Emotion Shapes the Fate of Immigrants and Refugees
Recently, Republican presidential candidates have condemned President Obama for not embracing a hardline rhetorical stance in response to the terror unleashed in Paris on Friday. Obama has been quick to point out that those competing to succeed him hold harsh commentary but lack rational plans to address the attacks, remarking, “Some of them seem to think that if I were just more bellicose in expressing what we’re doing, that that would make a difference.” The president is right that substantive policy should be of greater concern than hollow rhetoric for a task as formidable as obliterating the clout of the Islamic State. In reality, however, the communication of any policy matters just as much as a proposal’s components – and sometimes, it matters even more.
We, as human beings, process emotion-laced, imagistic language far more easily than we internalize information-saturated language. We do not take the time to rationally process statistics; rather, we automatically absorb information that makes us feel something, unknowingly gravitating toward the arguments-by-anecdote that most readily resonate with us. Neural networks of association operate constantly and subconsciously, leading us to connect our emotions with the images and ideas laid out before us by politicians. The human brain best remembers vivid information and treats memorable material as the most valid, regardless of factual substance. Cognitive frameworks that help us organize and interpret information allow us to make judgments quickly, and often lead us to discount details that refute our preconceptions.
As vehemently as we may dismiss the fear-mongering tactics of Republican presidential candidates, we must realize that their metaphor-laden, emotional pleas to shield America from external threats resonate with much of the public. Reasonable people likely recognize the impracticality of building the towering wall that Donald Trump cannot stop fantasizing about, but the metaphorical appeal of that wall is far more powerful than reason itself. Trump effectively exposes the fears of his supporters when he equates immigrants with criminals, and quells those same concerns when he assures, “We are a country of laws. We need borders. We will have a wall.” This “fortress-America outlook,” that the New York Times deemed the defining policy schema of the most recent GOP presidential debate, has become normalized in rightwing political discourse.
Lab experiments have illuminated the power of metaphors in shaping the way people think about immigration in particular. The results of one study revealed that American participants primed with two seemingly unrelated articles on history and human health were likely to demonstrate negative associations with immigration in a subsequent survey. This suggests that “if you increase a person’s concern about contamination and then prime the ‘nation = body’ metaphor, opinions about immigration change.”
The metaphorical underpinnings of rhetoric that depicts nations as vulnerable to external threats hold tremendous implications for national and global politics, especially as debates escalate over the re-location of refugees from the Middle East. With regard to the Obama administration’s plans to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year, Trump wondered aloud, “Is this a Trojan horse?” Senator Ted Cruz added that such a proposal amounted to “nothing less than lunacy,” and falsely (yet effectively) suggested that “seventy-seven percent” of the displaced refugees are “young men” who could pose a threat to our safety. Senator Marco Rubio has also acquiesced to the race to the rhetorical right over the prospect of admitting refugees, lamenting, “It's not that we don't want to, it's that we can't.” Our nation is under fire, these candidates say, and we must protect it.
Twenty-seven governors, including two Democratic ones, have elucidated their unwillingness to accept Syrian refugees in their states to some degree. As New Jersey governor Chris Christie articulated, “I don’t trust this administration to effectively vet the people that they’re asking us to take in. We need to put the safety and security of the American people first.” Of course, federal policy determines the status of refugees in the US, and states cannot bar approved refugees from their borders. States can, however, make life inconvenient or even miserable for any immigrants through the passage of punitive policies. These policies, paired with gubernatorial statements and initiatives, demonstrate the efficacy of state-level action in encouraging harsher federal policies toward non-citizens. This phenomenon has been exemplified by current congressional attempts to insert a provision into a December spending bill that would halt the admission of refugees.
Emotional rhetoric truly wields power in politics. As Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain, says, “We are not moved by leaders with whom we do not feel an emotional resonance. We do not find policies worth debating if they don’t touch on the emotional implications for ourselves, our families, or things we hold dear.” If emotion is indeed so politically compelling, then leaders of the left must re-frame the debates over the global migrant crisis and US immigration policy in an emotionally compelling way. Doing so will combat contrasting emotional pleas from the right to close our borders to the people who most desperately need our help.
Despite President Obama’s claim that he “can’t afford to play some of the political games that others may,” he still must take the time to effectively communicate to the American people, and to the world, the need for compassion toward those fleeing unthinkable violence – whether they be Syrians escaping years of conflict or children bolting from brutality in Central America.
At a G20 meeting in Turkey on Monday, the president made an emotionally compelling appeal that is worth emulating in future migration debates. Obama sternly said, “We do not close our hearts to these victims of such violence and somehow start equating the issue of refugees with the issue of terrorism.” Impelling others to avoid the “dark impulse” to discriminate under the guise of protecting national security, the president realized his emotional power to persuade – a tool that he, and members of his party, must readily utilize to overcome the reactionary rhetoric of the right.