September 5 2016

How can we create a more socially cohesive society?

From racially motivated comments by some of our most well-known media personalities, to toxic debates about asylum seeker policy and extreme right-wing politicians’ surging popularity in western nations, our communities seem more fractured than ever. So what can be done to create a more cohesive and harmonious society?

When people think about social cohesion they tend to focus on people getting along (liking and agreeing with each other).

In fact, it’s important to think about socially cohesive communities as societies where people respect each other even if they disagree, and where they can disagree without feeling unsafe and disrespected.

Safe disagreement is especially important when it comes to marginalised groups because there’s always a degree of positive social conflict that’s needed to make sure that disadvantaged groups can voice their grievances and allow change to occur.

For example, ideally Aboriginal Australians should be able to talk about discrimination they experience, or religious minorities should be able to talk about their different values, without everyone freezing or lashing out.

Build solidarity

People will sometimes align themselves with a more extreme group (or political leader) because that person or group appears to represent their concerns.

Such groups often use an ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative, positioning another group within society as the problem, which exploits people’s feelings of unfairness.

People who are aggrieved are more likely to be persuaded by anti-social messages or proposed extreme tactics or violence, particularly if they feel they haven’t been dealt with fairly and they are marginalised from mainstream society.

If we want a socially cohesive society it is then important to address inequality and to ensure all people have access to opportunity, particularly to education and employment.

By acknowledging and addressing people’s legitimate grievances, you have a greater opportunity for a constructive dialogue that leads to solutions and helps defuse divisive debates.

You can build solidarity by ensuring people feel included, their voices are heard, and by emphasising shared values and common goals.

Focus on communities not individuals

Our ultimate goal is a respectful community where people feel safe to express their culture, sexual orientation or religion without fear, and where we can debate contentious issues constructively. So how do we deal with leaders who express divisive views and promote punitive or violent actions?

Extremist political leaders say there are problems with jobs, immigration and religious diversity, which can ignite fear.   It’s common to react to these people in a very personal, blame-filled way by saying that they are bigots.

However, personal attacks are counter-productive as they detract from the real issue. If we think such leaders express marginal or unhelpful views, we need to understand why people are supporting them.

It pays to acknowledge that leaders with extreme political views are putting forward a particular type of solution to a real or perceived problem.   Voicing that problem with alternative potential solutions is a necessary step in rebuilding cohesion.

The perceived problem is what such leaders have in common with their supporters – for example, a concern about jobs or terrorism. It is the proposed solution – exclusionary measures or discrimination that divides society – that needs to be challenged.

What’s more, it’s crucial to avoid stigmatising and labelling leaders’ supporters or, even worse, entire communities. Sometimes people talk about the entire Australian community or specific areas or suburbs as racist or hostile to immigrants. These types of labels are toxic.

Having shared grievances or concerns with a leader doesn’t necessarily mean the community embraces the solutions being advocated, such as discriminatory laws or violence. We must recognise the grievances of the community in order to have a conversation that goes beyond labelling.

Equally because some extremists come out of a particular community it doesn’t mean they stand for or represent that community, or that their community supports their beliefs or actions. We risk social division by making blanket assumptions about any group, particularly if we stereotype them with the attributes of the most extreme among them.

I have written elsewhere about effective anti-racism communication – it is not always easy, but a general principle is that if we hear a group derogated or dismissed, it is useful to disagree firmly but briefly. The focus is on voicing that “we believe” an alternative, more positive statement about the target group, rather than attacking the speaker per se.

Our goals should be to arrive at mutual understanding of how the problem is perceived by each audience, to create a safe process for open disagreement and conflict, and to find a joint solution that includes mutual respect and a commitment to fairness.





Associate Professor Louis’ research is currently funded by the Australian Research Council Discovery scheme and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.