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  • Harry Hobson

Neighbourly Manifesto: mixing to get towards equivalence

This blog-post sets out my personal stall.

1. The thing that changes the world: Equivalence

Equivalence = understanding that everybody in the world is of fundamentally equal value. Understanding this deeply – more like “feeling” and “acceptance” perhaps exists independently of people’s attitudes and beliefs, like a “force”. A realisation that “we all matter; you matter as much as I matter; people I don’t know matter as much as people I know and love”. It can extend beyond people too – to animals, or nature.

It is active: it changes the world, because it makes us care and act. It’s what makes us welcome strangers in need; or make us vote for more taxation for public-services; or makes us pause our box-set to phone up a friend. With enough of it, humanity stands a chance to solve its existential challenges (like climate change, global poverty).

This is the same thing that everyone’s trying to put into words. Same as “wider we” or “larger us” or “network of mutuality” (Martin Luther King) or “widen the ambit of our concern” (Obama) or “love thy neighbour as thyself” (Jesus) or “We all know that people are the same wherever you go” (Stevie Wonder).

2. The way to it: contact and mixing

You can’t think your way to it; you can’t talk your way to it. You can’t even deliberately feel your way to it. (although rationality and empathy both can confirm it. And for the 75% of the world who believe in a creator-God, that belief can help them to feel equivalence.)The way to it is through everyday life – you live and act and walk your way towards it.

It happens through seeing each other, being in contact with each other. When we “see” other people fully. The isiZulu greeting “Sawobona” means “I see you”, – as John Powell says, in his writing about the “wider we”, it’s seeing and acknowledging the full humanity and equal-value of another person. And this picks up on Social Contact theory – that the most effectively way to boost inter-group empathy and to reduce prejudice is simply through contact and being in touch with each other.

And that contact requires variety and width – the more different people we know, the more we experience this “equivalence”. So it’s enabled and accelerated by mixing – by widened contact and connection across lines of difference.

3. Mixing is enabled and sustained by infrastructure

In my view that happens mostly for most-people in fragments and moments and glimpses and in everyday-life, and it has to keep happening in an ongoing way. That requires infrastructure.

The best thing about infrastructure is that it takes the place of voluntarism and self-selection. It shapes us, whether we want to be shaped or not, like a jug shaping the water it holds.

It helps if we’re good or virtuous, but we don’t have to be. We don’t have to believe anything in particular; we don’t even have to want this outcome, or want the world to change. Infrastructural mixing just brings it about.

Dimensions of this “social infrastructure”:

  • The way societies and neighbourhoods are “set up” to enable and encourage mixing-across-difference.

  • The way that public-services are delivered and understood by users

  • The things that exist which get people to mix (public-amenities like parks or playgrounds or libraries)

  • The tools we use for communications and socialising (eg: online social-media).

  • The media and culture – how mixing is presented and normalised, especially for younger people

  • Habits and rituals that lubricate everyday interactions: like eye-contact, greetings, modes-of-engagement with public-servants etc.


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