Impetus: the times are a-changing, but will they change us?

Thursday 21st May 2020

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Michelle Lawrence
Director, Link Up UK
Co-founder, Belong: the Cohesion and Integration Network

The idea of the ‘impetus’ has been the elusive challenge that I have been grappling with. For some years now, my charity has been focusing on how we can change attitudes towards the ‘other’. How do we engage with those people and those views when there is nothing to persuade them to engage? How do we bring them to the table or the screen? And how do we change their views when they get there. However you get people to feel differently about the other, the first step has to be to find the impetus for them to engage in the first place.

Most people are averse to changing, they don’t see there is anything wrong with how they think. Let’s face it, none of us like being told or having to accept that we have been misled, or incorrect, or even racist! We socialise with people who reflect our views, we read papers that support our ways of thinking, our social media is littered with self-congratulatory endorsements of our ideas.

So what on earth can intrude into our echo chambers to become the impetus to enable change? For most, it is a personal thing. They’ve met someone who challenges their thinking, maybe a family member whose identity strays from their family norm, or a friend or a helper who doesn’t fit the stereotype they’ve held for so long. In most cases each impetus is specific and personal, and are not possible to replicate or manufacture.

But maybe now we’ve been handed the biggest impetus there has ever been? The line – we have more in common than divides us – is never more true than in a lockdown. We’re all baking more (flour seems to have overtaken even toilet paper in the precious stakes), we’re all talking on Zoom, cleaning more, decluttering, making up lists of things we’ll still not get round to doing – and we’re all experiencing a collective sense of the weird twilight style world we’re inhabiting.

For the first time in what seems like forever, we all seem to be united against a collective foe, and our warriors have very different faces to those we would have expected. Our warriors wear scrubs, supermarket uniforms, tabards and masks. And many of the faces behind those masks are the faces of the ‘other’.

The very papers that till recently ran story after story about the burden of migration are the same papers that today are calling them heroes. So what happens next? Has the impetus worked enough? Are we now a cohesive society, are we all ‘woke’ to the benefits of diversity and migration? The answer I believe is both yes and no.

Whilst it is refreshing that the right wing groups have been noticeably quiet during this time, neither they nor their views have gone anywhere. And this tip of the iceberg group is not where we need to be looking to assess the impact of the Covid 19 impetus.

We have all seen the amazing stories of kindness and community that have sprung forth from this pandemic. People have been uniting and organising and supporting and helping in unprecedented ways. It has been the most beautiful sight to behold and to be a part of. But below this surface unity there are still cracks. Whether you look at the pitchfork yielding messages to the ‘outsiders’ or the inconceivable aggression towards NHS staff, the message that ‘we’re all in it together’ seems to shake somewhat. We’re not all experiencing it the same. The poor and the BAME communities are experiencing it worst, urban areas have been hit harder than rural, and the elderly are particularly suffering.

It’s what happens next that will see determine if this impetus has worked. Instead of bringing people together, will we have created new divides – between the survivors and those at risk, between the vulnerable and the less so? Or will we just go back to how it was before?

Will we remember the faces behind the masks when we are looking at our neighbours, will we remember it was our neighbours that came through for us? Will we remember that it was the people who blamed the ‘other’ for the failings in society who did the least? An impetus is not a one hit wonder. It needs to be sustained. And reminders need to be made of the pure and true value of the diversity of the faces behind the masks.

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