Interfaith dialogue: prose or poetry?

Aviva Dautch, Senior Policy Officer for Interfaith Issues at the Board of Deputies of British Jews,

Last night I attended the launch of a government consultation on creating a framework for inter faith dialogue and social action. Secretary of State for Communities, Hazel Blears, stated that its intention is ‘to find out how Government can best support dialogue between faith groups and the circumstances in which inter faith activity is helping to make a positive difference to communities around the country’ as ‘faith groups are a key part of the way we respond to the challenges we face.’

The consultation’s twenty questions on the structures and impact of interfaith should stimulate some thoughtful analysis by faith leaders from a variety of religious communities and geographical areas over the next few months, and last night I was intrigued to hear the initial thoughts of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Rowan Williams spoke about the way faith is often perceived by society as ‘exotic’ and something that makes someone ‘other’ to the mainstream community, or as ‘poetry’ – far-removed from the experience of the ordinary man. He urged us to challenge this perception and speak about faith in the language of prose, something that is part of the daily experience of the ‘man or woman on the street’ and intrinsic to many people’s identities.

As a Jew who works in inter faith education, I agree that both faith and interfaith discourse should be accessible and take account of ordinary lives, but believe that to do so in a useful way it needs to more closely resemble poetry than prose. Once, poetry was the language of the masses, an oral tradition whose music filtered into memory, extending and reinforcing identity. Poetry is concentrated and powerful, as inter faith dialogue has the potential to be, and teaches us to frame words carefully.

In poetry the white space is as important as what is written, highlighting the poem’s place in its environment and the interaction between writer and reader, encouraging us to listen with acuity. The space for eisegesis and exegesis in theological terms, or ‘reading into and out of a text’ is essential because it encourages a dialectic approach.

I am currently steering a piece of research about Jewish involvement in interfaith activities and many of the respondents describe their motivation as ‘the Holocaust’ or ‘anti-Semitism’. This is both understandable and valid, but if the sole prompt for inter faith engagement is fear of ignorant prejudice from the other, then there is a danger that what it will lead to will be a monologue - as the impulse is to tell one’s own story and listening to others’ stories becomes a secondary concern.

I would argue that ideally inter faith encounters should be dialogues where speaking and listening have equal weight, so that the connections created have depth and trust.

Finding the appropriate structures for interfaith engagements depends on both internal and external resonances. The title of the government consultation is Face-to-Face and Side-by-Side and is taken from the work of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who has written a great deal over the past few years exploring different structures for inter faith. The Chief Rabbi posits two main models: ‘face-to-face’ direct encounter and ‘side-by-side’ working together in joint projects and social activism; recently he seems to be leaning more towards side-by-side joint activism to recreate society as ‘the home we build together’.

As the consultation progresses over the next twelve weeks it will be interesting to see what forms and structures other faith leaders and religious communities favour and how they believe interfaith dialogue shapes and is shaped by British society.

Aviva Dautch is Senior Interfaith and Education Policy Officer for the Board of Deputies of British Jews. She is also a Creative Educator for the British Library where she leads workshops about Sacred Texts. She is a trustee of the Inter Faith Network, the Inter Faith Youth Trust and the Jewish Council for Racial Equality.
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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.