The ongoing refugee crisis in Europe throws up some profound questions for us all, and the place of values in our politics and lives. Maybe some of the action we have belatedly seen over the last few weeks could point the way to a new sort of politics, and a new way of living our values?

Refugees WelcomePolitics by perceived values

Have politicians misjudged the values that most of us hold? In just a few days a petition for the UK government to accept more asylum seekers was signed by over 400,000 people, compelling a debate in parliament. The government agreed to take 20,000 refugees, over five years - an enormous increase from the handful we’ve accepted so far.

Common Cause Foundation has recently conducted research in the UK and the US looking at the values people hold, and the values they think their fellow citizens hold. We’re still analysing this, but here are two early results. Firstly, a large majority of people hold self-transcendence values (generally concerned with the wellbeing of others) to be more important than self-enhancement values (based on the pursuit of personal status and success). But this isn’t seen by most people, who believe that their compatriots hold self-transcendence values to be less important, and self-enhancement values to be more important.

Perhaps this is a key reason why many people don’t get engaged and active, although sharing values that would otherwise lead them to – because they believe that they are in a minority, and that society at large doesn’t share their values. We call this the ‘perception gap’. It’s a gap that many in our media, and many in government, seem to work hard to perpetuate.

The language of welcome or the language of fear?

Values, of course, are expressed in the way we talk about things. The language used over the last few weeks has shifted remarkably. Many will remember Katie Hopkins’ column in The Sun where she wrote that ‘these migrants are like cockroaches’. This provoked an enormous storm, with condemnation from all quarters, and an online petition for her to be sacked gathering over 300,000 signatures. But, although perhaps her choice of words was more extreme than others, this was far from an isolated sentiment.  Words like ‘swarm’, ‘marauding’ and many more, have framed the situation as a dangerous problem and a threat.  A ‘crisis’ indeed.

The people involved, innocent victims, have been dehumanised (and thus our responses dehumanised) by the repeated and pejorative use of the word ‘migrant’. There has been some attempt in some quarters, Al-Jazeera for example, to ‘ban’ the word ‘migrant’ and describe all of those involved as ‘refugees’ and you can install an extension to Chrome which automatically replaces both of these words with the simple and accurate ‘human’.

Both Nigel Farage and David Cameron have used the word ‘swarm’ to describe the situation, and our governments across Europe have been pitifully slow in responding: indeed they have quite deliberately taken measures to make the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean more difficult and dangerous. The UK government cut funding to the ‘Mare Nostrum’ (Our Sea) program run by the Italian government, which saved at least 150,000 lives, on the grounds that this was encouraging people to make the crossing.

The voice of the people

Many voices were outraged by some of these statements and actions, but the politicians and press, in the UK at least, seem to have badly misjudged the public mood, which seems more closely aligned to the underlying values of the European Union. We should remember, as Angela Merkel reminded us, that values lie at the heart of the EU and that the EU treaty states “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.”

In the UK, the response on social media has been absolutely massive – and not just words, but in hundreds of cities, towns and villages, people are taking practical action, raising money, donating supplies, or offering their homes to refugees.

A new kind of politics?

So maybe part of the enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn reflects the fact that it’s time for a new sort of politics –  a politics that puts the values that most of us hold to be most important at the front and centre.