When your political starting point is that anyone with concerns about immigration is either misinformed, racist or stupid then you don’t give yourself – or anyone else – much room for manoeuvre.
Sadly, the new reality in the western world, where immigration is a mainstream political issue that can make or break political parties, has had little impact in some quarters where, ostensibly, a deep belief in your own capacity to be right about everything is all that’s required. That’s why you’ll hear things like “there are no legitimate concerns about immigration” as great examples of what some people think a discussion about immigration looks like.
During an exchange on social media on the topic, my sparring partner, midway through our back and forth, claimed to be “frightened” of me. He then clarified that he was not frightened of me personally but was alarmed by what appeared to be my willingness to entertain right-wing propaganda about the legitimacy of some anxieties about immigration. However, given that I work in communities where immigration is a live issue then I know, as much as I’d like to avert my eyes from reality, that many difficult issues arise where the process is poorly implemented. This is just a fact, but acknowledging it is heresy in some quarters.
My sparring partner’s claim to be “frightened” by me (and the implication that I should care) was deeply ironic because moments earlier he had dismissed, out-of-hand, the fears some people have about immigration. Evidently, those fears, rooted in cultural and economic insecurity, were not as legitimate or pressing as his own. He then distilled the unknowable individual perspectives of millions of people worried about the impact of immigration in their communities, down to a wonderfully naïve, morally-confused question: “Why are people scared of immigrants?”
To further confuse me, he cited the fear many migrants currently experience due to these heated conversations about immigration taking place and how this fear and insecurity is negatively affecting their quality of life. He was at pains to explain how many immigrants live in fear of losing their jobs and of not being able to provide for their children. Yet he refused to understand that these same instincts are what drive much of the fear of immigration – right or wrong. Fear which is then exploited by bigots and racists who become the only people willing to hear what people have to say without patronising or condemning them.
On one hand, my friend appeared to be claiming that fear, as experienced by himself and immigrants, was very real and that we should strive to show appropriate sensitivity to it. But, on the other hand, he was dismissing the fear of immigration itself as baseless, idiotic and likely the direct result of propaganda or deeply-held prejudice.
So why does one form of fear get privileged over the other? What process is taking place inside his head that permits one form of fear as valid but excludes another as dangerous, misplaced or stupid? Especially when the constituent parts of that fear, from the point of view of the person experiencing it, are the same: cultural and economic strain, insecurity and uncertainty, exacerbated by psychosocial stress.
Examples of psychosocial stress include a perceived threat to social status/esteem, respect, or acceptance within a group; a threat to our self-worth; or a threat that we feel we have no control over. These perceived threats can lead to a stress response in the body and when activated, can become difficult to regulate and manage, as they can make us feel unsupported, alarmed and alienated.
Psychosocial stress plays a decisive role in shaping our society today but due to our political leaders being far too keen to stir it up for their own political gain, we rarely (if at all) acknowledge how this acute form of emotional strain guides our opinions, attitudes and viewpoints.
Understanding the root of anxieties about immigration is key to creating the quality of dialogue required to make – and hear – persuasive arguments. Too often, attempts to understand opposing viewpoints are conflated with apologising for or enabling them, which creates an impossible juncture in dialogue that many people transcend by turning away from left-wing politics altogether. Those of us who are pro-immigration, but who accept the matter needs to be discussed, have to be more willing to challenge this politically futureless response to the issue. After all, who was ever persuaded to change their mind because they were “called out” as a bigot? Seriously, though?
On the left, our approach to this issue must evolve to meet the new challenges. Despite SNP rhetoric, designed to manufacture cultural and political contrast with the UK to aid the independence cause, immigration is a massive concern for people on doorsteps in Scotland and not all concerns are baseless or bigoted.
It can be the case that there is a net benefit from immigration but also that this benefit is rarely felt in communities where poor integration and social inequality create psychosocial stress that undermines multiculturalism and social cohesion.
For decades we’ve been sending immigrants, often fleeing poverty or violence in their homeland, directly to our poorest and most violent communities. This status quo simply will not hold and soon the difficult question will emerge that, should we be unwilling to acknowledge the issues around immigration, then what role can our politics expect to play in a 21st century where it’s a hegemonic concern?
lDarren McGarvey is also known as Loki, a Scottish rapper and social commentator @lokiscottishrap