john a. powell speaks at the London School of Economics


July 13, 2017

On June 14, 2017 at the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics, Haas Institute Director john a. powell presented at the conference Challenging Inequalities: Developing a Global Response. Speaking to a sold out crowd of over 400 people, he opened the discussion on "Othering and Belonging: Race, Poverty, and Disability" with Baroness Lister of Burtersett and Liz Sayce of Disability Rights UK. The session explored how the dehumanizing process of Othering affects debates around race and ethnicity, as well as poverty and disability. 

Download the Powerpoint presentation from that talk here.

And read a full transcript of john's remarks below.


Moderator: Did everyone have a good lunch? Fantastic, good to hear that. Well thank you for joining us over the start of this afternoon session. I'm very excited to be chairing our next panel which is all about something that I'm particularly passionate about: Othering and Belonging, and how we create a society that is inclusive of everybody. In this session we'll be discussing race, poverty, and disability.  We have a very good lineup of speakers for you. How the session will go is our speakers will each make a presentation and then we'll have a conversation and take questions from the floor. So our first speaker has flown in all the way from UC Berkeley. He arrived yesterday, not jet-lagged, you're doing alright, john, not bad going? Or let me be much more formal, Professor john a. powell, so without further ado, please put your hands together for Professor powell.


john a. powell: Good afternoon. It's good to be here, and after flying from California my arms are really tired, but I'm looking forward to a very lively conference and a very lively panel.

So the framework I’m talking about is Othering & Belonging. At UC Berkeley, I run something called the Haas Institute, and it has seven different clusters, looking at marginality, and even after looking at seven, and others, it looks at race, gender, disability, age, religion, sexual orientation, and I know I'm leaving some out, and when I got there, I'm the founding director of the Haas Institute, I thought, what do all these groups have in common? And so we came up with the framework of Othering & Belonging. All the groups are experiencing some collective form of being Othered or being Other; and they are all striving to belong in some way. And so that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

I want to suggest, though, that this is not a US problem. This is actually a global problem. It is partially precipitated by some global trends: globalization, changing economy, but also demographics. And I’m going to focus specifically on demographics. 

So we see the process of Othering being partially expressed partially in terms of right-wing nationalism and ethno-nationalism. It’s happening all around the world. But it takes on different expressions, though. Sometimes it’s an expression of race. Sometimes it’s an expression of religion. Language. Nationality. And it can take on many other, food you eat. These are all ways in which you can have “state-sponsored” Othering, if you will.

And this is a little cartoon, so what is Othering? I know, your kind can never figure that out.

So, the process of Othering can happen at many different levels. It can happen at the interpersonal level. It can also happen between football teams. But we’re actually talking about group-based and even state-based Othering. So these are just some of the lines that it can happen around.

It’s interesting because there is no natural Other, and no natural belonging. These are all constructed. Even though the mind if ready to Other, there is no automatic content, if you will. So the content of Othering, the process of Othering is social and cultural.

So one of the things happening in the world that's driving Othering is the movement of people—immigration.  And so if you look at all the expressions of national, ethno, right-wing movement around the world, they actually take on different variations. One thing they almost always deal with is anxiety about immigration. When things happen, when there’s a lot of change, we have a hard time processing it as human beings. So when there's a lot of change, it creates anxiety. So what we’re seeing is that, in a sense, the increased diversity around the world is creating a fertile ground for anxiety. 

Now that anxiety is normally responded to in one of two ways. And this is Robert Putnam's work, for those that know his work. He did this work originally in the early ‘90s in Europe. And what he projected then was that as Europe became more diverse across some salient indicators, that it was actually going to have more anxiety. 

And the way we normally deal with that anxiety is one of two ways: Either we do bonding, which really means closing in or inward-looking—we’re looking at our own group. Or we do bridging, which means reaching across to the other group. Now in fact what he found is two things: Bonding and bridging can happen at the same time. But also what happens oftentimes is groups often retreat inside, so there is less bridging and less bonding. So that’s actually and oftentimes in response to this growing anxiety around growing diversity. 

Now I want to suggest that anxiety itself is not bad. When we go through a lot of changes, we oftentimes experience anxiety. But that anxiety takes on a particular form, though.

So think about, I have a granddaughter, she's seven, I always use this as an example. So when a little kid gets ready to go to kindergarten in the United States for the first time, it’s a change. And a lot of change produces anxiety.

And so you take a little kid like my granddaughter and you say, “You know you’re going to do something different. You’re no longer going to stay home with your parents. You’re gonna go to school.”

And now the kid is feeling a little anxious. It’s a change, it's a big change. And then the parent says, "And when you go to school tomorrow, I want you to be careful because there are bullies. And they want to take your lunch money. And they aren't going to talk to you, and they are going to pull your hair.” Now the kid is saying “You know what, actually I don’t need to go to school. I'm fine.”

But the other way the parent can talk to the kid is “You know you're going to school tomorrow, and you're going to meet new friends, you’re going to start learning to read. You’re going to learn your alphabet, you're going to have play dates and overnights." Now the kid is like "Oo oo oo, can I go right now?" So those forms it's what I call bridging and it shouldn't be bonding, it should be breaking.

Notice that bridging and breaking are mediated through leadership, narratives, and organization. It’s not something that people normally arrive at on their own. So when we see all the kind of polarization that's happening across the world, it’s not simply that people are figuring out on their own that they should dislike certain people. They know that there is anxiousness, they know something is going on in their society. They don’t know how to think about it. The leader, the stories they tell, the culture actually tells people whether we should be afraid of those people or whether or not we are going to have play dates with those people. 

In the United States, Trump has been masterful at saying those people are a threat to you. And it’s a zero-sum game. If they win, you lose. And he’s been very graphic and actually I had some language, I took it out because it was too, vitriolic and violent. But he talks about Mexicans coming to rape our women.

And a lot of the language, if you look at it, in the US context and the UK context, it’s not necessarily about the economy. It’s not simply saying they are coming to take your job. In some ways it’s saying they are coming to take your identity, who you are. And many people have a hard time focusing on identity. They think it’s a squishy thing, that doesn’t really matter. That what you have matters but not who you are. Where you oftentimes think of ourselves as human havings rather than human beings. 

And so when liberals, in the US context, I know liberals means something different in Europe, hear about “Othering” they sometimes, we sometimes respond by "saming." What is “saming?” Saming is basically saying “we’re all the same. You know we may have different religions, we may dress differently, we may have different food, but we’re all the same.” It’s kind of a false assimilation. Which actually in some ways, even though it’s meant sometimes to be positive, it’s seen as erasing. 

So when I walk into a room in the United States and people say, especially white people say, I didn’t even notice you were Black!” And that’s supposed to be a compliment! (laughter) So I want to be noticed, I want you to notice I’m Black, I want you to notice I’m tall. I want you to notice I flew over here all by myself. 

Can you actually have a noticing of differences and have those differences mean something different? So when we look at bridging, bridging is recognizing our differences and then moving to a different place. And I’ll come back to that at the end of my talk. 

So what we’re seeing around the world is this growing diversity. I know a later panel is going to talk about narratives, and one of the purposes of narratives, on of the purposes of stories is to build identity. To give meaning. We don’t normally think of them as stories. So Christians for example would be offended if you talked about the creation story as a “story.” They think of it as reality. But it's important to them. But every country, every people in a sense, have an origin story. How did we come to being.

But those stories are always contested. They are never simple. And they are always changing as the world changes. One of the things that new groups do is in some ways disturb those stories. So the Christians have their stories and then here comes Muslims and they say “Well you know Jesus was cool but he could not have been the son of God. Whaat?!” And that's disturbing to your story if your story is that Jesus actually is the son of God.

So then what do you do with that? Do you bridge or do you break? And one way you bridge is to engage in empathetic listening and empathetic storytelling, in an inclusive way, around belonging.

But when you break, “I don’t want to hear your suffering." In fact, what I say in my breaking context, is my story is the only one that really counts.

In a sense, breaking is a conversation-ending strategy. “I don’t really want to talk to you, I want you to listen to me,  but I don’t want to listen to you. And if I listen to you, I’m only listening for the purpose of proving you wrong, not to really empathize with you.” 

So part of the goal is to think about the circle of human concern. Who deserves concern in society? And I'll come back to this in a little bit. In the United States context, we can measure this. It’s not just analytics or conceptual—we can measure who belongs and how much they belong. And what we see is that more and more people are being pushed outside the circle of human concern. And some people are being in the circle but provisionally. 

This happens at a sociological level, but it also happens at a mind science level. One of our impulses, when we hear that we categorize people, is ‘Ok, let’s stop categorizing people.” 

And the way the brain is structured, we can’t help but categorize. It doesn’t mean the particular categories we use, we have to use, or they have to do the work that we are using them to do. But we’re not going to stop categorizing. We can’t simply just see people all as individuals.

A lot of the impulses for correcting the problem of stereotyping or Othering, is to say let's just stop Othering, let's just stop categorizing and see everybody as the same.

Now this is something from Susan Fiske, who's a professor at Princeton. And she along with others have developed something they call the stereotype content model. And she's done this in a number of countries, including the UK. And what she's come up with is two axes: One of them is competency and the other one is warmth. So how much do you like somebody, do you think the person you like is good for you? They can help you in some way? And do you think they're competent? And it turns out, after looking at several country, she sees this model being applied in every country but the population of the model being different. 

So in some countries it’s very bad to be poor, in some countries it’s very bad to be Muslim. Obviously that's not true in Saudi Arabia. So the content, the population of this varies.

So you have these four squares. (refers to slide)
One is paternalistic, which is low status, but not competitive. And I'll talk about who's in these in the United States. One is “Admiration”, which is the gold standard, when you think someone is really smart, really competent, and you really like them a lot. That tends to be your tribe. My group is just, you know, we're smart, we can dance, we eat good food. And then there’s a group that, you know, they're smart, you grant them that they're smart, but you don’t particularly like them. You sort of think they're stiff. Maybe they're cold.

And I am not here to insult anyone, but in the United States, people from England often fall into this category. So these are national models, and this is America... America thinks you're smart, that's the good news, but they don't ... you know.

And then there's the fourth group. People we think are not very smart and we don’t like them. And what actually shows up, the part of the brain that we associate with disgust shows up when we look at these people, and we are sort of structured so when we see another human being, there's a part of a brain that lights up. We recognize a fellow species, and for this group, it doesn't light up much at all, and it's more likely disgusts. Again, who's in this group will vary across populations. But as we look at this group, we see, this is the US model (referring to slide), poor people, homeless people, immigrants, drug dealers are in this disgust group, ex-offenders, and I've written a paper which basically says we cannot adopt effective policy for people we don’t see as people.

So once we say people, you know, they're not even human, at a conscious or unconscious level, then you can't adopt effective policy for it. And here's an example. They asked a group of people, for people who are in prison--in peoples' minds is Black people in prison--should they be allowed to take high school classes and early college classes while they're in prison? And I think something like 80 percent said no. Then they asked people from the same pool, but different people, should people in prison be made to take high school classes and college classes, and they said yes.

So when they thought they were punishing people, they were all for it, and there are many other examples like this, one other one I want to just quickly share with you. You’ve probably all seen the philosopher’s dilemma about the bus that's about to run into 20 people, and if you push someone on the train, you can save 20 people, if you don't push them on the train 20 people will die what do you do? In that test, 80 percent of people said it's not right to push that person on the train. But here's the wrinkle, if the person you pushed on the train is homeless then 75 percent of the people said it's ok.

So we value people's lived very differently. And we're going to be hearing about poverty and disability shortly, but in this model in the United States, old people and people with disabilities, in the United States, we actually like them, we feel warm toward them, we just don't think they're very competent. So we pity them. But in pitying them, we actually do it in a prescriptive way. We pity them as long as they stay in their place. If they assert something which is inconsistent with their stereotype, they lose their pity. So that pity comes provisionally.

So you're a pitiful, old Black man, I understand that must be hard, and they you find out, well you know I'm a proud old Black man, then it's like well, I don't pity you any more and I don't like you either. So our sense of being, our sense of who we are actually happens across multiple axes. And these are three, there could be others as well. 

One is economic well-being and being hit at London School of Economics obviously meaning if you think about that in terms of our material wealth. Another is political well-being you, If you think about that in terms of agency, collective agency is what politics are about. And so we understand when people don't have a sense of collective agency they don't feel very good. But the third is ontological and one could even say spiritual. And you can think of, in some ways, from a sociological perspective that part of the role of religions is to give people a sense of meaning and purpose, and many liberals again in the US context, are agnostic at best and more likely atheist. So we have a hard time embracing the idea of religion. You know, it just doesn't work for us, and many of the people who move to the far right are deeply religious and what they're concerned about is grounded in their spirituality, which means they're talking in the different valence than most liberals. And the right has been much better at engaging this area.

Now this like I washed out, I'll make these slides available if anyone wants, but one of the things I want to suggest is that what the right has done is taking the process of Othering, and Othering as the process is not simply a thing. And as I suggested, the opposite of Othering is not "saming." And belonging does not mean you don't see the other, it means you're not Othering. So Othering is a process and I hope you have time to go more deeply into the Othering processes in your country.

But othering is used as a strategy by the elites. So you know there are groups coming in,  you know people are feeling anxious and what the elites do is strategically use that to capture government to restructure government so they can restructure economy. So a lot of people who who actually use the Othering process don't necessarily believe it themselves, so it's not that they necessarily believe, in Trump's case that Mexicans are going to rape our women, or that they don't like Black people or they don't like immigrants, but they see that it's strategically very powerful.

Now how do I know that? They told us. They've even apologized that they've done. They say okay okay you know, in the United States it's called the Southern Strategy, like okay we know we're using Blacks to actually aggravate whites so we can win government. And when they win government it's not that they turn and benefit whites, they actually restructure the economy for their own purpose. And again you see this paying out almost perfectly with Trump. Trump has almost done nothing to create jobs, to reduce to reduce inequality, in fact what he wants to do is give the largest tax rate in 40 years. That's not what he campaigned on. He campaigned on "I'm going to bring back your jobs," and sometimes people know that.

So for example, and you've probably heard coal miners if you listen to the United States campaign very much, you know coal miners need their jobs back. I think the count is that they're 18,000 coal mining jobs in the United States, and they're not coming back, and they shouldn't come back. And they've asked people what do you think about those jobs coming back, and they said we know they're not coming back, but it's symbolically giving them some comfort.

So at the extreme when you put in a sense corporations and elite in the middle of the circle of human concern, people get pushed out. Not just immigrants, not just homeless people, not just poor people but all people. The whole society events become organized just around corporations and I've been a long piece on this and I make it clear that I'm not anti corporate but I am what I call anti corporate misalignment, that we misaligned corporations so they're no longer serving people. They are just serving themselves.

I've been talking about Othering a lot in terms of what we do to each other, but a lot of Othering takes place in the way we organize structures in our society, and there are a lot of structures in society and we organize them in certain ways, so in the United States context, I don't know enough about UK, but we have very segregated geographic areas, and those areas are not just distributing resources, which they are, they're also distributing identity. So there's certain parts of town that you know are not desirable. And those parts of town not only don't have desirable grocery stores or desirable bus stops or desirable parks, those those areas have bad air, so they have a bad environment and implicitly, they have bad people, so we use structures to actually do a lot of this work.

These are some of the structures. We've actually done something with this, we do some called Opportunity Mapping where we map out physical area, the distribution of opportunity, and the distribution of people. And when we say, when we talk about integration, we're not talking simply about putting Black people, Latinos and whites and Native Americans and Indians next to each other, we're talking about distributing opportunity so every group has meaningful access to opportunity. And again not just physical opportunity, but cultural opportunity as well. This map won't make much sense to you, but it looks at the distribution of opportunity and populations in San Francisco.

So what's different about now is how explicit the Othering process is. That it used to be in the United States you had to engage in what a friend of mine called dog-whistle politics. You could make reference to the Other, but you had to do it in a coded way, so people wouldn't really know what you're talking about. So you talk about those people, or people on welfare. You would never say Mexicans, you would never say Muslims, but now you can be explicit. And you can be explicit because you have the leadership, you have the elites, you have the public networks given cover for that. And again, it's not just activating people's anxiety around the other, it's actually in a sense fueling it. It's creating new Othering processes.

And this is just what's happening in Europe and the United States in terms of right-wing populism. It's actually, in recent times, sort of out pacing or we might call left-wing populism. So there's definitely populism but it's authoritarian, ethnic-nationalism that's on the rise. And this is from a study by these two people, and you can go online and look at it, and they did the study with the IMF and for the economists, basically what they're saying is that if you look at economic growth over the last several years it has not correlated with an inclusive society. The assumption was that as we grew economically, society would become more inclusive.

Now you might say, well we've grown, but we've grown more unequal. Even when societies have not grown substantially more equal, we still see a rise of right-wing nationalism, Sweden being a great example. And so it's not that the economy is unimportant, but just doesn't tell the whole story. And again these are just some of the statements, I'm sure you know, the head of the Philippines, who just could not have made this statement 30 years ago where he's actually, he had his numbers wrong, but anyway, he's arguing that it's okay to kill people. 'I mean Germany did it, so why can't the Philippines do it?' You know, so he's celebrating both the Othering, and it's not just the labeling of people. Then he talks about how you treat people and that it's okay to kill them. And president Trump invites him to the White House because he likes the way he's talking about drug dealers in the Philippines.

And who are the drug dealers are not necessarily people who are dealing drugs. Who's the drug dealer is people who are being Othered. So anyone can be labeled a drug dealer.

So I've talked about bridging and breaking, and demagoguery does not bridge, it actually breaks. Now I want to suggest that breaking happens in a most pernicious way on the right, but it also happens on the left. The left also engages in breaking. We also often times, because we have suffering, pain, we don't want to hear the suffering and pain of the others. Whoever we think of as the others. In the United States context, this would be, so when Blacks or Native Americans, who have real grievances and real suffering, but we have a hard time acknowledging that there might be some white people who are suffering as well.

And if you look at the white middle class in the United States, it's much better off than Blacks and Latinos on average, and Native Americans, but it actually is suffering. The Black and the white middle class is also in decline, you know, in almost along every indicator, and some people may be surprised that the fastest-growing suicide rates in the United States is among whites from the age of 45 to 54, and there's a whole lot of explanations for that. So there's been a shift away from political moderation, again on the left and on the right, and so we need to think about turning this around. How do we actually talk about belonging, and belonging that's inclusive of all groups.

I've been talking a lot about the problem but I haven't said much about the solution. Let me just say a little bit before I close. So we have to address our needs at every level, and the needs, including, being. How do we actually engage with structures, with stories, with narrative, with practices that help people feel like they belong. And we do this through a very deliberate effort. I talked about sympathetic stories to hear someone else's suffering, to suffer with someone else, to suffer with means compassion. And again, it's not a word we hear much in terms of public discourse, but to have compassion for others, even for others that we think of as different, to differentiate, so we acknowledge that they are both different and similar in some positive ways.

To also think about a common vision, so what would the country look like if it really is a country that's diverse. Now there's another solution that we often embrace, certainly in the United States. We're celebrating a famous case in the United States, the case of the United States versus Loving, and Loving, in 1967, was a black and white couple that married, and the man was arrested because it was illegal to have marriage between blacks and whites, called anti-miscegenation statutes. And whites were concerned that if they allow blacks and whites to marry, it somehow would change society. We've had that debate recently around gay marriage, and it's like, well if we allow gays to marry, it somehow will change the institution of marriage. So that's the fear that the right wing expressed. The left comes back with, 'No it won't, everything will be exactly the same. That, whether we allow gays to marry, whether we allow whites and blacks to marry, the institution of marriage and society would be exactly the same. In fact, blacks are just like whites, they are just of a darker skin. And gays are just like straight, they just like to do their sex differently.'

Actually, those assurances are all false. It's clear that as we have now more interracial marriage, and that it actually is doing some interesting changes. And there was a recent article in The New York Times about how gay marriage is changing sexual practices among straight people. So when you have large numbers of people coming in without giving privilege to their culture, it actually, culture is always evolving. How do you do in a way that that's inclusive? So that it's not simply, this is my culture. So I came to London years ago, and you know your food has improved, I don't exactly why, but anyway. So again, Baldwin makes the observation that we're all deeply connected. And so we're deeply interconnected, but the question is what is the right kind of connections, and how do we get there? And I think this is a defining period of time given the immigration, there about almost 300 million people who are living outside their country, and that number will always go up. This anxiety will continue to be with us. Unless we find a way to deal with it, we will give the right-wing a clear path to national supremacy. Thank you.