Writing about immigration fills me with feelings of trepidation. I am acutely aware that poking your head outside the echo-chamber is dangerous, with the potential for one’s liberal card to be revoked in quick order. However, my aim is not to question the liberal orthodoxy, just the treatment of those who reside on the other side of this divisive issue.
To be clear, I am convinced of the benefits of immigration. I am a proud ‘citizen of nowhere’. I was the first to baulk and cry bigot at anyone that spoke of “protecting our borders.” Yet, I have come to realise that I was wrong. We need to invite debate – not shut it down. Furthermore, it is vital to have empathy for our interlocutors. It has become all too common to blindly tar those with the opposing view as fascists – the scattergun application of this label belies a woeful misunderstanding of political ideology.
“Its original title was: “Is Rising Ethnic Diversity a Threat to the West?” Provocative? Maybe. Dangerous and dehumanising? No, absolutely not”
The desire to shut down any discussion that dares to question the popular liberal consensus was evidenced this past week. A furore erupted after the heterodox Academy of Ideas announced its latest debate. Its original title was: ‘Is Rising Ethnic Diversity a Threat to the West?’ Provocative? Maybe. Dangerous and dehumanising? No, absolutely not. Yet, the political news site Open Democracy published a letter signed by a number of academics, which claimed the debate – which had yet to take place – had “been framed within the terms of white supremacist discourse.” The ‘white supremacists’ taking part on the panel included: the equality campaigner Trevor Phillips, academics Matthew Goodwin and Eric Kaufmann, liberal journalist David Aaronovitch, and libertarian Claire Fox. Alt-right sympathisers, they were not. Again, just to be clear, I disagree with the debate’s central question, as I’m sure the majority of the panel did. Nevertheless, there are those who think we are in the midst of a Clash of Civilisations. These ideas need to be exposed to the clear light of day and countered accordingly.
More generally, there are vast swathes of people across the country who have fears, irrational or not, in regards to immigration. Concerns over national borders, changing demographics, and a perceived erosion of British culture, are often cited. These are clearly nativist fears, but does this mean these people are all fascists? Certainly not. Treating them as such is only going to lead to further polarisation. Whether their fears are a manifestation of their own material poverty or a result of a poverty of knowledge, in order to assuage them we must create an open dialogue.
That being said, this does not mean that we should act as apologists for actual racism. One can unequivocally speak out against President Trump’s framing of the “migrant caravan” as an ‘invasion”, while still willing to engage with those people whose fears are inflamed by this hateful rhetoric. Treating these people with civility is the least they are entitled to.
The fervent desire to see the Academy of Ideas’ debate shut down is emblematic of liberal responses to this issue. Common tactics such as the refusal to engage, apathy, and hyperbolic name-calling are never going to change hearts and minds. In fact, these reactions push people into the arms of those who are all too willing to have the discussion; those who actually have nefarious intentions. Here lies the real danger, as stated by American journalist David Frum writing for the Atlantic: “if liberals insist that only fascists will defend borders then voters will hire fascists to do the job that liberals will not do.”