You agree with this column

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already decided to agree with it. Here’s the curious thing about curiosity: we tend to seek out information that tells us what we already believe. If your politics veer to the left, you’ll conveniently ignore facts that back the right and avoid places that’ll tell you about them. And vice versa.

Throw a quick glance under the nearest article on the Daily Mail website. Dissenting comments nearly always get “rated down”, even if fairly innocuous, or true. Daily Mail readers, it seems, are instantly repelled by information that doesn’t chime with their beliefs. But then, as a liberal, I’m more than happy to believe this – in fact, I only look at the Mail to confirm my prejudices. Here’s why.

Our brains are programmed to construct a robust model of how the world works and then fine-tune it. As we learn, some circuits get hardened and reinforced and some wither away. The hardened circuits are our short cuts. This means that when we’re standing in Starbucks and see a cylindrical, liquid-filled shape on the counter, we don’t have to spend too long working out what it is. One of these short cuts will tell us it’s a cup of coffee.

Deconstructing this edifice too many times takes a huge amount of resources. We’re not designed for endless self-questioning – which is probably why Alain de Botton has, at the time of writing, almost no hair left. Instead, we look for information that builds on the model we have.

While our fact-filtering brains are great for working out where the nearest Americano is, they don’t make for very good political debate. Once people have aligned themselves with a particular party, there’s very little you can do to change their opinion. They’ll simply “select out” your most compelling arguments and merrily continue believing what they believe. We love putting opposing political pundits together in TV debates but when was the last time you saw them reach a consensus?

The mighty Bush

A study published in the journal Political Behaviour shows just how reluctant people are to engage with facts that don’t support their world-view. In the experiment, conducted in 2005, participants were given fake news stories. These news stories were embedded with false facts: that tax cuts under the Bush administration increased government revenues, that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq and that Bush had banned stem-cell research (he only limited some government funding). After each statement, the researchers put in an unambiguous correction – and then tested the participants to see if they picked this up.

They didn’t. Participants who identified themselves as liberal ignored the correction on stem-cell regulations and continued to believe Bush had issued a total ban. Conservatives not only ignored the corrections on Iraq and the tax cuts but clung even more tenaciously to the false information.

If you’re interested in the truth, it turns out the worst thing to do is to assign yourself a “stance” on an issue. The more you care about your cause, the harder it is to properly engage with the arguments of your opponent. In fact, only one thing will improve political debate – we need to stop being passionate about politics.

Neurons. Photograph: Getty Images.

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.