Implicit Understandings

A quote from an essay the latest issue of Prospect Magazine, where David Goodhart and Kishwer Falkner discuss citizenship:

To say “I don’t need a motto, I’m British … may sound post-moder, but it is actually pre-modern, it assumes the implicit understandings that come with ethnicity – we don’t need to spell things out because we know intuitively.

I think the existence of such “understandings” is an important and interesting idea, which feeds into the issue of race-relations in this country. It is also part of the debate over the meaning of multiculturalism. While such unspoken “understandings” might serve to unite people within a nation, it is other such understandings which signify membership of a minority (or, indeed, class) and therefore divisions within society.

I’m reminded of a comment by Katie from last year:

But to describe the law of return as being based on religion fails to take into account the fact that Judaism is more than just a religion. I do not often say this, because it sounds terribly patronising, but it is very difficult to make someone who is not Jewish understand this. I tried to on Pickled Politics once and I’m afraid it didn’t go down terribly well.

This seems to me to be the assertion of an “implicit understanding” to me. Another example I personally encountered when editing the LIP Magazine was the Slice( ) Mango collective of poets, founded by Christian Campbell and others. Christian’s feeling was that the title of the collective resonated with the members of the group, who (by virtue of their heritage) would immediately understood what it meant, and what it evoked. The bond was already there. I didn’t get it, but that was OK. I wasn’t meant to.

Another example from yesterday’s Observer sees Dawn Butler MP accuse the House of Commons of institutional racism. Ms Butler and her fellow MP Diane Abbott are sure that it exists, but others – especially the white male majority – find the facts harder to discern, because they are not a part of a the minority group and have no understanding of the black experience.

While I believe Dawn Butler’s example is sincere, I’m not sure how helpful it is at communicating with people on the other side of the debate. David Heathcoate-Armory, one of the Tory MPs accused of racism, was clearly not persuaded by her complaints: “they think that any kind of reprimand from anyone is racially motivated.” Clearly not a meeting of minds! The result is a further entrenchment of previously held views on both sides; a reinforcing of negative opinions.

I am more impressed with Barack Obama’s effort to bridge the divide, when he tried to articulate the “implicit understandings” that others may experience, and how this serves to keep groups apart and in conflict.

As I mentioned above, the more I think about it, the more I think that a discussion and comprehension of “implicit understandings” should be part of the multicultural debate. In the case of (say) black people in the UK and USA, this could just mean an attempt to better understand the life experiences of other people, and how your actions might affect them. The interactions between people of different colour or ethnic origin will usually be the political space that we are examining.

However, I think it is also important when discussing that other form of multiculturalism, which is when a single identity is born from more than one heritage or culture. Think of a person of mixed-race, or a second-generation Indian with British citizenship, who are able understand both experiences. The word “narrative” is often used in this context, because the confluence of two ethnic stories is a useful way to describe how different traditions can be merged. That’s also multiculturalism.

Part of the hostility to multiculturalism comes from an insistence on a common political ground, a set of agreed standards. Therefore, the legitimacy of “implicit understandings” is questioned – surely everything can be articulated in plain English? Goodhart and Falkner imply that we are allowed to introduce these shared yet unspoken concepts at the national level, when we’re talking about unity and citizenship. But when sub-national groups seek to introduce other stories, other “implicit understandings”, they are resisted. David Heathcoate-Armory simply doesn’t believe that Butler and Abbott are engaging in legitimate political debate.

Much has been said of Obama as an African-American presidential candidate, but as the speech above shows, his life stories from outside the black “experience” are just as important as those within it. Only with both is he able to articulate the “implicit understandings”, the intellectual or political starting points, for each group, in a language that the other can understand. This is not the way we usually do politics, but globalisation, immigration and the birth of more mixed-race children suggests that this is what we need for the future.

I was certainly of that opinion when I wrote the post “First Hand” last year.

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