Imagine you are Erika, an Estonian nurse who lives in the UK. You’re on a flight to Tallinn to see your elderly mother. It’s March 2019, and you have no idea about what your rights will look like after Brexit. Whenever you go to Estonia, but especially these past few years, you wonder: where do I belong? Who am I? I am certainly not British (oh no, you are frequently reminded of that!) But you don't belong in Estonia either, not after 11 years, and being settled with your British husband and British children.
You don’t even know if there will be a deal or no deal. Even if there is, you will need to apply for a lesser status than you had before, with no clear appeal procedure, which leaves you with no physical proof. The government forces you to consent to them sharing your data with anyone they please, and you have no idea who that is.
Since June 2016, Brexit has weighed on you, has caused you to question major life decisions and has broken your trust in local communities you thought you were part of. You have difficulties sleeping. You often wonder whether you should move back to Estonia (your husband does not seem keen on that), or try to build out your life elsewhere still. Your thoughts shift to your elderly mother. You’re her only child. Will you be able to get her to join you in the UK when her health declines? You’re pretty sure Camilla, your Australian colleague who is also a nurse, had tried to bring her elderly father over to the UK but to no avail. It is now virtually impossible to bring older dependent relatives over. So Camilla has gone back to Australia to live closer to him. Her vacancy has still not been filled, leaving you and your colleagues stretched— understandably, people are hesitant to move here. You would not have moved here, had you known 11 years ago this would happen. But perhaps you're allowed to get your mother over as part of the withdrawal agreement? You can't remember what was decided on that score. You don't understand the technical language of the withdrawal agreement, which you tried to read. Your stomach turns and your head aches with worry.
Next to you in the plane sits a chipper woman who starts off with a rant about Eastern Europeans, and about how there are too many of you. How should you respond? Would it be permissible to say "Sorry, but I have no interest in indulging you in your xenophobic rants", and ask to be moved if she continues?
According to the BBC game Crossing Divides, you, the Estonian nurse, ought to be polite and conciliatory. The BBC is asking of people who are already vulnerable, disenfranchised, and at risk of the hostile environment, to show sympathy for Brexit supporters. To see things from their point of view.
In the game, you can also play Karen, a British Brexity entrepreneur. She is taking advantage of the single market by flying to Tallinn and pitching her business to Estonians, whom she also believes are coming to work in the UK in too large numbers. Why Karen would want the UK to diminish her business’ own market access to Europe so as to go more global, as she says throughout the game, is a mystery (clearly she is not flying to New Delhi or Sydney, much more expensive trips and harder to coordinate given such factors as time zone differences).
As Karen, the BBC deems it apparently fine that you start engaging your conversation partner with xenophobic platitudes ("it's really amazing how many eastern Europeans work in the UK, but now it feels to me like we need a change"). Indeed, the BBC feedback congratulates you saying that this conversation is off to a good start.
The BBC is right that we need to have conversations and we need to attempt to listen to others. Listening to those we disagree with is an important way to avoid polarization.
But should this demand for civility and conciliation be put on people who are victims of oppression? Should they be expected to agree or show sympathy for the oppressive narratives that harm them? Say you are a black person in the US worried about disproportionate police violence toward yourself, or your teenage sons. To what extent should you remain patient, polite, understanding of the white person who asks you whether you think all lives matter?
There is a clear power differential between Karen and Erika in this narrative. Karen is a citizen who could vote in the referendum, who does not like eastern European workers. In spite of her dislike, she does not seem affected. Her business is so successful she can go and pitch it at international meetings. She just seems to dislike them in the abstract. Erika on the other hand is a public sector worker, underpaid as she has been subject to a pay freeze installed by a government and parliament she could not vote for, soon subject to its extensive powers as detailed in the hostile environment.
It is important to have civil conversations where we try to genuinely listen to others. But often, calls for civility put the burden on minorities. To require Erika to empathize with and listen to debunked platitudes about eastern Europeans and to hear for the millionth time she does not belong in the UK is not civility, it is just gaslighting. It’s oppressing already oppressed people by demanding they respond to all those tropes about EU citizens that have been dispelled many times, including by governmental reports.
In the design of this game the BBC shows itself once more vulnerable to that fake ideal of balance. Morally dubious attitudes such as xenophobia do not become less dubious if they are held by a (thin) majority. You do not start a process of healing by accepting such views as legitimate. You start that process not by putting the burden to explain and justify their presence on those who are most affected. You start the process by vigorously pushing back against these claims, and by separating Karen’s interests as a person from her prejudices. A genuine attempt to cross the divide does not require Erika to respond at all, or even politely, to Karen's opening statement. Karen, on the other hand, should learn about how her and other people's vote and attitude have affected millions of people. She could start by reading In Limbo, a collection of testimonies of EU citizens in the UK, or In Limbo Too, which details the challenges of UK citizens in the EU trying to cope with their uncertainty and loss of status.
Crossing divides only works successfully if, next to norms of civil discourse, we also have a concern for justice. Pandering to base xenophobic sentiment, no matter how common and how mainstream it is made through the media, is not the way to do that.