WELCOME TO THE MONKEYHOUSE

If I asked you how you'd be hospitable to someone, you'd have lots of suggestions I'm sure. You could listen as they describe their day, share soup, maybe even run them a bath. There are all kinds of things we can do, and they start small and simple. Eye contact. Smiling. It really is that basic.

Conversely, people can be made to feel unwelcome. We've had that experience, whether personally or when we've seen it happen to someone else. Only, something has happened around that indisputable phenomenon. It's become politicised, thanks to the use of the term microaggression to describe those behaviours which can make people feel that they're not wanted.

And already, people will be making assumptions about me for making that statement. You should. If you're convinced that microaggression is a fantasy, a delusion suffered by social justice warriors who need safe spaces then it's possible that you've allowed yourselves to be lulled by the siren of the alt right, or alt reich as I call them to remind myself what they're about. And it's easy for that to happen. I know, because I've succumbed from time to time, having come across some tiresome examples of people wanting to shut down free speech and insist that their preferences matter more than anyone else's opinions. And yet -

A friend of mine was lucky enough to get to do postgraduate studies at a university. She'd never expected to do so, and wanted to make the most of the opportunity. Doing her degree had been an amazing experience, but pretty soon it became clear as she started her Masters that things weren't the same. And she couldn't be sure why. What she knew was she felt bad, but couldn't locate the source of her unease.

Bit by bit she started to understand what was happening to her, and its subtlety. She's a working class single mum, and most of the people she was meeting in the space for postgrads were younger, and middle class. Most importantly, they were fluent in a language that was new to my friend, and pervasive within middle class and academic circles...passive-aggression. People would say one thing, mean another. And the disconnect left her feeling bad.

Not just my friend in fact - she realised low-grade paranoia was pervasive within the area set aside for the postgrads. A small group of people helped create the atmosphere for all. They might not have intended to make somewhere so unfriendly, but that's exactly what they'd done. And the biggest evidence was in the dwindling numbers of overseas students using what was supposed to be a resource for all. My friend, who has always spoken with pretty much anyone and treated them as an equal and someone she can learn from, found out that lots of the overseas students weren't using the space because they felt unwelcome.

This stuff is subtle, but it happens. And in heartbreaking ways. One of the Chinese students, convinced that there was bad energy in the room - whatever that might mean - had taken to putting a mirror on his computer to deflect the negative vibes. Sounds daft, but it was a culturally-grounded response to a situation that he couldn't process and respond to in a rational way. You don't have to believe in feng shui to know there are places that feel bad.

Somewhere I've read about an experiment where a neighbourhood with a bad reputation and high crime experienced a transformation when researchers paid people to smile and make eye contact with others walking through the area. I can't find the book with that study unfortunately, but I can recall something comparable in my own experience...

In 2009 I spent a few weeks in Australia. And I found it to be an extraordinarily hospitable place. Now, I know like any society there's plenty of racism too - I'm no pollyanna. But generally, I experienced an incredible degree of welcome from people, and not just ones I had some connection with. I stayed at a little seaside town, Ballina, for a few days. And one wet and windy Monday night, wanted to get some food. Only, between bad weather and it being the start of the week, hardly anywhere was open. I found somewhere that seemed to be, but they were about to close. A couple there for a birthday meal said I was welcome to have the remains of the pizza they had shared - an incredibly touching kindness. And I found similar examples pretty much wherever I went, giving me a huge affection for Australia that will stay with me.

My friend challenged the unwelcoming culture at her university, and the space for postgrads became one that was used by all. And it's possibly the case that the exclusionary tactics used by the core group weren't intentionally divisive, but a reflection of their discomfort with difference. And that's something we all suffer from at some point, to a greater or lesser degree.

It's incredibly easy to make another social or cultural group other in some way. Othering is a valuable tool for elites to maintain their power by getting people to focus on differences as a bad thing, rather than celebrating them as something to treasure. Which is pretty banal - only right now it isn't. 

One of the first things that I was aware of as a response to Trump's electoral victory was an American transwoman I work with ensuring that her passport and other documentation is in order should the President-elect see through homophobic legislation that is possibly on the way. The response from the trans community and their allies is to organise, and ensure people have what they need, with funds being put together to ensure that's possible. There's talk of registering Muslims, and for many that understandably has an echo of the first steps of Hitler's treatment of Jews in Germany, which is why some American Jews are saying they're going to register as Muslims and are encouraging others to do so.

The magic word in all this is empathy. It's an innate human quality, and one that politicians of various sorts would section off to function only within groups they define, with anyone not belonging to the group depicted as alien. But they're not, any more than anyone is. As humans, we are 99% plus genetically identical to chimpanzees. Remember - whatever you make of Muslims, gays, left-handers, and Christians, you're even closer to them then you are the other primates.