Trust, democracy and diversity

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A new book, Trust, Democracy and the Challenges of Multiculturalism, sets out the challenges that ethnic diversity can pose to social cohesion and democratization and provides important lessons on the best (and worst) ways to manage heterogeneous societies. Given that these are some of the most important questions facing African democracy we naturally contacted the author, Patti Tamara Lenard, to discuss her research. Here she outlines the key contributions of her work…

What are the additional difficulties that face governments of diverse societies?

As the title of my book suggests, the specific challenges that governments face in diverse societies are those associated with sustaining trust among citizens and between citizens and their representatives.  Trust is an essential element of effective democratic practice.  Participation in democratic politics, as well as the support for social justice policies that democracies often endorse (e.g., publicly subsidized health care and education), relies on trust.  In particular, trust is at the heart of citizens’ voluntary compliance with the laws and norms that govern a democratic society.  Of course, citizens are obligated to abide by the law.  But, what distinguishes trusting communities from untrusting communities are the resources that must be expended to ensure this compliance.  The more trust there is in a community, the fewer the resources needed to enforce compliance, and therefore the greater the resources available to provide other collective goods.

For better or worse, citizens make snap judgements about the trustworthiness of others – sometimes the cues on which they rely to make these judgements are reliable and other times they are not.  Both in diverse societies and in apparently homogenous ones, citizens often rely on ethnic and cultural markers as indicative of trustworthiness.  In divided societies, these markers are simultaneously reliable indicators of trustworthiness within groups and reliable indicators lack of trustworthiness between groups.  Here, a government’s job here is to find ways to interrupt the ways in which ethnic and cultural markers serve as signals in particular of a lack of trustworthiness, i.e., to encourage the (correct, where it is correct) perception that people are trustworthy regardless of their ethnic or cultural group.
Are there any advantages to having a greater mix of identities? 

Yes, there can certainly be advantages to having a greater mix of identities in a political community.  I am not alone in subscribing to a version of the “contact hypothesis”, according to which contact among people with diverse values, ways of life, etc., can build understanding and therefore trust across difference.  That said, nearly all states are becoming noticeably more diverse, as a result of migration across borders, and at issue is not really whether this diversity is desirable, but how it can be managed well.  The trick is to create the conditions under which this trust can be built and sustained over time and that is the main topic of my book.  Trust mainly derives from what I and others have termed a “public culture” – the shared norms and values that characterize a particular society – and the objective will always be to sustain, or in some cases create, the conditions under which this public culture can serve to underpin trust relations.

In my book, I distinguish between two general categories of diverse societies: those that are “merely” multicultural, i.e., states that welcome large numbers of migrants who must be integrated, and those that are more severely divided, i.e., composed of ethnic or cultural groups with an extensive history of violence and betrayed trust.  The advantages of diversity are more clearly in evidence in multicultural societies, where citizens of diverse backgrounds contribute together to the sustaining of the democratic community, economically, politically, socially etc.  Multicultural communities can often take good advantage of the diversity of interests, skills, preferences of their citizens, and citizens can gain a great deal from being surrounded by distinctive ways of life.  In severely divided societies, however, where there is profound distrust and a history of betrayal and violence, the advantages of this diversity are obviously less clear.
What are the worst ways that governments have attempted to manage ethnic diversity? 

Lenard_Book_CoverIt is hard to say absolutely what are the worst ways in which governments have attempted to manage ethnic diversity – a lot of what determines what works and what doesn’t work is context-dependent. Some strategies work in some environments and not in others.  For example, what is claimed to be an attempt to do a better job at integrating ethnic minorities, many European nations have instituted citizenship tests, which newcomers are required to pass in order to become citizens.  But, the discourse around these new tests, and their content, have together sent the message that newcomers are suspicious and possibly untrustworthy until they have “proven” otherwise by passing what are, in some cases, notoriously challenging tests.  On the other hand, in Canada and the United States both welcome proportionally more immigrants into their territory and into citizenship than do European nations, and both uncontroversially administer citizenship tests as part of the naturalization process.

In general, distrust among citizens of diverse societies will prevail where political leaders insist on highlighting the challenges that diversity poses.  When the Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron, publicly proclaimed that migrants – mostly Muslim – in the UK have been living in segregated communities, and that the UK has for too long tolerated “these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values”, he helped to sow distrust between cultural/religious groups.

And what have been the consequences of these failures?

In multicultural societies, the consequence is to increase the marginalization and isolation of minority communities, and often to increase the number of discriminatory and racist acts to which they fall victim.  This is probably not a surprising consequence of discourse and policy that is, in effect, justified by reference to the untrustworthiness of minority communities.  What is perhaps more surprising is that trust declines even among members of majority communities in these kinds of cases.  That is, the effect of highlighting the (alleged) untrustworthiness of one, even small, minority community, is to decrease the level of trust overallwithin a community.  And since the voluntary compliance on which democracies rely depends on trust, the consequence of decreased trust is a decreased willingness to comply with these laws and norms more or less voluntarily.

What are the best ways in which to build trust in diverse communities? 

Similarly, the best ways in which to build trust in diverse communities are largely context-dependent.  But, as I articulate in the final chapter of my book, there are some broad principles that can guide trust-building in diverse communities; in particular, any policy that has trust-building as a goal must aim to reduce the felt-vulnerability among distrusting citizens.  Trust is intimately connected to vulnerability – in trusting you I am making myself vulnerable to your freely-made decisions, i.e., to honour my trust or to betray it.  But, in many diverse communities in which distrust prevails, citizens are not willing to extend trust to others, i.e., they are not willing to make themselves vulnerable to others.  So, trust-building requires mitigating this vulnerability in some way.  In the book, I explain that the way to do so is by focusing on cooperative activities between citizens, since cooperation can build trust, under specific conditions.  To take just one example from the book, I suggest that this cooperation should be monitored by third parties who can serve to provide insight into whether trust is likely to be honoured and reciprocated; providing this information to distrusting parties can serve to reduce the vulnerability associated with extending and reciprocating trust.



Can you give example of specific policies that political leaders can pursue to build trust?

In the book, I provide several examples of policies that serve to build trust both in multicultural communities and in severely divided communities.  I point to integrated schooling in Northern Ireland, for example, and cooperative construction efforts in the former Yugoslavia.  These policies serve to enable cooperation to transpire between members of distrustful ethnic groups, even in the absence of trust.  They create an environment in which citizens can act “as-if” they trust each other, and it is from this “as-if” trust that genuine trust can emerge, if we are lucky.

In multicultural societies, the distrust is typically less severe than it is in severely divided societies.  As such the policies can be directed at building or strengthening the public culture as I described it above.  In multicultural societies, this will at least in part entail teaching newcomers about the norms that underpin the public culture.  Newcomers to the United Kingdom must learn, for example, that queuing for the bus is a well-entrenched public norm.  In Canada, newcomers often adopt a love of hockey – Punjabi communities in Ontario have recently been publicized for the efforts that they put into providing hockey commentary in Punjabi, so that all members of the Punjabi-Canadian community can enjoy the sport. The point is to show that immigrants from Punjab have adopted a specific Canadian norm, i.e., a love of hockey, and can therefore be trusted. These examples appear innocuous, but are in fact a tremendously important part of the trust-building project in multicultural societies. I describe other policies and how they serve to support the public culture, and thereby to support trust, in more detail in the book.

And can this fully resolve the problem or are more diverse societies always likely to underperform compared to more homogenous societies?

This question presents two claims as opposites, when they are not truly opposites.  A full resolution to distrust caused by ethnic and cultural diversity is a long-term affair.  Trust is evidence-resistant – i.e., if you trust someone, you are likely to continue trusting that person even in the face of evidence that that person may not deserve your trust.  Unfortunately, the same is also true of distrust, i.e., it is resistant to evidence that it is unwarranted, and so it is difficult and time-consuming to transform distrusting relations into trusting ones.

That said, there is no particular reason to believe that diverse societies will always “underperform” compared to less diverse societies.  The cues that we rely on to determine the trustworthiness of others are malleable, and there is no reason think that the cue “untrustworthy” will always attach to a particular cultural or ethnic group.  Smart public policy, and the passing of time, can shift attributions of untrustworthiness towards attributions of trustworthiness.  For example, for the last several decades, the Canadian government has explicitly sought to create the perception that immigrants – regardless of their cultural or ethnic background – contribute in essential ways to the strength of the Canadian economy.  As a result, trust across ethnic and cultural groups is high in Canada.

Click here to buy Trust, Democracy and the Challenges of Multiculturalism

Click here to see Dr Lenard’s other publications

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