Multi-Ethnic Britain

A recent report commissioned by the Readers Digest shows some marked discrepancies between the perception and reality of multi-ethnic Britain.

The report highlights that the British public is deeply concerned about race and immigration issues. In particular, people are worried about the numbers of refugees and immigrants coming to this country and the amount of assistance they are receiving.

  • 80 per cent of adults believe that refugees come to our shores because they regard Britain as a “soft touch”.
  • Sixty-six per cent think there are too many immigrants in Britain.
  • Sixty-three per cent say too much is done to help immigrants at present.
  • Respondents believe that asylum seekers are subsidized to the tune of £113 a week. In fact, a single adult seeking asylum gets £36.54 a week in vouchers to be spent at designated shops. Just £10 of this may be converted to cash.
  • Respondents think that on average 20 per cent of the population are immigrants. The real figure is just four per cent.
  • Respondents also believe that on average 26 per cent of the population belong to an ethnic minority. Actually, it’s around seven per cent.

How would Freud explain the discrepancy?

Firstly he would point out that the lack of proportion between perception and reality is one of the main reasons we need a concept of the unconscious. Now in this case it might be argued that there are more direct ways in which the discrepancy can be accounted for. Perhaps the respondents only receive distorted information in the first place? This would still not explain why people in areas with hardly any ethnic minorities would discount the evidence of their own senses and prefer to believe the lies. If someone is trying to pull a confidence trick they have to use the desires of their victim to carry it out. There is, in this case, an evident propensity to believe the myths. Sometimes perceptions are so far from reality that we might be justified in talking of ‘mass hysteria’.

Secondly he would point out that we are dealing here with the specific perception of a ‘danger’. There is a well known phenomenon in which an object or situation is felt to be far more dangerous than it actually is – the phenomenon of phobias. Freud might say that ethnic minorities constitute ‘phobogenic’ objects for the dominant population; it is interesting to note that he discusses anti-semitism in the ‘Little Hans’ case history about phobias. Thus the distortions would be understood as effects of unconscious anxieties which cannot be directly acknowledged, displacements of aggressive feelings, and projections of unwanted and despised parts of the self.

Some of these issues can be followed up in my book ‘Phobia’, published by Icon Books (price £3.99). It is part of the Ideas in Psychoanalysis series. Don’t forget to buy your copy through the museum shop!

Schools discussion topics

  1. Discuss some of the phobias and irrational fears that students have in the class. How can these be related to fears about immigrants? (e.g. ‘claustrophobia’ may be related to the common idea that we are being ‘swamped’ with immigrants, and so on).
  2. “The symbolism of the race-immigrant theme was resonant in its subliminal force, its capacity to set in motion the daemons which haunt the collective subconscious of a ‘superior’ race: it triggered off images of sex, rape, primitivism, violence and excrement” (Stuart Hall et al ‘Policing the Crisis’, Macmillan 1978).
    1. Discuss.
    2. What other images does the immigrant theme ‘set in motion’?
  3. Think of two situations in which the perception of danger is far less than the actual danger. What is your explanation?

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