Territoriality, Exclusion and Shallow Processing

Recently invited to a book fair organized by a french association dealing with racism and identity issues, Albin Wagener attended the proceedings to present his book on national identity.  Little did he know everything which would surround him was a display of everything he thought he would be fighting against. 

“I became scared about how France is actually  dealing with intercultural dialogue, tolerance or diversity”

Tolerance is a fashionable feature for public policies and individual or collective initiatives. It remains much needed and, nowadays, the introduction of this very concept and its epistemological offspring (interculturality, recognition, diversity, etc.) is mostly backed by general sentences such as “in these times of globalization” or “today, international exchanges are more intense than ever” – strange truisms actually, if you only think of the history of mankind and its various momentums for discoveries, travels and trades. When observations start with such phrases, one may think that the following conclusions are simply meant to be limited in their interpretations and spheres of actions. This is, of course, not entirely true; sometimes, it is just worse than that.

A few weeks ago, on May 22nd, I had the chance and honor to attend the 4thBook Fair on Antiracism and Diversity organized by the

poster ad from the LICRA: "our skin color must not determine our future", with a dark-skinned baby wearing a janitor's uniform

happily lobbying LICRA, the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism. To be honest, this association is not that international; it is only fair to emphasize the fact that the LICRA is mostly Parisian and white, surely less focused on racism as a whole than anti-semitism as a specific. Being only one upon many authors invited at this book fair, I was struck by the fact that most of the present authors were indeed white. The thin crowd, loafing around in this cocky salon of the municipal building of the 6th arrondissement, was not more diverse either. The most diverse thing I noticed was a bumptious selection of Louis Vuitton handbags, golden necklaces and bourgeois hairdos. Not only were the attendees mostly Caucasian: they were also wealthy and willing to show it. So much about diversity and antiracism, I guess. One may argue that I feel frustrated with having sold only three copies of my book: fortunately I am not so misleadingly proud. I was indeed frustrated (and I still am), but with a more essential reason: I became scared about how France is actually  dealing with intercultural dialogue, tolerance or diversity.

Cover of french satirical cartoon magazine "Fluide Glacial"

The late debate on French national identity already taught us that much. Still the tradition of this country is bound to a faith in the actual regime – the French Republic. And this model is not made for a multicultural society, for the absolute Republic stands high above human differences. As it stands, cultural diversity is put forward when it comes to the worldwide preservation of the French language and culture. Yet on national territory, cultural homogeneity is promoted and encouraged, on the street and even within the home. This is probably why recently, representatives of Sarkozy’s party, UMP, tried to reignite an old recurrent issue: the threat of dual citizens, probably undermining the national future. To cut a long story short,  some politicians would argue that dual citizens should only be allowed to keep a single citizenship, preferably the french one, thus denying any right to recognition, diversity and – let’s not be afraid to state it – human complexity. To some extent, it is implying that you are legally french, or you are not; that french citizenship does not stand the challenge of sharing a burden with another country of citizenship. So what happens next? Should I choose to be only French, will I only be allowed to drink red wine, eat camembert and wear a Basque beret? The French no longer need stereotypes: they are producing them. Should I let go of the French citizenship, what is the next step? Will I be treated like a regular citizen? All these questions are taken to a higher level of incongruity, because diversity is seen, displayed and treated as a problem that has to be solved with simple solutions. In France, no one seems to want to live with complexity as a metaphysical condition of mankind: the national choice is political reductionism made for polls. I still do hope that we will fulfil our duty as citizens to be more informed, more educated, more pro-active in the understanding of our own identities.

“Options are not based on the need to include, integrate and share, but on the need to shut out, separate and exclude”

This manipulation of ideas such as diversity, tolerance and interculturalism is only possible because of three major phenomena: territoriality, exclusion and shallow processing.  If French history is an acceptable explanation for this conceptual blend, it is still not an excuse; different social choices could be made in order to make this model evolve. The problem is that French politicians are mostly focused on national self-references and are not easily inspired by foreign models. This confusion is made easier by a European crisis of identity, making nations question the social models of diversity and multiculturalism without looking at the original causes of collective turmoil – unemployment, an ever-growing poverty and the creeping conviction that the economic choice of international capitalism no longer fits. We would then need to ask the right questions by reinventing our social and political models, our system of consumerism and our relationships to others. This would require energy, time and serious means to tackle them: it is easier to believe that it is someone else’s fault, particularly when we do not share the same cultural values, social references or religious beliefs. Come to think about it, it becomes really convenient to define a delimited territory when borders are traced on the basis of self-imposed stereotypes of what should and should not be. Since France has always been reluctant to surrender to the European alarm calls for a collective policy of recognition, it now has the opportunity to spread this message around the world: “you see, we had it coming – we knew this would never work”. In this sense, the crisis of the European identity and its projects work well with the risk of a territorial fallback.

This brings us to a second point: exclusion as a solution. In recent political developments, I did not sense any notion of inclusion. In other words, the submitted options are not based on the need to include, integrate and share, but on the need to shut out, separate and exclude; if the territory has clear borders (in a national, social and cultural sense), then it is easier to leave people behind than to redefine said borders in order to allow a recognition of diversity. Even the LICRA applies this model, as an assembly of white Parisian bourgeois talking about diversity and racism without working activities in, for instance, Parisian suburbs, where high crime rates, massive immigration and a slow disintegration of the social fabric demand ground-breaking initiatives. Another discourse is mostly contained in sentences such as “it’s not that we want to exclude them – they just do not want to integrate”. Again, the blame is never on us and we should not have to make any effort: in fact, it is our country, isn’t it? Why bother thinking about opening minds, when they already knew they were closed before they were coming? Caricaturing may not be an option, yet it helps showing what this is about: when I let someone new in my social or individual space, it means that I will inevitably have to question elements that I took for granted. Living together requires a certain level of social intelligence that should probably be taught at school, yet the basic instinct of exclusion is often backed by political discourses and nationwide policies.

a man diving in shallow water

Still, these manipulations would not work without the steady support of regular citizens, basically you and me. This is made possible by specific cognitive trick named shallow processing. The concept of shallow processing means that your mind will focus on so-called concepts and connect them together in order to create a basic context for understanding the message. Our brain works like that; it always does. What it does not do, however, is perceive when these concepts are manipulated for the sake of a certain goal. We are thus trained to recognize concepts and link them together with things we already know. Shallow processing does not teach us how to question things: it tells us how to make basic connections in order to guarantee a relevant understanding of the message, regarding to a cohesive environment. In this sense, if anyone is already providing us with truncated information or orientated messages, it is our responsibility to recognize that these are actually incomplete and purposely built. We have to gather pieces of information and educate ourselves in order to build up a broader knowledge of the world we live in and therefore participate to maintain. If we reduce our intellectual skills to the cognitive necessity of shallow processing, we become party to the decisions that are made and sustained thanks to our inability to save a couple of minutes for hindsight.

This is, truly, what is most scary about the current decline in the collective disbelief in identity, recognition and the benefits of intercultural exchanges: we make this possible for we make it happen, each time we receive sneaky messages drowned in a communicational flood and each time we base our vote on partial, incomplete and slanted elements. We are responsible for not double-checking information and for taking our convictions for granted. If we do not let the benefits of complexity enter our lives, then there will never be enough room for a real and sustainable policy of diversity and recognition, and there will still be people mistaking Muslims for Islamists, immigration for crime and national borders for battlements against differences.

Albin Wagener is Dean of the Faculty of Modern Languages and Linguistics (IPLV) and Head of the LALIC project (Languages, Linguistic and Cultural Interactions) at the Université Catholique de l’Ouest, Angers, France. He is also the co-founder and president of the OISC.

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About albinwagener
OISC - President

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