Categorising groups of people with immediate problems into special classes like ‘Syrian refugees’ or ‘White British Workers’ or ‘EU nationals’ is a certain way to dehumanize those people. They can then be immediately dismissed if the problems associated with the category are deemed non-acute.
This is the basic lesson I’ve learned from engaging with a Syrian refugee here in town. I have about fifteen hours of recordings with him and an interpreter that I’m slowly working through. As you become detached from the conversation, and just work on transcribing the conversation, I can hear myself falling into the categorisation trap.
Omar is a Syrian Refugee. Omar has certain experiences. Those experiences are shared by a broad category of people. Syrian Refugees become a class that’s identical because of their underlying problems.
My follow-up questioning, in the recorded conversation, deal with addressing the class issue, whereas Omar’s responses deal with personal responses to those issues. It’s quite stark listening to the detached voices in the MP3s, one of which is my own.
But is Omar part of a class, a category? Only superficially, by circumstance. If one were to have conducted a sociological study before the Syrian civil war, he could have been described as a middle class public employee in Homs. He would have belonged in the boring main of a broad data set.
A middle of the road non-political civilian with an average job, more concerned with his kids’ education. Because of the Syrian civil war, he was tossed into a big jar and shaken around. And because we found him in that jar, we assigned completely different characteristics to him.
I see the same tendency with middle class urban liberal journalists trying to describe ‘white British workers’ in the North of England. It’s the same categorisation, where broad characteristics are applied broadly to a class of people, regardless of the individual circumstances that make that individual a part of that category.
I think that’s a mistake because it doesn’t teach anything. It just makes for easy dismissal of the individual problems that a specific and narrow set of events have exposed as wide-spread. Just like Omar isn’t defined that he was pulled into the vortex of a civil war with a specific set of issues that affected him personally, individual problems of working class that arise out of specific situations doesn’t categorise them and make them into a class.
Just like I did in these interviews, I think this may lead people to make either of two problems. It allows for the dismissal of the individual problems because of extrapolated problems with the class. See the whole ugly debate surrounding Syrian refugees where some people want to let them drown in the sea because the class is associated with potential terrorism. The other problem is that even for those who avoid falling into class characterisation based on prejudice, the debate moves into the turf of debating broad characteristics based purely on ethnic or cultural belonging.