7 January 2021

Talk/together: Race, history, and digital divides are talking points in South West

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Statues and social media were among the key themes raised in Talk/together discussions across the South West of England, writes Jake Puddle.

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Steve Ballinger
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Participants in our final week of online discussions for the Talk/together project came from Bristol, Plymouth, Taunton, and Bournemouth. In both groups, generational differences in attitudes over Brexit, Black Lives Matter and digital divides prompted calls for kinder and more open political discussion.

Britain’s departure from the EU re-emerged as a salient theme, against a backdrop of tense negotiations throughout December. Our groups comprised a 50-50 balance of Leave and Remain voters, with those who strongly identified with a particular side, as well as those for whom Brexit was no longer an issue that invoked such strong emotions. Some people confessed to having little or no interaction with others who voted a different way to themselves, and either stayed within their own political bubbles or refrained from discussing the issue altogether. Social media was seen to have exacerbated this trend. Several noted a personal habit of ‘unfollowing’ friends with different views, or withdrawing from these platforms, usually after an online fall-out on the topic. Yet others also felt that AI algorithms on these sites had targeted their feeds too narrowly, to the point where ‘only a certain train of thought is posted to me, and I have to actively search elsewhere for opposing views.’

Social media was seen in a more positive light with regard to local relief efforts in the South West. Participants felt that online platforms had been crucial in bringing communities together during successive lockdowns at a time when people were physically separated, and local food banks, mutual aid groups and community pages set up via Facebook or WhatsApp groups had strengthened feelings of belonging in their area. Their potential to act as a linking tool within communities was seen by many as a new and empowering way to inspire civic action, both during the crisis and into the future.

Emerging from these discussions, though, hopes about the merits of digital connectivity were also balanced against concerns for those in the community who risked exclusion from such online interaction. The South West has the highest proportion of over-65s by region in the UK; meanwhile OfCom data shows that 30% of 65-74s and 51% of over 75s are internet non-users. Several voiced worries that their elderly neighbours were being left behind by this digitisation of neighbourly contact, lacking the online and IT literacy to participate in the groups or access community services. While online efforts to organise and respond to the crisis were seen as valuable, it was noted that these relief initiatives should be supplemented by more conventional door-knocking and telephone calls to avoid excluding those without the skills and confidence to ask for help online.

A lot of people in my street are over seventy-five and they’re isolated from social media. So, they don’t do WhatsApp and they don’t do Facebook. They’re not aware of things via the internet.”

Generational differences were likewise raised in regard to attitudes over race and British history. It was clear that the toppling of the Edward Colston statue remained a salient topic of debate, particularly in Bristol. But, while some participants talked about how the Black Lives Matter protests had inspired more debate among younger people on both contemporary and historic racism, it was widely felt that a broader and more open dialogue was needed on these issues between different age groups.

Younger and older participants alike shared a desire for a national conversation on race but said they felt shut down by others with opposing views about how we interpret and commemorate Britain’s history, leading them to avoid breaching the conversation with neighbours, friends or relatives. No-one in the groups was suggesting the accommodation of people with racist views.  But there was a common feeling that, for wider-reaching and lasting change to be achieved on discussions around race, history and identity, it was now important to find ways of disagreeing better – finding constructive ways to engage, explore and challenge others’ perspectives.

I think it’s avoided, kind of like talking about religion used to be. Everybody’s opinions are very strong. Everybody is desperate to voice them. And, unfortunately, we seem to have lost a little bit of tolerance and forbearance of other people. Our opinion is right, which automatically makes anyone else’s wrong.”

Across our discussions in the South West, the recurring theme was a need for more respectful, two-way dialogue on the difficult and sometimes sensitive issues which polarise us. Social media algorithms certainly have a role to play in addressing these divides, and due consideration must be given by policymakers and platforms to the ways that echo chambers can narrow discussion and reinforce users’ existing views. But in offline interaction too, open debate is crucial to breaking down stereotypes, developing mutual understanding and finding common ground. These conversations may not always reach a consensus, but an agreement to differ can serve as an important stepping-stone to a kinder and more considerate politics.

Talk/together is the UK’s biggest-ever public conversation about what divides and unites us, and what could bring our society together in these difficult times. It is coordinated by British Future as part of /Together, a new coalition of household names like the NHS and the Scouts and local organisations from across the UK. Please share your views by completing our short online survey at www.together.org.uk