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Slow Views

GB News will not divide us; television already has

Thursday 22 July 2021

We have a natural bias towards people like us, but, for years, various unifying institutions kept this instinct in check… until a certain electrical box arrived on the scene


So, did you watch it? At 7pm on Tuesday, did you tune in? Did you get your full 60 minutes of unvarnished, unapologetic opinion from the man so many love to hate? I mean, of course, Nigel Farage, the most successful unelected political figure of his generation. People say his new show was unmissable. It wasn’t. How can it be when it’s on four times a week?

The arrival of Farage at GB News is a bit like hearing that someone you could have sworn was dead has just died. It’s a bit troubling, quite interesting, rather surprising and totally expected all at the same time. This was a channel, its critics say, that was set up to capitalise on – and hasten – Britain’s divides. And here comes Mr Divisive himself.

But I have to say: GB News will not divide us, even with Nigel Farage on board. Let me be bolder: the right-wing media – from the Murdoch empire to the Barclay Brothers, the Mail to the Spectator – will not divide us. Still not bold enough? How about this: the right-wing media has not, did not and never will divide us. Prefer something more balanced? The media, whether right or left-wing, isn’t dividing us and won’t divide us.

Am I saying that we don’t have a problem with division? Not at all. Even if we go beyond what people say – half of British people tell pollsters that we are “more divided than ever before” – the problem is definitely real. Just look at our friendship groups. Half of graduates have no friends without a degree. The majority of pensioners don’t have contact with anyone under the age of 35, apart from their grandchildren. A fifth of Leavers and a quarter of Remainers don’t have a single friend who voted the other way. Half of us have no friends from a different ethnic background.

And the largest divide, of course, remains wealth. The average professional person in this country hardly knows anyone who is struggling for work. The average UK barrister would have to throw a garden party for 100 guests (illegal until last Monday) if they wanted to have half a chance of inviting someone they knew who was unemployed.

Then what am I getting at? Shouldn’t I just look at the evidence. Exhibit A: We are divided. Exhibit B: There is a right-wing media. Case closed, right?

I beg to differ. We sound like a pair of incompetent TV cops who have drawn a chalk outline around a dead body and arrested whoever happened to be nearest. The truth, the actual truth, requires a little investigation – and the town of Oldham is a good place to start.

On the morning of 27 May 2001, Oldham found itself on the front page of every newspaper in England. A racist attack had led to a street fight, which by the evening had erupted into a full-blown riot between local white and Asian young men. It was three days before peace returned. After the riots had subsided, a decision was made to try to bring the white and Asian populations of Oldham together.

Greenhill Mill school burns during the rioting in Oldham

On the west side of the town stood two schools, just two miles apart. On the face of it, Breeze Hill and Counthill had much in common. Both had around 700 pupils, served mostly lower-income families and achieved mixed results. And yet anyone visiting the schools would spot an obvious difference. It was hard to find a white student at Breeze Hill, and equally rare to see an Asian student at Counthill. A decision was made to close both schools and transfer all of the pupils to a new, larger school where they would be educated together. It was called Waterhead Academy.

The most interesting part of Waterhead Academy is the canteen. It’s here – unlike in many of their lessons – that the students have a completely free choice about whom they sit next to. This meant that a team of social psychologists was able to track whether the children – Asian and white – chose to sit together or apart. The good news is that white and Asian students sit next to each other more often than when the two schools first merged. The bad news is that they still don’t do it very much.

But this isn’t the interesting thing. It shouldn’t surprise us that students educated in different schools will take some time to get to know each other. No, the interesting thing about Waterhead is something else that the psychologists discovered. For they didn’t just record the ethnicity of the children. They also recorded their hair colour and whether they wore glasses. And what did they find? They discovered that children with ginger hair – like me – were more likely to sit next to others with ginger hair. Children with glasses – again, like me – were more likely to sit next to other children with glasses.

Francis Evans was an academic at the Chicago School of Business who became fascinated by door-to-door sales. In the early 1960s, he started following 125 sales reps up and down the United States as they tried to sell life insurance to local residents. He found an extraordinary pattern. No matter the competence of the sales rep, the homeowner was more likely to buy if the rep supported the same political party as they did. They were more likely to buy if the rep had the same level of education that they did. They were even more likely to buy if the rep was the same height that they were. 

All the mod cons: a door-to-door vacuum salesman in the 1950s

What both Evans and the researchers at Waterhead Academy discovered was a bias that affects all of us. 37,000 academic articles have come to the same conclusion. We have a small and constant bias towards people who remind us of ourselves. Academics call this “homophily”. I prefer the term “People Like Me Syndrome”. Found across the world – from Kuala Lumpur to Kingston – People Like Me Syndrome affects what we buy, where we work, and whom we make friends with. This bias is at the heart of our divisions. 

There is a story that, at the turn of the 20th Century, the Times ran a competition. The newspaper asked a number of British authors to respond to a single question: “What is wrong with the world today?” Most writers submitted long, detailed and scholarly responses. All apart from one, which reputedly came from the writer and theologian G.K. Chesterton. It consisted of four words: “Dear Sirs, I am.” 

The challenging truth is that the best answer to the question “What is the cause of our divisions?” is “Dear Sirs, I am”. It is our bias towards People Like Me that best explains what is going on.

But – good news – even this is not the whole story. After all, People Like Me Syndrome is a constant, unchanging bias, so it cannot explain our growing divisions by itself. That would be like explaining why it is hotter today than it was yesterday by simply saying “the sun”. There must be another villain of the piece; something that has changed.

To understand this, we need to make another journey, to an unusual tribe who live in Northern Tanzania on the shores of Lake Eyasi. The Hadza tribe have lived here for 60,000 years. They remain hunter-gatherers, but, remarkably, this fact is not the most fascinating thing about the Hadza: every month, when the moon is hidden, the tribe gathers together and performs a ritual that has been passed down from generation to generation, called the epeme. In total darkness, Hadza men gather and hide behind nearby trees. Then, as the women begin to sing, the first man starts to dance. He wears a headdress of dark ostrich-feathers, a long, black cape on his back, bells on his ankles, and carries a rattle in his hand. In time with the women’s singing, he stamps his right foot hard on the ground, causing the bells to ring, while marking the beat of the music with his rattle. As the singing grows in strength, the women rise to join the man and children join in. After each man has danced the epeme two or three times, the ritual is finished. It is now close to midnight, and the Hadza bed down and wait for the new day to begin.

Hadzabe men after a hunting trip

What is the point of the epeme? It has no religious purpose, it does not settle disputes or decide the hierarchy, it plays no role in the economy. So why do the Hadza do it? A group of anthropologists decided to find out. For ten years, they carefully recorded who each Hadza shared tools, hunted, gossiped and ate with. They were looking to discover whom the Hadza trusted. The first thing they discovered was not surprising. The Hadza – who are made up of a series of smaller families – trust their kin more than everyone else. In other words, they trust People Like Me. But the second thing the researchers found was more interesting. They found a second group of people that each Hadza tended to trust: those they had danced the epeme with. In fact, the Hadza trusted those they had danced with more than they trusted their own family. 

The point of the epeme is simple: unity. The epeme knits the Hadza people together with people who seem less like them. But how does it work? Simple. The epeme gets the Hadza dancing with people they don’t choose; everyone who is there dances. This lack of choice is essential – for it is only when we choose that People Like Me Syndrome can sneak in. We have no word in the English language for this type of institution – one that connects you with people that you don’t choose. I call it the “Common Life”. Once you start looking for Common Life institutions, you can see them throughout our history. As hunter-gatherers, we relied on rituals like the epeme. After the agrarian revolution, as farmers, we used feast days, rites of passage and religious ceremonies. These were a big deal: for the average 14th-century English farmer, one in every five days was a feast day.

After the industrial revolution, in a country of factory workers, three new institutions sprung up to connect us. First, in 1880, schooling became mandatory across England, connecting children and their parents with people they had never met. Second, it became normal for adults to head to a local workplace and toil alongside strangers rather than working at home surrounded by neighbours. Finally, a completely new institution – the voluntary society – sprang up and started spreading rapidly across the country. Almost every well-known voluntary association – from the Scouts to the Guides, the Women’s Institute to the Salvation Army – was founded between 1850 and 1920.

Members of the Salvation Army feed flood victims in Wales, 1935

Most children joined the nearest school. Most adults worked for the nearest employer. And both joined the nearest clubs and societies. This was the Common Life that connected our grandparents and great-grandparents together. The result was that our ancestors increasingly spent time with people that they did not choose – which meant no bias towards People Like Me.

The history of human division is a fight between two brawlers. In one corner is People Like Me Syndrome, pulling us towards people just like us. In the other sits the Common Life, a set of institutions knitting us together with people of all sorts. Why has our society become divided? Because People Like Me Syndrome is winning. Why is it winning? Well, it’s not because of the media. It is because the Common Life has stopped fighting and is running away instead.

Look at our schools and our workplaces. They’re still there, of course, but they have become much weaker at bringing us together with people unlike us. Why? Because most of us now expect to choose the schools we send our children to and choose the workplaces we work in. We study the school league tables and the “best places to work” rankings. We purposefully seek out places that might suit People Like Me. Our schools are therefore more divided than the neighbourhoods they serve and our colleagues are more like us than ever. They are closer to us in age, income and in political opinion. Recent research in the US shows that workplaces have become more, not less, racially segregated over the last 50 years.

What about those clubs and societies, though? By 1950, they had been booming for a century and then they began to decline. It was as though someone had found a reverse gear, selected it and hit the accelerator. Every generation born after 1950 became less likely to join a club than the one before it. Groups that had dominated the 19th Century declined the fastest. Consider churchgoing: in 1900, a third of the population went to church so frequently that they considered themselves a “member”. By 2010, this had fallen to just one tenth.

The number of working men’s clubs halved between 1972 and 2015, as did membership of the Women’s Institute. 60 per cent of Brits born at the end of the Second World War were a member of at least one group when they celebrated their 40th birthday. Just 20 years later, Brits celebrating the same birthday had become half as likely to be involved.

A working men’s club in the 1960s

No-one forced us to stop attending. Why, then, did we stop? The answer can be found nine hours’ drive from Vancouver. Here, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, sits a town of 658 Canadians. This town, called Notel, is special. Unlike the rest of the West and the other towns nearby, residents there continued to meet up each evening at the bridge club, the hockey club, the Scouts, the Elks and the neighbourhood watch. But there is something else you need to know about Notel. It’s not its real name. Notel is a nickname given to the town because of something odd about it: Notel was a town with no television. Blocked by the mountains, the signal simply couldn’t get through. The residents complained. They wrote to the TV networks. They wrote to the politicians. They started petitions. For years, nothing changed.

In 1972, the people of Notel received news that would change the town forever. Within a year, TV would arrive on their screens. Researchers rushed to the town, drawn by the chance to measure what difference TV made to people’s lives. They started tracking nearly everything from children’s reading age to the quality of people’s relationships. Amidst the measures, they also recorded how often the people of Notel went along to a local club. Perhaps this wouldn’t change. Maybe the people in Notel were simply more community-spirited than other towns.

It would appear not. Once TV arrived in the winter of 1973, attendance at clubs fell fast and hard across every single age group.

This country has become fractured by age, income, ethnicity, political opinion and class. The same divisions are visible across most of the West. Who did it? To paraphrase Chesterton, “We did.” Our evolved bias towards People Like Me has always made division likely.

The puzzle, really, is why our grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t become so divided. Their salvation was a Common Life – one that included thousands of small, well-attended clubs and societies. We should mourn the loss of those clubs and societies and look to rebuild them.

The damage wasn’t done by the right-wing media. It definitely wasn’t done by GB News, with or without Farage. No, it wasn’t the media at all. It was the messenger – the humble television.

Jon Yates leads the Youth Endowment Fund and is the author of Fractured: Why Our Societies are Coming Apart and How We Put Them Back Together Again.