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Emotional Does Not Mean Irrational. Learning from Anti-Migration Feelings

The antidote to the overwhelming wave of anti-immigration emotionality is more justice, more equity, more protection, more opportunities….

The Irish Navy rescues a boat of migrants. (flickr / Óglaigh na hÉireann)

Populist forces pander to people’s need to have an enemy to blame for the unfair state of affairs and against which to lash out. To demand inclusive policies must not mean underestimating the serious social and economic costs that host communities have to bear as a result of the growth of migration flows. If we want to make our societies more open to foreigners, we need to reduce the gap between the winners and losers in our society.

In discussions about migration it is easy to come up against the view that the rejection of immigration is a matter of emotional reaction. According to this view, the wave of far-right and populist opinion is the main marker of this affective dynamics. As many political scientists have shown, populist forces pander to people’s need to have an enemy to blame for the unfair state of affairs and against which to lash out, thus bolstering the feeling that one can take action to put things right again.

This view is often implicitly merged with the idea that emotional reactions lack realistic grounds, as if they were just a matter of misperception that prevents people from seeing the actual state of affairs. Therefore, the feeling of many people that immigration is a global threat to identity, security and a community’s wellbeing is treated by many observers as a biased belief shaped by the propaganda of far-right and populist politicians. In short, one writes emotional and reads irrational.

Needless to say, the emotional=irrational equation is not totally unfounded. Public opinion seems to be in the grip of a gut reaction, fueling polarized attitudes that more and more often are expressed through violence. As an emblematic example of this, think of the overwhelming anti-immigration feelings that have been spreading through Italian society. For many Italians, migrants seem to be the biggest threat, far more critical than issues like global warming, nuclear proliferation, consumption of natural resources, financial and economic turmoil. Somehow, it seems that for many Italians, Italy’s destiny depends on the number of foreigners that will be prevented from entering the country.

There is ample evidence that the factual footing of this perception is weak – actually, in several respects it is in sharp contrast with the facts. Just to mention a few figures:

  • In the first half of 2018, the total number of illegal border crossings towards EU countries decreased by about 50%, compared to the approximately 60,000 cases of the corresponding period of the year before.
  • The number of migrants arriving in Italy through the Central Mediterranean route was about 3,000 in June 2018, corresponding to an 87% drop compared to the same month of the previous year.
  • Foreigners in Italy number about 5,600,000 (5 million of them are legal), namely about 8% of the total population (60.5 million). Among them, 4 million come from outside Europe – a percentage noticeably lower than that of many other European countries – Germany: 8.0%; Greece 8.1%; UK: 8.3%;  France and Spain: 8.5%; Belgium: 8.7%; Netherlands: 8.8%; Austria 9.9%; Sweden 11.6%.
  • According to a recent survey, only one Italian out of five correctly estimates the percentage of foreigners in the country’s population. 44% of Italians think that in Italy there are double the number of foreigners (15%). 33% of Italians believe that foreigners make up 1/3 of the Italian population.

Incidentally, it must be pointed out that the emotional tidal-wave does not concern immigration alone. European societies have been experiencing – though to different extents – forms of generalized social and ideological polarization, as witnessed by the increasing incidence of hate crimes, political and religious radicalization, along with violent anti-institutional protests. Just to give another example from Italy, in the last year the number of episodes of physical aggression against health-care staff by patients/relatives of patients has increased sharply, making this one of the most critical issues the health authorities have to address (e.g. it has been suggested that each ambulance should have an armed guard).

A direct implication of the emotional=irrational equation is that once classified as an emotional reaction, people’s perception/beliefs are considered just as significant in their effect (e.g. in terms of electoral trends) as they are devoid of value in their content. In this case, too, immigration policy in Italy is a good example of this paternalistic approach (which mainly characterizes liberal and left-leaning observers). Many of those who espouse the pro-immigration position equate anti-immigration to racism and regard whoever agrees with the current Government’s anti-immigration policy as naïve and/or barbarian.

Now, there are important reasons to recognize this paternalistic attitude as one of the most powerful factors boosting the affirmation of the anti-immigration policy, and more particularly of its main advocate, the Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini – the absolute winner of the very recent regional elections in Abruzzo and Sardinia. Above all, despite its validity, the emotional=irrational equation is a misleading interpretative framework. Indeed, as both common sense and scientific psychology show, an emotional reaction is not synonymous with blindness to reality: one reacts emotionally to a certain issue or state of affairs because that issue destabilizes the established order of things.

Matteo Salvini (pictured center) at an anniversary celebration for the League (Wikipedia / photo by Fabio Visconti)

What many people have been experiencing is precisely this state of deep uncertainty and rupture, representing the collateral effect that globalization has had on large segments of Western society– the so-called losers of globalization. To demand inclusive policies must not mean underestimating – worse: dissimulating – the serious social and economic costs that host communities (and above all the disadvantaged segments of them) have to bear as a result of the growth of migration flows – e.g. in terms of increased competition in the access to social protection, potential inter-ethnic conflicts, professional and commercial dumping. Instead, one should recognize that these processes are the very real triggers of people’s reaction and that such a reaction cannot be defused by appealing to abstract universalistic and humanitarian principles.

Just to give a concrete example, take a low-income Italian family applying for public housing, who see themselves being passed over in the allocation of an apartment by a migrant family. We can ask, who is irrational? The Italian family that reacts to the exclusion with distrust, desperation, anger at the authorities, the feeling of having been deprived of a right by a foreign invader, or those who see this emotional reaction as irrational, just a matter of ignorance or worse, of racism? Again, what is irrational – to expect to be protected by one’s country or to believe that the frustration generated by the failure of this expectation can be overcome by asking those who have suffered it to embrace the abstract universalistic principle that there is no such thing as Italians and foreigners, but only persons asking for housing?

On the other hand, what has been said above is only one side of the coin. Indeed, while recognizing the reasons for emotional anti-migration reactions, it does not follow that such reactions have to be humored. Institutions show respect for people’s feelings when the policies they make are designed to elaborate them, not when these feelings are exploited to gain easy, yet short-lived, political support.

The narrow dividing line between elaboration of,  and pandering to, collective emotions can be understood if one considers that emotions are forms of lived knowledge of the world which are blind to nuances and encourage global perceptions of – and therefore attitudes to – life. This is the same as saying that emotions enable psycho-social resources (e.g. personal commitment, community linkage, sense of identity) to be mobilized in order to cope with the disruptive uncertainty of today’s world. However, they do so by using oversimplified interpretations (e.g. the idea that any problem is due to some outside enemy such as migrants, European bureaucracy or Islam) and ready-made acts (i.e. actions that satisfy the need to escape from the feeling of impotence, but at the cost of giving up the attempt to achieve efficacy through the patient search for complex, medium-term strategies).

In sum, those who want to promote inclusive migration policies – and more in general the values of liberal democracy forged during WWII – have to avoid the error of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. People’s feelings are very realistic indicators of what globalization means for growing segments of society. The fact that these feelings trigger interpretations and solutions that make things even worse must not lead us to ignore their deep truth, and therefore the urgent need to put them at the core of any political plan designed to make the contemporary world more humane, universal and just. In the current age of globalization, if universalist, inclusive immigration policies are to be implemented consistently and seriously, then strategic socio-economic and political changes are required in the distribution of resources, in the models of the welfare system, in the forms and rules of citizenship, in the relation between community identity and constitutional regulation.

It is not possible to think of making European societies more inclusive with migrants while leaving the bill for such generosity to be paid by the native-born people, and more particularly by the most disadvantaged among them. Desperate, fearful people cannot extend a welcome. If we want to make our societies more open to foreigners, we need to reduce the gap between the winners and losers in our society. The antidote to the overwhelming wave of anti-immigration emotionality is more justice, more equity, more protection, more opportunities, more institutional control over the economy, more civic and social infrastructures, more participation and democracy within our countries. Perhaps, as John Lennon sang, “you may think I am a dreamer….”. Even if it were the case, it would be a more realistic dream than the illusion of pro-immigration claims not anchored to a plan to promote the weak segments of European societies. To cultivate such an illusion is the best way of making Salvini, Le Pen, Orban & Company the new heroes of that part of humanity that globalization has brushed aside.

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