A Few Thoughts on Immigration

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In recent years, the issue of immigration has become one of those polarising topics which seems to have the power to divide countries right down the middle. The cosmopolitan left call for more immigration, sympathising with the plight of people born in less fortunate circumstances than them, while the nationalistic right support barriers and walls, fearing an erosion of national identity. In this article, I will briefly look at two issues that seem fairly central to this topic; generalisations and nationalism.

All Xs are Ys, Therefore Z

People of certain religions, ethnicities, from certain parts of the world, etc. are more likely to create problems, therefore we are justified in preventing them from entering our countries.

This is the argument against immigration at its most general. The word ‘problems’ obviously covers any number of sins, from terrorism to petty crimes to failure to assimilate. Let’s get a little more specific so we can see how this plays out in reality:

Muslims are more likely to be terrorists than Europeans, therefore we are justified in preventing them from entering our countries.

One might argue that this isn’t discrimination; it’s just a statistical fact. This is literally half correct. To say that Muslims are more likely than Europeans to be terrorists isn’t discrimination. It may be a sweeping generalisation, but if we’re being honest (something the Left has a problem with in this instance), it’s also true. The problem arises when we get to the second half of that statement. Preventing Muslims from entering a country is discrimination. Just so we’re clear, ‘discrimination’ is treating someone differently based purely on their membership in a certain class or category; especially, race, gender, religion, sexuality, or nationality. The reason these particular categories are often cited is because they are non-essential, in the sense that no direct line can be drawn from them to one’s abilities or character; the really important aspects of a person. We, as people, transcend these contingent facts of our existence.

The crossover from acceptable generalisation to unacceptable discrimination happens when we turn from talking about whole populations to talking about individuals. Muslims are more likely to be terrorists than Europeans at the moment (there is nothing intrinsic to Muslims or Europeans which means this must be true) because a particularly virulent strain of Islam is currently in the air. It isn’t religious discrimination, or racism, or Islamophobia (a meaningless term, in my opinion) to note this. In fact, we mustn’t be afraid to acknowledge facts like these because it is only through open, honest dialogue, that solutions can be found. On the other hand, treating all Muslims differently because of this fact, is now discriminating against individual human beings based on their religion; a textbook instance of discrimination.

But their religious beliefs incite them to violence and encourage a negative attitude towards women.

This leads into the second point I want to make about generalisations…

While some generalisations are more accurate than others, it is always a mistake to carry them over onto the level of the individual. By definition, generalisations are features or traits that are true for groups of people; i.e. in general, as opposed to being true for the individual. ‘Men are more aggressive than women’ is a good example of a generalisation that has come about for good reason; i.e. it’s based on observable, verifiable differences between men and women. Nevertheless, while being accurate as a generalisation, it’s not going to be true for many of the individual men you will actually meet. If, as a woman, you don’t like aggressive men, you would be foolish to avoid all men because men are aggressive. When it comes to individuals who belong to a particular category, generalisations about that category are often unhelpful and sometimes completely misleading.

Returning to our previous example about the beliefs of Muslims inciting them to violence and leading to the bad treatment of women, we can immediately see that these beliefs are generalisations. When Westerners think of Islam, they often imagine ISIS taking child brides, raping young women indiscriminately, beheading infidels, working to build a global Caliphate, etc. This is the immediate mental association that comes with Islam, but surely everyone reading this knows that the actions of ISIS and other radical Muslims reflect the views of only a tiny, tiny number of Muslims. It would be like judging all Christians by the fundamentalists in the southern states of the U.S. Most Muslims (and Christians for that matter) just want to live healthy, happy lives, and give their children the best chances for a bright future.

Again, the generalisation isn’t wrong, in fact, it’s quite correct. We just have to remember that it’s only useful at the ‘higher,’ more general level. When it comes to specific individuals, generalisations tend to lead us astray as often as they put us on the right track.

 

Whose County is This Anyway?

We have a right to turn migrants away and preserve our national identity.

Do we? Based on what? The more I think about this proposition, the harder it is to justify in any absolute sense. Of course, world history has taken certain paths that have resulted in our current geopolitical realities, including the existence of particular sovereign nation-states. This is certainly not nothing, but it’s also not the be all and end all.

Let’s take the issue of national identity first. We, as human beings, can easily slip into tying our identities to accidental, contingent facts about ourselves. But even more than this, we tend to turn those contingent facts into immutable, eternal truths. Specifically, for us in this article, this means the way we naturally tend to view our home countries and our fellow-citizens as possessing certain intrinsic traits.

My country is white and Christian. If this changes, it just wouldn’t be (insert country name here) anymore. 

Let’s just stop and take stock for a moment. “My country is X.” Well, as I said earlier, the way the geopolitical dice have landed has resulted in certain facts, including that your country is X now, but obviously this isn’t a fixed, immutable truth about your country. Nobody’s country has always been the way it is now, and even more importantly, it almost certainly won’t remain this way in the future. Some white, Christian countries have been white and Christian longer than others, but none of them have been so forever. As rulers changed, as new religions emerged, as old religions died, as new ways of thinking took hold, as countries invaded and were in turn invaded by other countries, things changed. No matter how consistent you imagine your country, culture, language, norms, religion, etc., to be, they are all as contingent and temporary as lines drawn in the sand. Go back even just a couple of hundred years in any culture and it will be almost as foreign to you as landing on an alien planet. Obviously, things like clothing and customs will be different, but even things like language and religion, although nominally the same, will have changed almost beyond recognition. This reveals something interesting about the “My country is X” attitude; namely, how short-sighted it is. It would be more accurate to say, “My country is currently X”, which would do more justice to the inherently transient nature of human contrivances.

Now we can see how historically blind it is to assert, “My country is X and if this were to change, it just wouldn’t be (insert country name) anymore.” Your country has already changed countless times over the centuries, none of which you presumably object to now. Stripped to its core, what our imaginary interlocutor is actually arguing is that the current X (demographics, religion, political institutions, etc.) is privileged, or special, in some way and because of this shouldn’t be on the table for change. Given the countless changes that preceded the current X, and the inherent changeability of human societies (changes to political ideologies, ways of thinking, values, norms, etc.), this argument is almost certainly false (and akin to arguing that humans are the pinnacle of evolution, which is really a failure to understand both humans and evolution). To suggest otherwise is to believe that history has reached some kind of privileged position in the present, just when, coincidentally, you happen to be alive. If the above argument is valid, then so is the following one from a pagan perspective; “But without the local temple to Athena, it just wouldn’t be (insert country name here) anymore, therefore we should resist Christianity.” No one alive today mistakes this for a valid argument, precisely because we can see it objectively in its proper historical context.

The failed argument as I’ve outlined it above is, I think, at the core of most positions that seek to preserve a particular national identity, so, in an attempt to give it some semblance of legitimacy, its proponents often try to bolster it with more credible-sounding reasons. One particular argument I’ve heard in this direction claims that change can be either good or bad, so we ought to pursue the former and safeguard against the latter. This is obviously true. The problem is you can’t get from this to the idea that any particular element of the status quo ought to be preserved. There is nothing inherently bad about the demographics of a country changing. One can usually knock this argument on the head pretty quickly by asking whether your white, Christian interlocutor (in the above example) would welcome change if we could be certain that a mixed race or non-Christian society would be better than the status quo; more jobs, lower crime, and so on. However, in addition to the church at one end of your street, there would now be a mosque or Hindu temple at the other. If they hesitate or try to argue that such a thing is impossible, they have tipped their hand and revealed that they are against change, not because it might be worse, but because they just don’t want their tribe to change.

 

Let’s move on to the right to turn migrants away. I was lucky enough to be born in New Zealand, a developed, peaceful country, low-crime, no close geo-political disturbances, reasonably high standard of living, and good prospects for a meaningful career and happy life. Does this also come with the right to prevent someone who didn’t happen to be as lucky as me; someone born in a third-world country, high-crime, poor, no access to education, bad job prospects, etc., from moving to NZ in an attempt to improve their own lives? Does my good fortune somehow confer a right on me to deny that same good fortune to others?

One might already object that I have phrased this in the worst possible light though. Couldn’t the same sentiment be re-worded to sound less selfish? Perhaps the right I have is not one to deny a certain quality of life to someone else but to protect the quality of life I enjoy.

Despite the fact that the re-worded claim is certainly far less objectionable, my problem with it goes deeper than this. Specifically, I think casting the whole discussion in terms of rights, while not incorrect or unjustified in itself, is nevertheless misleading and unhelpful. We can approach the question of turning migrants away from two vastly different directions. From one, we can hunker down, erect barriers, put up signs saying, “Full – No Vacancies”, and assert a right, contingent though it may be, to refuse entry to migrants/protect my quality of life. From the other, we can acknowledge the rights that being born within particular lines on a map confers, but rather than jealously guarding them, we can accept the responsibility that comes with that good fortune to help others who are less fortunate. In short, we can close off or open up.

Now the arguments come thick and fast. Statistics about how immigrants want to impose Sharia Law. Stories about criminal behaviour among immigrants. Facts showing how immigrants don’t assimilate. It’s us or them. An existential battle. Sleepwalking towards Armageddon! At this point, reasoned discourse has already failed, trenches have been dug, and each side sets out to defeat the other with a bigger and better arsenal of facts and figures. What I’m suggesting here is that before we get to this stage, we need to decide which direction we are approaching the problem from. Do we actually want to help those less fortunate, even if it means giving up a little something here and there, or is this a dog-eat-dog world where we protect what we have at all costs? The reason this is important (more important than specific issues surrounding available jobs, language barriers, culture clashes, etc.) is because it will determine the lens through which you look at each of the individual issues and arguments. The arguments you are drawn to, the statistics you quote (or cherry pick), the facts you notice (real or ‘alternative’), will all be determined by how you answer this one question; do you want to open up or close off? Do you want other people to be able to be able to successfully improve their quality of life by sharing in the benefits you have been lucky enough to been born into or not?

I have questioned the absolute right we have to turn migrants away from our borders here, but I am in no way arguing for open borders (this is, by and large, a Right-wing strawman almost no one argues for), nor am I suggesting we don’t have a right to protect our own quality of life. What I do want to do though is just point out that talking about rights immediately puts us in a defensive, us vs. them, frame of mind. The only reason we need to assert our rights is because they are under threat, and the only reason they are under threat is because someone is attacking them. From this starting point, the gaze we cast towards migrants is almost unavoidably filled with hostility and suspicion. It’s not so much that we don’t have a right to control our borders as much as it is a hope that we can go beyond the tribal mentality that interprets everything in rights in the first place.

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