that’s what I’ll do :)

First let’s clarify concepts.

You’ve got locational distance. If you’re reading this on your laptop while sitting on a beach in Egypt, first of all, damn you, you horrible braggart.  I resent you a lot and I hope you get sand in unmentionable places (<–Norway is a cold, dark place these days and I am growing increasingly bitter. I can’t wait to see what a pleasant, adorable creature I’ll be by January).  Nevertheless, If you’re in Sharm El Sheikh, and I am in Norway (>:() there would be a great locational distance between where you and I are physically located.

Then there’s social distance. There are three types; interactive, normative and affective social distance (I’ll try to make this not too boring, but bear with me).

1). Interactive social distance has to do with to which extent groups or individuals interact. That is, how often they’re in touch, and how close they are when they’re together. One can interact with someone on a frequent basis without being interactively socially close. For instance, I frequently interact with grocery store employees, but we are not very close. Not that I would mind if we were, but it just hasn’t happened yet. Colleagues and students are another example; I interact with them frequently and I feel pretty close to some of them.

2). Normative social distance has to do with how you view another individual or group; are they part of your ingroup (‘She’s just like me!!1! <3′) or part of an outgroup (“oh…Those weirdos.. I hear they brush their teeth up and down instead of from left to right, they smell funny, and they hate kittens and rainbows”). To put it into context; an individual who is far right on the political spectrum, loves Limbaugh, Ayn Rand’s teachings and hates puppies (those things frequently go together, or so I’ve heard) would be normatively distant from myself. An individual who is at the left (though not faaar left) on the political spectrum, loves puppies, and likes Chomsky, Foucault and Freud would be much closer to where I stand.  I would consider the first guy an outgroup-member, and the second, an ingroup-member.

3). Affective social distance is all about feeeeelings; how close you feel emotionally towards that other person or group. You are likely to be affectively close to your family members (i.e., you love them) while not very affectively close to the janitor of your building (though I’m sure she or he is perfectly nice and fully deserving of love and respect).

Now, a word of caution before I continue. Academics like to parse things up into discrete categories. That way you get neat little conceptual boxes. The problem is that our world is not a neat, tidy place, and nothing is as messy as our emotions, cognition and behaviour. The categories frequently accompany each other, and the presence or absence of one does not exclude the others.

What made Nickey suggest this particular topic was this TED-talk.

Did you hear those three truths Ash Beckham spoke?

1. Be authentic. If you want someone to be real to you, they need to know that you bleed too. This is extraordinarily difficult. Our lives are largely built around posturing. We are told what we should be and how to get there (Thanks a lot Women’s magazines, you guys are the worst!). There’s something odd about authenticity; the more you show that you are imperfect, the more those around you (those who matter anyway) sympathize/empathize with you. This because we all have the same emotional range (except for a tiny scary group of people). Showing vulnerability and telling others of your shortcomings may feel awful in the moment, but you’ll survive. I am, for instance, not cool. I fail to wear the right clothes, and my weight fluctuates. I like things that have never been trendy (you’ll probably find this shocking, but an interest in old maps and fossils isn’t the hallmark of coolness. Who’da thunk..)  I am horrible at sports. I have no coordination, and I cry ALL. THE. TIME. I also deal with an at-times, crippling anxiety. When people find out, they tend to say “oh, ok.” Sometimes they’re indifferent and sometimes they hug me. So far though, telling it like it is has done me no harm.

2. Be direct. Just say it. Directness is golden.  It is also easy to understand.

3. Be unapologetic. I will never master this, but I greatly admire those who do. I have faults and flaws and I keep trying to correct them. I am way too apologetic, and I would love if someone could teach me how to accept my (impossible to fix) flaws.

Anyway, back to the various kinds of social distance: What is scary is that they are all at the root of prejudice. We’re all prejudiced to some extent (see my example of the Rush-Limbaugh-loving-puppy-haters); the question is where that prejudice leads, and whether we are reasonable enough to recognize it as our own issue, and not necessarily a flaw or shortcoming in others.

The current discussion concerning refugees in Norway is illustrative of all the various forms of distance, including locational distance. It also includes a fairly hefty dose of ignorance about conditions around world, but that’s for another post.

Interactional social distance: I think it would be fair to assume that most Norwegians do not interact with a great number of refugees on a regular basis. If they did, they might come to see how incredibly varied the group is. They might start seeing them as individuals, and they’d likely find the idea of locking them up abhorrent.

Normative social distance: once one has been exposed to a great number of refugees, one would (usually) come to the realization that they may differ from ourselves in some respects, but that we are more alike than different. This is not a conclusion one arrives at without also having a healthy dose of respect for other human beings. When you treat others with respect, they tend to open up and return that respect. They (may) also start telling you of their passions, fears and struggles. If you empathize, you’ll likely notice that you would feel the very same emotions they feel when facing similar conditions.

If the aforementioned social distance-gaps have narrowed, that is, if you have become close with several members of the group in question,  the affective social distance is likely to be influenced. You come to no longer view the group  as a homogeneous faceless entity but rather as a group highly different of people, some of whom one likes and some of whom one may not like quite as much.

Nevertheless, treating them inhumanely is much more difficult once you see them as real people.

Now, please join this group. It is a group whose aim it is to stop those in power from locking up refugees while they’re waiting to have their application processed.

On a horribly tragic event and collective punishment


I have never once had to lie about or hide my ethnicity. I am Norwegian-Iranian (as mentioned in the bio) and I am completely comfortable with being Norwegian-Iranian. I would also be comfortable with any other constellation of mixedness; Polish-American, Kenyan-Bolivian, Israeli-Italian-Bosnian, Arab-Swede-Macedonian, Spanish-Icelandic, you name it.  The reasons why I am comfortable with my ethnicity are many. First, ethnicity is not very important in terms of my identity. I can’t deny that my background has shaped who I am, but if I run a “who am I really?” inventory, several adjectives come to mind looong before the noun(s) describing my cultural background (make of that what you want..). I also feel no shame and absolutely no guilt in terms of my heritage or the actions of the groups I am perceived to belong to. The leadership in Iran for instance; they are (largely) a collection of massive jerks. This is not only in my mind, they regularly make asses of themselves in global public fora. Remember when Ahmadinejad claimed that there are no gays in Iran? Or his ignorant and cruel Holocaust-denial? Yeah, not my fault. The guy is a tool, and I have no responsibility for his actions or words whatsoever, despite our (partially) shared ethnicity. I also have no responsibility for Breivik’s actions. Neither am I to blame for how a certain subset of Norwegians behave when they travel abroad (uhm.. Some drink. A lot. And some have been known to move to other countries and demand that the native population learn the Norwegian language…).  Again, it is not my fault, nor my responsibility. I can try to educate them or attempt to make them see how silly they appear, but it is usually a futile endeavour. Besides, it’s kinda one of those “I know what’s right for you” things that I prefer to avoid.

Now, my refusal to be held accountable for others actions is tied to my ENORMOUS PRIVILEGE (I know all-caps is annoying, but it is called for). In terms of looks, I am indistinct. You can’t look at me and decide where I am from, and in cases where I have encouraged others to guess, guesses have ranged from Norwegian, British to Russian to “maybe..Uhm….???”  I am so pale I am practically light-blue most of the year. My hair colour is brown and I have blue eyes. I (usually) breeze through customs, and I am perceived as innocent until proven otherwise. This is not the case for a great majority of people across the world, and this brings me to the point of this blog-entry.

First, let me describe the horrible event mentioned in the headline of this entry. What happened was this; an asylum-seeker hailing from a country south of the Sahara killed 3 people on a bus travelling from Valdres, central Norway. The man was psychotic. Psychosis is not exclusive to any group, and it is not unheard of that the paranoia (commonly) associated with psychosis ends up causing harm, most frequently to the individual experiencing psychosis, but sometimes also to those around him or her. The man had likely experienced hardships you and I cannot comprehend. Imagine having to flee from one country to another, aided by human smugglers. Imagine being stowed in a rickety truck and having to remain in said truck across the (incredibly dangerous) Sahara. Imagine having to travel great distances at sea in a boat that’s not really seaworthy. Said boat is also likely to  hold many more people than what it is meant to. Imagine leaving, even abandoning your friends, family, maybe also your children and spouse in the hopes that they may come after once you have found a safe place to live…The families these refugees leave behind are likely to have invested quite a bit of money in the trip  (travelling across borders while not holding papers is not cheap) thus helping, but also placing an additional burden on the refugee.

Then you’re likely to be rejected from one country after another. You’ll arrive one place, get thrown into an awful detention centre, then shipped back to the place you last came from. This can go on for years and years, and unsurprisingly, many lives have been lost. Keep in mind that the people making this journey have no fault in their own misfortune, they were simply born in the wrong place. These are places where paperwork and official records are shoddy at best, and non-existent at worst.

Upon arrival in Norway, refugees are placed in a ‘mottak’, another kind of detention centre. The conditions in some of these are awful to say the least. Many are for-profit, and refugees from all across the world are placed together. There’s nothing for them to do and most have horrible trauma in their background. You might wait for months or years while someone in a far-away location decides your fate. You have no idea how long it will take, and you have no idea of the outcome. You are at the mercy of a public official, and the uncertainty is overwhelming..

Pretty grim, no?

Our man had recently had his asylum-application rejected and was set to be shipped out.  He was to be sent to Spain, back to another detention centre. He snapped. He killed. Innocent lives were lost, including his own (he is alive and in a psychiatric ward, but if or when he comes to, what kind of existence and reality will he be facing?). The survivors on the bus will have to deal with the trauma for years to come. The families of those killed will never get back their loved ones. It couldn’t possibly be more tragic.

What is worse is the fallout. Politicians are calling for locked detention centres. That is, innocent refugees will be treated like criminals, because once you lock someone up and deny them freedom of movement, you’re effectively placing them in jail. The bus-company that owned the bus on which the incident occurred has decided that they will not allow refugees on their buses for a while. So one tragic event has led to a whole group of people being punished. What more is the fear many of his countrymen face. I was told as recently as today (by people from the same region) that they now attempt to conceal where they hail from in order not to be associated with either the man or the event. People who belong to visible minorities have it rough enough as it is, it seems awfully unfair that they should live in fear that the general populace might find out that they were born ‘in the wrong place’..  Most have done nothing wrong, but still have to live in fear. All because we as humans frequently view those who are dissimilar from us as a coherent group, not as differing individuals with different experiences, different psyches, different lives;  yet, with the exact same emotional range as ourselves. We stereotype and assume based on very limited information. Any time you hear the words “people from X are like Y”, you’re witnessing stereotyping. It is not so bad when the stereotypes are innocuous (“Norwegians are docile and for the most part friendly”)  but it is outright dangerous when the qualities superimposed on a group has elements of “this is why these people are dangerous”-reasoning. People are frequently killed because they are perceived to belong to a group believed to be dangerous.. (There were several cases of Sikhs being killed or badly beaten post 9/11, simply for having beards and wearing turbans…Yeah, ignorance is very very dangerous).

I (again) can’t come up with a good/useful conclusion, but I sure hope people come to their senses. I hope they do remember  that one should never judge all the people from a given group because of what one single (very sick) person did. Let us not forget that if the shoe was on the other foot, we might all have been judged based on what our resident terrorist Anders Behring Breivik did.