It’s Not Just the Right

Last night, I finally moulted from the larva of pandemic reclusiveness, braved a wobbled wing-eyeliner and hit the town. After the sad loss of two of my prime nightclub-going years, I was all too eager to spend my Dublin bus ride abusing the volume function on my earphones and sheepishly swigging some murky liquid from a Lucozade bottle. That was until I remembered that COVID had aged me prematurely, and that I was, actually, going to a Billy Bragg concert. I grabbed a scarf and got a taxi instead.

Protected by both my paper face mask and the looming shoulders of my older brother and boyfriend, I entered the arena. Whilst the threat and mood of the current pandemic was gently lurking amidst the crowd, the sea of blazers and Fallon and Byrne paper bags was enough to placate my fears of excessive mingling. Bragg then entered the stage, and immediately soothed the room with his calmness and good-nature, with a sense of extraordinary thoughtfulness rarely detected in performing artists.

Bragg supplemented his songs with profound and refreshing moments of insight, offering philosophical musings on the pandemic, the scourge of individualism, and the need for togetherness. Through Bragg’s sharing of his personal experiences supporting his immunocompromised wife, Juliet de Valero Wills, through COVID, he managed to illustrate this need for social collectivism with sobering effect. Sheltered amongst a sea of like-minded, broken individuals, Bragg’s accompanying lyrics rang like a healing bell,“in the battle against your demons, I will be our shield.”

Whilst Bragg’s class-related speeches and socialist witticisms (“Like myself, my hair sides to the left!”) inevitably mustered unwavering cheering from the crowd, interestingly, some of his more “contemporary” views failed to evoke the same unifying response. Most notably, Bragg shared his support for the transgender community, explaining that he had changed one of his lyrics to reflect social change surrounding LGBTQ+ issues. The cheering and clapping became gradually duller, the murmurs of people talking amongst themselves, noisier, and the overall sense of activism, less active. I looked around, trying to gain perspective on this change of atmosphere, and realised first-hand that sadly, even to many self-professed socialists, trans rights are not seen as a cheer-worthy cause. And whilst the façade of standing amidst a crowd of seemingly progressive 50 and 60 years provides a false sense of hope and comfort, in reality there are still whole communities left unprotected, uncovered by their umbrella of exclusive socialism. I immediately thought back to my psychology textbooks, and the concept of The Secondary Transfer Effect (STE) sprung to mind. In simple terms, this states that if a person harbours positive attitudes towards one outgroup (a group perceived as “not belonging” to one’s own group) then this will usually translate to positive attitudes towards a secondary, unrelated outgroup, via the priming of “emotional-congruent reactions”. For example, a study by Galinsky and Moskowitz found that, by promoting participants’ empathy for the elderly, they reported more positive attitudes not only towards older individuals, but also towards African Americans. By this rationale, an activist who cheers for the working class, should also cheer for the transgender community. So why wasn’t it working?

To answer this, we must look at the fine print. Research shows that in order for the STE to operate, there needs to be some degree of similarity between the two groups in question. In other words, it is possible that many people do not associate the transgender community with other marginalised groups; they are seen as somehow too different. This dynamic is akin to the divorced attitudes towards the Irish Traveller Community in Ireland. Even amongst my Doc wearing peers, who would describe themselves as staunch “lefties”, there is rarely support or sympathy for issues regarding this minority group, often described as an empathy gap. This is unsurprising, considering that Travellers were only granted minority status by Irish law in the year 2017. There is certainly empirical support for this dissociation, with one study by Devine and colleagues exploring children’s constructions of racism in Irish primary schools. They found that children displayed somewhat of a dissociation between their attitudes towards “foreign” minority groups and towards Travellers. For example, one child believed that racism meant “you don’t like black people”, and went on to condemn this view. However, soon after, this child went on to refer to Travellers as “scumbags”. The researchers note that this dissociation reflects an absence of seeing Travellers as an ethnic minority group, and thus unworthy targets of our empathy.

Standing amongst the crowd, while Bragg heralded his support for the trans community to little avail, I could not help but question whether this dissociation was the mechanism at play. Perhaps this is why so many self-professed ‘feminists’ of the left fail to extend their support to the transgender community. Casual articles in The Guardian of the sentiment that we must take seriously the reservations of those who do not wish to share dormitories and bathrooms with transgender women, seem eerily reminiscent of the familiar “yeah, but would you want a Traveller family having their wedding in your bar?”. In the same way that members of the Travelling Community are excluded from the benefits of social activism in Ireland, the ‘T’ in LGBTQ+ is being equally overlooked, even by the “left”.

Of course, it is true that generational attitudes also play a role. In psychology, a schema refers to a thought pattern which helps us to organise information about the world. For example, a child may learn the schema for a dog, that it has two legs, a tail and ears, so that the next time the child encounters a dog, they have the necessary cognitive shortcut to identify it. While new information can be assimilated into existing schemata, they become more difficult to change as we get older, even when faced with new information. In other words, once a person learns that a socialist is one who wishes to elevate the working class, they may cling to this definition, resistant to making alterations to include groups such as the transgender community, women, or other groups outside of these rigid schemata.

This point was aptly highlighted by Bragg during the concert, as he pleaded with the crowd to consider that one simply cannot hold onto the same beliefs he/she formulated in the 80s about the meaning of socialism. We must read, expand, and learn, in order to broaden our thinking patterns, and to allow new marginalised groups into our repertoire of empathy.

Empathy, after all, is the tried and tested solution. Recent reports by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment discussing the inclusion of Traveller history and culture to the school curriculum consistently cite empathy as a key ingredient in this process. Similarly, studies consistently highlight the role of empathy in fostering positive attitudes towards the transgender community in schools and within the community.

So, really, the answer can be found by applying the same formula we’ve been scribbling in our SPHE copybooks since primary school; put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Imagine that you are a member of the transgender community, facing a daily barrage of internal dysphoria and outward disdain, instead of an onlooker with the privilege of constructing a philosophical opinion the matter. Perhaps for some of us, considering a spring-clean of old, out-dated schemata wouldn’t go amiss either. And, if you are looking for a breath of fresh, revolutionary air to insulate your face mask, get yourself to a Billy Bragg concert.

 

Sources

Castelán Cargile, A. (2016). “Can empathy improve concern for secondary group members?
Testing an emotionally engaging video intervention.” Communication Research
Reports,
33(3), 265-268.

Devine, D., Kenny, M., & Macneela, E. (2008). “Naming the ‘other’: children’s construction and experience of racisms in Irish primary schools.” Race Ethnicity and Education, 11(4),
369-385.

Galinsky, A. D., & Moskowitz, G. B. (2000). Perspective-taking: decreasing stereotype
expression, stereotype accessibility, and in-group favoritism. Journal of personality and social psychology, 78(4), 708.

Houses of the Oireachtas (2018). Séanad Éireann Debate, Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill 2018: Second Stage. Dublin: Stationery Office. Accessed June 19, 2019.

National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (2019). Traveller culture and history in the curriculum: a curriculum audit.

The Guardian View on the Gender Recognition Act: where rights collide (2018).

Vezzali, L., & Giovannini, D. (2012). “Secondary transfer effect of intergroup contact: The role of intergroup attitudes, intergroup anxiety and perspective-taking.” Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 22, 125-144.

Welch, E., Fleming, A., & Hatch, H. (2017). Predictors of attitudes toward transgender men and women.

What Role Do Schemas Play in the Learning Process? (2021).

 

Clara McShane is an emerging writer from Dublin with a BA in Psychology. She has been writing for most of her life, and finds a sense of peace and balance from engaging with poetry, prose and creative non-fiction. Her work has been included in the Wexford Stories project and one of her poems will be published in the next edition of The Caterpillar.