PREFACE: I’ve been reflecting quite a bit about the events of the past few months because it’s been resurfacing a lot of memories and thoughts that I had while doing research on the rise of right-wing populism in relation to refugee policy in Europe. Initially, I articulated a few of these thoughts to express to interested friends following the U.S. Presidential election, but have since been encouraged to share with the wider community. It’s a little longer than planned, but I’m hoping to start capturing more of these experiences/memories and sharing them more succinctly, because the lessons learned through them seem to be immensely relevant to today’s issues. For those who may disagree with any of my reflections, you do not need to read my reflections as prescriptive, they are only an expression of my own experience. I welcome feedback to challenge or build on the ideas shared and encourage everyone to continue the conversation on the issues presented.
When the local becomes global
Through a series of serendipitous circumstances, I found myself in Munich, Germany in the summer of 2014 while researching challenges to refugee integration, interviewing neo-Nazi protesters who objected the expansion of a refugee camp in their local neighborhood. Opposing them were liberal counter-protesters, mostly German youth and NGOs, who came out in support of the refugees. As the local representative of the neo-Nazi political group took the stage and began addressing the community, his voice was drowned out by the counter-protestors, shouting: “Nazis! Nazis! Nazis!”, “Refugees are Welcome Here!” and a litany of chants in German. The tension in the air was palpable.
I had been invited to Munich by an Afghan friend who was a refugee, whom I had met during the summer of 2013 while working at a refugee camp in Hungary. He was now in Germany and we had spent the day prior interviewing refugees in the same camp that was now being protested. The heart-wrenchingly tragic and painful stories which formed the experiences of the Syrian, Afghan and other refugee groups I talked to were at the forefront of my thoughts. While in a nearby gas station reflecting with an Afghan-German security guard about the situation in the camps, a local politician had walked in with his colleagues. The security guard motioned towards the group and asked if I wanted to talk to them, because they were very vocal about their support of refugees. I did, and one of the politicians offered to drive me to the protest to witness for myself what was happening. What I found there was not what I had expected, and what I learned was that issues surrounding refugees/immigration would make or break societies in the EU and around the world, depending on how we responded to them. By listening to what was happening on a micro/local level, I began to understand that on a macro-level, the way governments addressed the issues of refugee integration and migration would profoundly shape the political trajectory of the West.
I went to the protest sincerely wishing to gain a better understanding of why people were angry on both sides, so I came to just listen without judgment. When I sat down to take a break from the heat of the day, I noticed that the young German woman sitting next to me on the bench didn’t seem to fit the demographics of either side and seemed a little out of place. I asked if she was okay and we started chatting. I asked what brought her out and she said wasn’t on any side, and that she just wanted to observe because she lived in this community. She agreed to be interviewed and so I asked her what she thought about both sides. Initially, she gave very superficial answers like “I think people don’t like the camp because now there is much more litter in the neighbourhood and more police everywhere…” I got the impression that there was a lot more she wanted to say.
When I made it clear that I was not going to judge her and that I came only to hear honestly what people think, she started opening up a little. Eventually she explained that while she supported refugees overall and had met many from the camp that she called “extremely kind, sweet people that always smile to me,” she had recently had a scary experience where she was harassed and followed nearby the camp that made her feel deeply unsafe in her own community as a woman. I felt very torn in that moment. As a woman whose feminism is intersectional but also as a daughter of refugees, her experience spoke to me on a few different levels. I had empathy for the experiences of refugees who lived in fear of xenophobic violence in Europe but I also had deep empathy for the experiences of this German woman, because I have also experienced harassment, stalking and violence from men (from various backgrounds) that has deeply affected the way I navigate the world. I knew too well how she felt and how that fear can become all-consuming and can transform to anger if not attended to.
She concluded by saying, “I think the refugees who are here are mostly good people and can stay…but more than that is…too much for this community. More will cause anger and I don’t think it’s a good idea but the politicians don’t care.” She looked straight at me, her blue eyes suddenly widening, and pleaded: “Please, do not think I am a racist. I love all people and I wish for refugees to be safe. But there is a problem here. The police didn’t do anything about my report. The politicians all say there is no problem, they aren’t listening to the people who actually live here. But there is a problem and making the refugee camp bigger will make it worse.” Yes, there are absolutely ways to address her concerns without closing the door to refugees. And yes, her account had some racial undertones, as she differentiated and stereotyped refugees from different parts of the world when describing which kinds she was okay with. But ultimately what I heard was that she felt scared, and unsafe as a woman and felt like she was not being heard or seen by anyone in positions of authority who could address her concerns. She wasn’t aligned with the neo-Nazi group but she did note that they were the only ones who listened to people like her, who offered to do something about it. I reassured her that I understood her intentions and concerns in sharing this and cared about her safety.
I brought up her concerns to the politician who had driven me to the protest, a cheery German middle-aged lawyer who was tasked to fight neo-Nazi expansion in this community. He repeated that “There is no increased crime and there have been no reports of increased harassment. This is racist fear-mongering among the right to make people afraid of refugees.” While it was true that overall it was a fear-mongering tactic used by the right, saying this did nothing to quell the fears of the German woman I talked to and it ultimately did not address her concerns. If this was the only response the left-leaning politicians had to this woman, I understood why she thought the far-right was the only option left for her. People like her — and there were many — were the ones who would ultimately tip the scales in favour of right-wing populist groups. Not all for the same reasons, but what connected them was the feeling of fear and being unheard.
How does this relate to the recent U.S. Election?
I feel like this short anecdote highlights a lot of problems within our society on a micro-level, the most important being the lack of empathy and the urge to understand our world in black-and-white terms, where people are either good or bad. We define the world through easy-to-understand labels because it’s less work than diving into the complexity that actually exists. People refer to each other through labels such as “racist bigots,” “feminazis,” “terrorists,” “bleeding-heart liberals,” “Bernie bros,” “crazy right-wing nuts,” etc. which leads to the delegitimization of a person and all their arguments before the conversation has ever begun. People delete Facebook friends who disagree with them and turn their social media networks into echo-chambers that reflect only their existing beliefs, which leads to confusion and shock when people like Trump get ahead.
Much has already been written about the failings of the left and how it contributed to the election outcome. It is clear that the failure to address concerns from across the political spectrum and to proactively shape discourse in light of it, played a large role in the resurgence of right-wing populist groups throughout Europe, and now, the USA. You could see this in last year’s Munk Debate on refugees as well, where the left failed to offer much to the public to quell fears raised by the right. It is becoming increasingly clear that the left is always reacting to discourse regarding immigration that has already been framed by the right, as opposed to proactively creating something else to mobilize behind. Debate has often boiled down to “If you don’t agree with us, you are a racist, misogynistic, ignorant bigot who threatens our democracy, therefore you are wrong and we shouldn’t listen to you.” But of course, the world is more complex than this and as we all now realize, this silencing and dismissal of people’s legitimate grievances has allowed Donald Trump to become the President of the USA. He channelled their frustrations and fears into a successful political campaign that baffled the supposed “experts.”
Because just like the German woman I talked to, tens of millions of Americans have felt similarly silenced, unheard and scared. They worry about their future, their kids, and their livelihoods and the status quo isn’t offering them any hope. Although not all agree with Trump’s policies, they see him (falsely or not) as the only one listening and willing to change the status quo. And what matters here is not whether he is listening or not, it’s whether the people perceive him as doing so. Although it’s tempting to look at things through a logical/rational/analytical lens, we need to understand that emotions matter. Feelings matter in politics, whether we like it or not. If someone fundamentally feels mistrustful of the authority or the people they’re talking to, facts won’t matter at all. Why? Because facts can be cherry-picked and are actually laden with preconceived biases and influences. So if someone doesn’t trust the source of the fact, it ceases to be a fact to them but an opinion. This is why Democrats don’t trust news from Fox News and Republicans don’t trust what is reported from other mainstream media outlets. Thus, we find ourselves in what has been dubbed a “post-factual” world, unequipped to navigate its tumultuous waters with our outdated toolkits. This new paradigm and the problems it generates won’t go away by throwing facts at it, or by shaming the opposing side into conceding, because there is no mutual respect or trust that underpins the dialogue.
So what does work then?
In my opinion and experiences: honest, candid, non-judgmental and empathetic dialogue is the only way forward in the long-run. This means engaging and taking seriously the grievances of those who we fundamentally disagree with. I’m using an example from my own experiences but you can apply this to any other issue. For example, when I did research on refugee issues in Hungary and Germany, I didn’t just speak with those that I agreed with. I sought out radically diverse opinions, from the far left to the far right. I have a lot of people on my Facebook to ensure I’m always grounded in the reality of diverse experiences and don’t create too much of an echo-chamber for myself. Over the past few years in my limited experience, I’ve discussed refugee issues with refugees from across the world from diverse backgrounds, NGOs and civil society groups who are both pro and anti-government, citizens who are supportive or radically against refugees, the old and the young, and journalists/politicians from across the spectrum. Only through this complex web of hundreds of overlapping, intersecting, contradicting and radically different experiences, can we even begin to discuss the creation of solutions that will be equally complex. First and foremost, we need to understand how people’s lived experiences shape their current value and belief systems, in order to communicate in a language that will be understood by them, and vice versa.
This is a frustrating and mentally/emotionally/physically exhausting process. Particularly so for people from marginalized or racialized communities, who legitimately question why they should empathize with those who don’t believe in their fundamental human rights. I get how difficult this is and do not claim it’s easy or simple. In addition to the emotional labour, part of the difficulty is because we don’t get to immediately see the effects of our actions and thus there is no instant gratification from seeing our efforts lead to tangible change. Many friends question why I want to engage so actively and openly with those who disagree, and subject myself to this when it seems like no one’s opinion is going to change. But I actively choose to continue these conversations, because it’s not about converting people to your belief. It’s about exposing people to each other’s lived experiences and fostering the social relations/empathy/trust between people to ensure that their lived experiences matter to the other side. It’s about planting a seed of understanding that can be watered through dialogue and trust over the years. It’s about seeing each other as equally human, whose emotions are valid even if we disagree with the source of them.
It’s hard to empathize with a person who has racist beliefs, but what one can empathize with is that feeling of fear that drives these beliefs. Maybe people with racist beliefs can’t empathize with people who happen to be refugees because they see them as a security threat, but if you can succeed in helping create empathy for that person, to understand a refugee’s desire to find security for their children, that’s where real progress can occur. If you can help one person see another complex human being instead of the blanket label “refugee/immigrant,” “racist right-wing nut,” or any other label you can think of, we’ll go much further in combating the ignorance, hate and intolerance that has led to the situation we currently find ourselves in.
This is not to say that empathy and dialogue replaces resistance and protest against hate; it goes hand-in-hand, so long as people from all sides of the political spectrum acknowledge that we are ultimately fighting for each other and for everyone’s right to live in a more just, kind and equitable society. This is more of a long-term solution addressing the root causes of hate and fear, not a quick-fix. Yes, during this process we absolutely need to understand power, privilege, race and gender and see how all these factor into someone’s lived experiences and social position in society. But in understanding these differences, we also need to appreciate similarities where we can find common ground. Seeing all people as humans worthy of rights, freedom and dignity first, and also seeing the multitude of identities they hold in connection with that basic premise.
Some Americans are scared of Muslims, but how can we change the conversation so that instead of seeing a “scary” Muslim man/woman on a plane, they see a fellow human being. So that they see a mother/father, doctor/teacher/student, artist/writer/creator of beautiful things, someone who likes to garden or who has funny quirks, who feels insecure sometimes, someone who also worries about their loved ones, who wants to be seen, heard and loved…who also happens to be Muslim. In the same breath, how do we see racist people through this same empathetic lens? As fellow human beings who have a family they love, a community they worry about and a deep fear of anything that might threaten the things they perceive as important. These complex identities sometimes contradict each other and people’s beliefs create real harm for others, but everyone is on a learning journey in this lifetime and I do think that with more information, conversation and most importantly, love, that slowly things will change. I’ve seen change happen this way between groups of people who you’d never imagine engaging this way [I’ll save details for another post], and it’s the most beautiful thing to witness. It’s hard but it’s possible and the stakes have never been higher to make it happen.
Where do we go from here?
What is important to understand is that even if Trump were gone tomorrow, you’d still have tens of millions of people who still feel unheard, unseen and unaddressed with the same problematic views that brought him into power. So until we address the source of these social grievances and the structural systems that create them, they will always exist, simmering until they come to a boil at another opportune moment. The silver lining of this election season is that it has brought all of people’s views and grievances blatantly onto the table where they can now be seen and addressed. Racism, misogyny, class struggle and more have been unearthed so that we can see clearly now what has always been bubbling just below the surface. Sometimes you need things to come to a boil so that all the impurities float to the top and can then be seen and filtered out.
Let’s take this opportunity to look at all the issues that have surfaced with a critical mind but also with an empathetic heart, so that we can actually start building complex solutions that respect and empower everyone’s right to live their life with dignity, respect, security, freedom and love. This will require courage, vulnerability, honesty, strength and a willingness to sit with uncertainty and be deeply uncomfortable, but I have full faith that this is possible. It is clear that on all sides, the status quo will not suffice any longer, so let’s build something better together and start making decisions based on our hopes and not our fears.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
Derakhshan Qurban-Ali is a co-founder of WelcomeHomeTO