On social distance, a great TED-talk and refugees

Image from allnationstranslations.com

Image from allnationstranslations.com

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.

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