To demonstrate how populist tools are applied to anti-immigrant narratives, I will use the three “government information” billboards the Hungarian government issued to make citizens “aware of the threats” posed by refugees.
|Slogan||Message / SubtextAka.
In order for the message to make sense/be true, the following must be true (better not say it out loud):
|“If you come to Hungary you must not take our jobs.„||Remember the threat of unemployment. It’s their fault. The government is to save us. The number of jobs is a given and fighting for them is a zero-sum game.||Fear (anxiety for jobs) and Scapegoating|
|“If you come to Hungary you must obey our laws.„||Refugees must be criminals. The government is to protect us. Criminals can and should be kept out.||Fear (criminal threat to safety) and Distrust|
|“If you come to Hungary, you must respect our culture.„||Refugees must be barbarians and contaminate our culture. And that must be a bad thing. And our culture is a good thing – whatever that might be.||Dehumanisation and Moral relativism|
The slogan may be discussed but the underlying subtext gets a pass. The subtext is thus more powerful.
A well-meaning person would engage in discussion about whether refugees (as such) are criminals or not, whether they take anyone’s jobs or not, but the subtext goes unchallenged. There is no good outcome from these discourses and they completely miss the point.
Lessons on How Not To Engage
Allow me to illustrate the pitfalls of engagement on the opponents’ terms through a few examples.
The following messages (subtexts) are bound to backfire:
- Arguing that hatred is not nice
They already know that. But they have decided that they cannot afford to be nice because it’s an emergency. They feel justified.
As I previously said, hatred is a symptom of fear. Fear is their reason to hate and the emergency is their excuse. A successful campaign must address the sense of fear and the presumption that there’s an emergency. Niceness will return by itself when the fear is gone.
2. Arguing that refugees are nice / kind / hard-working / honest / etc.
Fighting a negative stereotype by trying to infuse a positive one is not a solution. It’s a shouting match based on hearsay, confirmation bias and anecdotal evidence. The problem with stereotypes is not that they are negative but that they exist.
I have bad news. Refugees are just like us. Some of them nice, some of them jerks. All of the frightened and many of them angry. So why profiling them?
3. Arguing that xenophobia is unintelligent
This is prime example of the kind of communication that only appeals to fellow activists. Clearly, no one has given a thought to the target audience and group-think took over. The message insults even the undecided moderates, who have doubts that no one seems to address, only the aggressive xenophobes. The message ended up talking home.
You can cite as many studies as you want about the lower IQ and less education supposedly associated with certain political inclinations – but it won’t make a dent in the hatred towards the unknown.
With this argument you may spark hatred against yourself, but nothing more.
4. Telling people that hurting people is immoral
Again, they already know that. It’s just that they’ve decided that morality is suspended due to an emergency. They are convinced that they cannot afford to be moral right now and emergency is their excuse (fear is their reason). This communication fails to address the real reason.
5. Showing images of dead people
This one is counterintuitive, but showing piles of corpses and bodies floating on the Mediterranean doesn’t win hearts for the refugees – for a number of reasons:
- Further dehumanisation: The governments and extremists make a great effort to dehumanise refugees as non-people. Every war and genocide starts with the dehumanisation of the enemy or victim. Words familiar from the animal kingdom keep popping up. “Swarms” of refugees arrive. People are compared to apes, worms or cockroaches. Before the genocide in Rwanda, posters and leaflets were distributed which dehumanised Tutsis as ‘snakes’, ‘cockroaches’ and ‘animals’. Nazi propaganda used the term “rats” to Jews and explained it in detail in the 1940 propaganda film “The Eternal Jew”:
“Where rats appear, they bring ruin by destroying mankind’s goods and foodstuffs. In this way, they spread disease, plague, leprosy, typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery, and so on. They are cunning, cowardly and cruel and are found mostly in large packs. Among the animals, they represent the rudiment of an insidious, underground destruction – just like the Jews among human beings.”
The film shows a montage of images of ghetto Jews juxtaposed with images of rats. One of the shots shows a pack of rats emerging from a sewer, followed by a shot of a crowd of Jews in a crowded street of the Łódź Ghetto.
Dehumanisation opens the path to killing people, to letting them die – without a shred of consciousness. If I establish that the victim is not a person, basic decency, humane treatment and reciprocity don’t apply. It is a licence to kill and let die.
So floating dead bodies cause:
- Alienation and victim blaming: Mass graves and unspeakable violence trigger a sense of self-defence that distances the observer from the horror he witnessed. Rather than empathy, these images trigger alienation. The observer will try to calm himself down and tries to rationalise. He attempts to find a cause that matches the consequences he sees. The mind is so desperate to prove that the world is just (every consequence has a matching cause) that it will come up with any number of explanation as to how the victim must have brought it on himself. Because if he didn’t, then “it could happen to me”. This need is the source of victim blaming.
- Reinforces the message of emergency: Exactly what you want to avoid. Hate speech uses the same core argument as those, who fear a humanitarian catastrophe: It is an emergency, but not of those humans but our way of life, our wealth or our aspirations. Referring to an emergency will make extremists nod in agreement: “Yes, and this is why we are under attack.”
- Negative campaigns induce inaction (or worse, aggression): As tempting and widespread as it is, shocking images of starving children, dead bodies washed ashore, or genocide victims don’t work in changing minds, let alone provoking active sympathy.
- Shame doesn’t work: See alienation. Blame someone for a disaster and you can expect the most forceful backlash. That person will be emotionally motivated to provide arguments to back up his inaction. He will question your stance to judge (and he will be right). Combined with reflexivity, shame provokes the bystander effect. Instead of launching into action, they will become staunchly embedded on the side of inaction – or even hating the refugees.
It is always counterproductive to engage with the narrative of the haters. You may think that you can win, but it will be a phony triumph. By accepting their premises, you ultimately legitimise a much bigger problem. A few more examples of counterproductive engagement and using the wrong frame:
- Getting into an argument over whether refugees can have smartphones or not.
- Whether they should be poor or not (to qualify for humane treatment).
- Whether they are nice people or grumpy old men.
Neither is prerequisite of being a refugee. And we know that haters are going to attack either way – smartphone or no smartphone. These examples also fall under the category of addressing excuses.
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