I want to persuade you that our first task when faced with a social evil like the Immigration Bill is not just to condemn but to understand it. I say that because those who fail to grasp the deeper motives driving this legislation will underestimate the magnitude of the menace it represents. And it is great, and serious.
On the surface at least this threat resides in the social lies it tells about migrants. Crass lies like the inflation of the ‘problem’ migrants present, their supposedly base nature and malignant motives. All part of the readying of the ground for a corrosion of fundamental freedoms. However, this corrosive effect not only impacts new arrivals, but may also harm the liberties of UK nationals in ways that may not at first be obvious.
Go home or face arrest
Who would have imagined a Britain where vans paid for with taxpayers’ money would be driven around London streets bearing the message: ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest. Text HOME to 78070.’ As one of my colleagues here at Harvard reminded me, did not vans with loud hailers drive around the streets of 1930s Germany? So was the Government’s ‘van plan’ an ill-judged one-off, an aberration? If so, what should we make of the Guildford Police very recently tweeting the following about their operation with the UK Border Agency: “Officers 1 Immigrants 0!! #WeWillCatchUpWithYou”. Glaringly revealed here is one of the obvious traps in all this: the dangerous blurring of lines. I’m sure that it’s not lost on you that the tweet speaks not of ‘illegal’ immigrants, but of all. And this exposes the psychological mechanism lurking behind the Immigration Bill, the loathing of the ‘other’, of outgroups.
Of course pandering to base populist feelings about ‘foreigners’ and outsiders is a strategy with a well-trodden and inglorious history. We instinctively know that a foreign threat can boost government popularity. Think Thatcher’s resurrection after the Falklands. Bush’s approval ratings becoming ‘stratospheric’ after 9/11. As, very tellingly, did those of Congress, the military, the police – all forms of authority.
Let me make a prediction you won’t want to hear: the Immigration Bill is likely to be popular with large sections of the wider populace. In fact, very much so. I take no pleasure in saying that. But immigration remains one of the top three most salient issues with the public, along with the economy and unemployment. The recent Sky News survey suggested that 67 per cent of the sample wanted the Government to do ‘something drastic’ to reduce it. However, the critical thing about such powerful primal emotions is that once stirred, they are rarely containable but infect other things. Here’s why.
Inflating the threat of outsiders
In a series of laboratory experiments, psychologists have manipulated the level of external threat that test subjects experienced – and then stood back to watch the results. The first point is that it takes alarmingly little to sensitise people to such worries about outsiders. For example, consider this passage that American psychologists Kay, Jost and Young asked subjects to read, pretending it was written by a journalist:
These days, many people in the United States feel disappointed with the nation’s condition. Many citizens feel that the country has reached a low point in terms of social, economic, and political factors. . . . It seems that many countries in the world are enjoying better social, economic, and political conditions than the U.S. More and more Americans express a willingness to leave the United States and emigrate to other nations.
It may not seem that extreme a brand of rhetoric, but after reading it participants more readily saw Ashkanazi Jews as cold, Sephardic Jews as incompetent, obese people as ‘lazy’, the powerful as more intelligent.
In another series of studies, Canadian psychologist Victoria Esses and colleagues invented an entirely fictitious immigrant group, the ‘Sandirians’. By falsely inflating the threat to domestic jobs, the research participants not only became more hostile to Sandirians, but to immigration more generally and less inclined to give assistance to immigrants to settle. But the socially damaging consequences of inflating the threat of outsiders do not end there.
In many other studies, including those by American psychologists Morrison & Ybarra, after manipulating the levels of threat, participants also tended to have greater faith in the incumbent government, believe in and want to defend the status quo, advocate more punitive sanctions, have greater belief in social hierarchy and set less store in social justice. All this from simple passages, read once in a lab. Of course the perennial question asked of psychological science is how valid these results are beyond the laboratory door – what is their ‘ecological’ validity? On this, history provides us with some clues.
Recent decades have witnessed social experiments in outgroup hate on a vast and tragic human scale. Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and genocide in Rwanda are just two of a long list that continues to lengthen. As ever, Orwell put it best. When in March 1940 he reviewed Mein Kampf for the New English Weekly, he penetrated to the heart of Hitler’s appeal. What Hitler possessed, Orwell wrote, was a psychologically superior understanding of one part of human nature. Of the dark part of it – the shadow.
Hitler understood that people in times of uncertainty did not only want material enrichment and physical comfort. Intermittently at least they also wanted someone who understood that life is a struggle, and hard, and brutal and not necessarily fair. For that recognition, Orwell chillingly observed, they would ‘fling themselves at your feet’. And with a flag to look up to, human beings to look down on, it’s a short step to finding a scapegoat for their ills. And this, as history shows, invariably leads to disaster.
Thus the routinisation of passport and spot checks on the citizenry that the Immigration Bill will exacerbate is something we may live to regret. For unchallenged, the rhetoric and manipulations around this contemptible Bill are of a kind that create the conditions not only for intergroup hostility and conflict, but also for social hierarchy, yielding to authority and servility.
These very real social dangers were not lost on Benjamin Franklin. Speaking to us across time and space, Franklin warns that those who would trade freedom for security may end up with neither.