Migration and Human Rights (50): Rebooting Nationalism

Like young children have to learn what dreams are so as not to be afraid of them, we will have to unlearn what the nation is so as not to be infatuated by it. Pride in a nation is not what the nation is. Be proud of yourself and your children because being proud of something without the ability to take credit for it is plagiarism. Nationalists are serial plagiarists. They appropriate the good of their nation (while the bad in their nation often appropriates them).

Nationalists defend this plagiarism by way of the notion of national identity. They assume that certain cherished traditions of the group and certain accomplishments of members of it derive at least in part from a national identity shared by all. This common identity is believed to cause the good in the nation, and because it is shared by all members it allows all to claim a share in the good. That is what national pride is. You claim to be proud of being Flemish because of all those great Flemish painters. But unless you remove in some way the difference between you as a person and the Flemish painters as persons – and you attempt to remove that difference by positing a common identity, a national identity – your pride would be nothing more than appropriation of someone else’s greatness.

The notion of national identity is what lies behind a lot of animosity towards foreigners. Arguments against immigration for example are fundamentally about identity, even when they appear to be about more mundane matters. Talk about protecting jobs and social security are not what they seem to be. We are a nation separate from others, and we should protect our identity. That means resisting foreign influence in all matters. We are masters of our realm, and we don’t want people coming here because if they do they will start to influence our being, our identity. That’s what separates tourists from immigrants. The former are harmless, but the latter, because they work here or enjoy our social benefits, will want to stay. And if they stay, they will change us. Talk about labor shortage or unaffordability of social security is just a front for identity politics. This is obvious from the fact that data on the economic effects of immigration has never supported the economic arguments against immigration, and yet these arguments continue to be expressed. Something deeper must be at stake.

We should instead view a nation as a cooperative arrangement for mutual benefit, both internally and against legitimate foreign threats. It has a number of traditions that are valuable because, and only because they improve the mutual cooperation. Forget about national identity. It’s not even clear that there is a thing called individual identity. You want to be proud of something? Do something noteworthy. You want to belong? A mutually beneficial cooperative arrangement is a nice thing to belong to. And if you have to, be proud of that arrangement to the extent that you contribute.

So, by all means, make your borders. A cooperative needs a delineation. You need to identify the cooperators and give them a cooperative say on the matters of the whole (a democracy works best in small, separate groups). But don’t exclude people for imaginary reasons or in the absence of real threats to the cooperative. There’s no national identity that immigrants can come to destroy. Do they disrupt your mutually beneficial cooperative arrangement? Are they criminals for example? Go ahead and exclude them (incarceration may, however, be a sufficient form of exclusion). And keep your eyes open to the many ways in which immigrants enhance the mutually beneficial cooperative arrangement. For example, they create jobs, they allow natives to move up the job ladder, they pay tax money (often more than they take), they have interesting food etc.

Don’t remove your borders, because you may face real threats. But open them, because opening them will in all likelihood benefit your cooperative. And even if there’s no effect, you must do it to respect the rights of the newcomers. Rights can only be limited when that is necessary for the rights of others. And it’s normally very hard to argue that limiting the rights of immigrants is necessary in order to protect the rights of natives. Hence you often see a heavy thumb on the scales: the rights of both parties are not given equal weight when the rights of immigrants are on one side of the equation.

How should this balancing work in general? When the rights of two parties are in conflict with each other, respecting the rights of one party usually means limiting the rights of the other party. Think of the journalist claiming his speech rights in order to violate the right to privacy of a politician. Someone – often a judge but we can all make the call – has to decide which party’s rights should give way. The normal criterion is the damage done to the rights of either party. In my example, unless the private fact that the journalist wants to publish is very important for the work of the politician, the latter’s right to privacy should prevail over the speech rights of the journalist who undoubtedly has many more important stories he can cover without harming the rights of others.

The same is true with immigrants versus natives. Both have rights, and immigration can perhaps, in some circumstances, cause violations of the rights of natives. However, it normally doesn’t. Which means that the right to movement of the immigrants should prevail. It’s only when the natives have a very strong case showing massive rights violations on their part caused by immigration that immigration can be stopped or limited. Don’t forget that on the immigrant side of the equation there’s not only the right to free movement but also rights such freedom of association, the right not to suffer poverty etc. You need a lot to outweigh those rights, and a lot is typically not available. In most cases there’s not even a bit.

More on nationalism here. More posts in this series here.

Human Rights Promotion (16): Is the Human Rights Movement a Total Failure?

Let’s start with another, related question: are human rights an ideology? There is indeed an ideology of human rights, at least as long as we use a value-free meaning of the word “ideology”. (Some argue that human rights are an ideology in the value-laden sense of the word, but that’s not what I want to talk about now). Human rights are an ideology because they form a widely shared system of ideas, and these ideas form a comprehensive vision of the world (see here for a definition of the word “ideology”).

Now, some have argued that the ideology of human rights, when compared to some other ideologies, has been a complete failure. Christianity, nationalism and Marxism for instance (one can perhaps add other ideologies such as Islam) have done much better over the course of history (although the role of Marxism is now finished, it seems). Over the course of decades and even centuries, those ideologies have been exported and implemented throughout the world. They have created mass movements, mass mobilization, political institutions, churches, political parties and rituals. They have inspired art, feverish devotion and legal codes. Moreover, they have proven to be able to adapt to local circumstances.

Human rights have achieved nothing of the kind. True, there are some international human rights courts and certain human rights have made their way into treaties and national constitutions, but those courts, treaties and constitutions are terribly ineffective in most parts of the world. No political party anywhere has human rights as its central goal. There are the occasional mass protests when some rights of some people are violated, but there’s always a distinctively ad hoc feeling about those protests and mobilization of this kind pales when compared to the movements inspired by Christianity, nationalism and (until a few decades ago) Marxism.

It’s true that Christianity, Marxism and nationalism were “successful” in one sense of the word. They were popular ideas, popular enough to have real life effects, but one can argue that they were not successful tools for human betterment, at least not overall. The contrary may be the case (see here for examples). And, in the end, human betterment is the only success that counts.

Furthermore, the success of ideologies such as Christianity, nationalism or Marxism was based on the fact that they were adopted by rulers. They became in some sense or other “official” ideologies and could therefore be imposed. Again, that’s not really the kind of “success” that counts. Human rights, although they also can, theoretically, be adopted by rulers, have seldom been an official ideology, and this fact may be indicative of their failure. However, the success of human rights should not be judged by the degree of their official adoption. After all, rulers don’t have an incentive to adopt human rights. They have an incentive to destroy them. The success of human rights should be judged on the basis of real improvements in the lives of real individuals. And in this sense of success, human rights have been anything but a failure, especially when compared to other supposedly more successful ideologies. This doesn’t mean that the success of human rights has been profound or conclusive. We’re not there yet.

More about progress in the field of human rights is here, here and here.

Migration and Human Rights (44): Welfare State Incompatible With Multiculturalism?

David Miller has argued in favor of an affirmative answer to this question. My view is different. Miller’s story goes somewhat like this. The welfare state predates multiculturalism: most western countries have adopted some form of welfare state in the late 19th century or during the first half of the 20th century, whereas these countries only have become truly multicultural in the second half of the 20th century (as a result of decolonization, guest worker programs etc.).

According to Miller, a welfare state requires a strong sense of national solidarity. People will only contribute to the welfare system if they know that others contribute as well and that they themselves will be protected by the contributions of others when things turn bad, when they get sick or old or when they lose their job. Hence, everyone should contribute in the same way and rules about reciprocity and fairness should be respected. A welfare state is only possible when society is a warm nest where everyone cares for everyone, looks after everyone and uses the system in a fair and reciprocal manner. Free riders by definition don’t care about others and if there are too many of them, the welfare system breaks down.

Miller fears that a multicultural society can undermine support for the welfare state because large immigration flows can undo the fairness of the system. This fairness is based on the assumption that you can only withdraw from the system if first you have contributed to it (reciprocity). Newcomers are often seen as people who withdraw without contribution.

In a sense, this is the classic welfare tourism argument. It’s a popular argument against multiculturalism and immigration, especially on the right of the political spectrum, and it’s disappointing to see a noted philosopher give credence to it. He should know better. Why? Well, first, it’s simply not true that immigrants abuse the welfare system. Some do, of course, but in many cases immigrants withdraw comparatively less than natives and they often have higher labor force participation. Furthermore, many of the native poor withdraw a lot more than they contribute, over a lifetime. This “unfairness” is identical to the supposed unfair use of the system by immigrants, and raises similar complaints about the “undeserving poor”. And yet, even though the unfairness is the same, it doesn’t result in arguments that all welfare states are impossible. Or is unfairness only a problem when colored people are unfair?

Hence, Miller seems to be rushing to accept defeat in the face of xenophobia. He preemptively gives up the attempt to widen the circle of empathy and to correct misinformation about unfairness. If it is really the case that a population loses trust in and withdraws support from a welfare system because it believes that solidarity is only something for “people like us” or because it believes that rules of fairness and reciprocity are violated, then perhaps we should try to change people’s minds rather than hastily agreeing with them.

Something about a similar argument by Milton Friedman – “you cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state” – is here. More on the role of group identity in public support for redistribution is here. More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (14): Does Confirmation Bias Invalidate Freedom of Speech?

Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to seek out evidence that is favorable to their original beliefs, and neglect evidence that is unfavorable. It’s a form of self-deception that we all suffer from, to a different extent, and that leads us to stick with our original beliefs rather than review them, even if a whole lot of contrary evidence is available. We just seem to be very good at ignoring it and focus on other, confirming evidence, even if the quality of this other evidence is dubious. The “stickiness” of beliefs resulting from confirmation bias is in turn an important cause of polarization of beliefs, the “dialogue of the deaf” style of political discourse, and “gladiator politics“.

Now, why is there confirmation bias? We all value consistency in our identity and self-image, and are afraid to acknowledge mistakes, especially regarding values or facts that are and have been for decades the foundation of our identity. We want to feel good about our “original” and fundamental views and affiliations. If our views are intertwined with our group affiliations, then the elements of group pride and loyalty also promote confirmation bias and our disregard of evidence that contradicts our views. It’s then not only our views that are at stake, but also our sense of belonging and the future of our group. Suppose evidence is found that Jesus Christ could never have lived. If we, as Christians, disregard this evidence, taint it or reinterpret it, then we are able to keep feeling good about ourselves and our previous thinking – we feel like consistent human beings with reasonable thinking powers and without a strong propensity to error – but we are also able to support the continued existence of our group, and that’s important for the wellbeing not only of ourselves but of millions of people. Our pride in our belonging, our identity and reasoning powers, as well as our loyalty to the other members of our group are powerful forces that produce confirmation bias. Patriotism and nationalism can also be seen in this light.

How does this relate to freedom of speech? This human right is often justified by and grounded in the argument that the public and equal appearance of a maximum number of viewpoints and arguments for and against something enhances the quality of thinking, much like the observance of a physical object from different angles yields a better understanding and knowledge of that object. It’s the famous concept of the “marketplace of ideas” where opinions have to enter the struggle of competition, review and criticism. These opinions are then either rejected or they come out better at the other end. The same idea justifies democracy because democracies – ideally – use freedom of speech to find and test the best policies and laws. Equal participation of a maximum number of citizens should then guarantee the same market processes. (More on that here, here and here).

That, of course, is an ideal. In reality, we see that even in free societies public discourse is often – but not always – far removed from the search for truth and improved thinking that should characterize it. Confirmation bias is one of the causes of the distance between reality and ideal because it inhibits the public examination of viewpoints and arguments. Propaganda, dysfunctional media, inept institutions, group pressure, vote buying, disregard of expert views, irrational behavior, deliberate polarization etc. are other causes. But here I’ll focus on confirmation bias.

At first glance, confirmation bias seems to undermine the whole “epistemological justification” – if I may call it that – of free speech and democracy. The more information there is (thanks to free speech), the more likely that people can just pick those pieces of information that confirm their biases, and I understand the word “information” in a broad sense, not just including facts but theories and arguments as well, however “wild” they are. So freedom of speech seems to be more like a bad thing, when viewed in this light.

However, in order to know if something is really bad you have to imagine what would happen if it went away. Without freedom of speech, the appearance of new and conflicting evidence is much less likely, and hence it’s more likely that people stick to their biased and pre-existing beliefs. Freedom of speech doesn’t promote confirmation bias, but doesn’t eliminate it either. People have to do that for themselves. However, freedom of speech gives people the tools to combat confirmation bias, if they are so inclined. And therefore freedom of speech is neither invalidated nor validated by confirmation bias.

Migration and Human Rights (6): Xenophobia

Xenophobia, the contempt or fear of strangers or foreign people, often people of a different race or ethnic group, is not considered to be a disease like other “phobias”. It is part of a political struggle against adversaries, much like racism is. (Whereas racism is certainly xenophobic, xenophobia doesn’t have to be racist; it can be directed against groups which are not racially different from the xenophobes).

Xenophobia often takes places within a society rather than between societies. A group present within a society is not considered a legitimate part of that society and has to be expelled or assimilated in order not to corrupt or damage the interests of the rest of society. Hence the link to ethnic cleansing or genocide.

Causes of xenophobia include:

  • Ethnically-based nationalism (e.g. xenophobia in the Balkan countries)
  • Migration, although xenophobia may be directed against a group which has been present for centuries, or against very small numbers of immigrants or foreigners (e.g. Japan in the 19th century)
  • Perceived threats to culture or national identity
  • Religious doctrine (e.g. the attitude of some Muslims towards unbelievers)
  • Perceptions of neocolonialism (e.g. present-day Zimbabwe)
  • Political imbalances (e.g. one group holding a disproportionate share of political power, e.g. anti-Tutsi xenophobia in Rwanda before and during the genocide)
  • Terrorism (e.g. anti-Muslim xenophobia following 9-11)
  • Competition for scarce resources
  • A mix of the above.

Cultural Rights (9): Ethnic Cleansing

Ethnic cleansing is the violent displacement of an ethnic group from a particular territory in order to create an ethnically “clean” unit, i.e. a territorial unit composed of only one ethnic group. The means used to achieve ethnic unity are:

  • direct military force
  • police brutality
  • genocide
  • the threat of force
  • intimidation
  • rape
  • pogrom
  • demolition of housing, places of worship, infrastructure
  • discriminatory legislation or policies
  • tribal politics
  • economic exclusion
  • hate speech, propaganda
  • rewriting of history, fabrication of historical resentment
  • a combination of the above.

Given these various “tools”, it is not correct to equate ethnic cleansing with genocide. There are more or less violent forms of ethnic cleansing, although all forms contain some kind of force, otherwise one would speak merely of voluntary migration. Deportation or displacement of a group, even if effected by force, is not necessarily equivalent to destruction of that group.

Given the element of force it is correct to denounce all forms of ethnic cleansing, not only on the grounds of some kind of ideal of multiculturalism, but also on the grounds of the self-determination of the people involved, of their right to settle where they want, their freedom of movement etc. It is defined as a crime against humanity.

The best known cases of ethnic cleansing are:

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s
  • Iraq during the Iraq war
  • India and Pakistan during their partition
  • The Georgian-Abkhaz conflict
  • Rwanda during the genocide
  • The relocation of Native American peoples from their traditional areas
  • The forced removals of non-white populations during the apartheid era
  • The Palestinian exodus
  • Central and Eastern Europe during and immediately after World War II
  • Darfur
  • etc.

However, it seems that this tactic has been known to humanity since a long time. Some even believe that the Neanderthals were victims of ethnic cleansing.

Some of the justifications given in defense of ethnic cleansing are:

  • To remove the conditions for potential and actual opposition. According to Mao Zedong, guerrillas among a civilian population are fish in water. By draining the water, one disables the fish.
  • To create a separate state for one ethnic group. A nationalist believes that a people or a nation can only have an autonomous and authentic existence, according to their own traditions, language, values and norms, in a state of their own. A multicultural nation can never be legitimate according to nationalism, because one assumes that in such a state it is inevitable that some groups are ruled by others and hence do not have an authentic and autonomous existence. The only way to have homogeneous territories in our multicultural and melting-pot world with no clear territorial separation of groups within states, is the use of force.
  • To redeem a society that is literally “unclean” and “sick” because of the presence of inferior humans.

Cultural Rights (6): Self-Determination and Ethnic Cleansing

Self-determination is the essence of nationalism. A nationalist believes that a people or a nation can only have an autonomous and authentic existence, according to their own traditions, language, values and norms, in a state of their own. He often sees himself as a force for democracy. Self-determination, the national liberation of a nation that is captured in an alien state and that has to follow the decision of an external power, is indeed part of the struggle for democracy.

However, problems can arise from the desire to have a perfect match between state and nation. If every nation should have its state, then every state should comprise only one nation. A multicultural nation can never be legitimate according to nationalism, because in such a state it is inevitable that some nations or peoples are ruled by others and hence do not have an authentic and autonomous existence.

The problem that nationalism misses is that its policies lead to a homogeneous society and that diversity and multiculturalism can be attractive. Most problems of multiculturalism – a lack of integration, conflicts between communities, one group dominating another – can be solved by democracy (by tolerance, respect for religious freedom and individual rights, non-discrimination, institutional reforms, local autonomy etc.).

Nationalism solves the problems of multiculturalism by destroying it. It’s a kind of intellectual laziness to go immediately for the most extreme solutions. The only way to have homogeneous territories in our multicultural and melting pot world is the use of force. Homogenization often requires violent separation, civil war (because of the violent reaction of states that want to keep their territory intact), centrifugal forces (because of a lack of clarity: which group is a “nation” and has therefore a right to its own state?), forced relocation of members of other nations – also called “ethnic cleansing”, a method often used when there is no clear territorial separation of nations within a state – and, if really necessary, genocide.

If members of another nation have the misfortune of inhabiting parts of a territory that is claimed by the nationalist nation as the soil of its future state, and if these members do not leave the territory, give up their possession and abandon their graves voluntarily, then nationalism requires the elimination of these people. As long as they are present, the state will not be the representative of one nation. Democracy will require the representation of all nationalities and that is not the optimal situation for nationalists because it means that every nation is not able to rule itself. This is obviously a distorted and dangerous view on democracy.

Cultural Rights (1): Identity

In political discourse, we often see that individuals, as part of a nation, a culture, a political party or an ideological group (e.g. conservatives and liberals), are subject to a kind of homogenization. Individuals are no longer different personalities but rather parts of a group.

In the case of cultures: every culture has its typical personality, its way of life, its way of being human, its national character or “Volksgeist”. The personal identity is a collective identity. People are specimen rather than different individuals. This cultural identity – Chinese are hard working people, Scandinavians somewhat to themselves etc. – influences or even determines the ideas and behaviour of the individual members of the culture and is formed by the religion of the nation, its language, history etc. An individual is born in a culture and formed by it, from his earliest years on. He cannot choose another one and cannot reject his collective identity. His life follows certain patterns that are older than him and that will live on after him. Everything which may seem at odds with the collective identity is in fact comparable to the small movements on the surface of the sea that may go in different directions but that cannot escape the underlying current. Like the current, the culture may not always be visible but it does determine everything.

If individuals receive their personality from their environment and culture, then the members of one group share the most basic assumptions and convictions. And if that is true, it is a justification of ethnic cleansing, wars for national independence, separation etc. because a mono-cultural society will have fewer conflicts than a multicultural one, given the common identity and convictions of people of one culture. This discourse is common in nationalism.

The same, but less extreme, can be seen in political discourse like the “culture war” in the U.S. We reduce people to the groups to which they belong.

However, all this is based on psychological simplifications. Although it is undeniable that the environment we live in, the culture we belong to and the groups we are part of shape our identity, there is no reason to ignore the possibility of individuals to free themselves from their immediate environment and tradition. The whole world can influence us and we may choose to be extremely individualistic. Belonging and identifying with a group are important, but so are originality and individuality. Human rights are designed to give us the possibility of dissent, difference and individuality.