"I have never welcomed the weakening of family ties by politics or pressure" - Nelson Mandela.
"He who travels for love finds a thousand miles no longer than one" - Japanese proverb.
"Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence." - Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
"When people's love is divided by law, it is the law that needs to change". -
David Cameron.

Monday 21 April 2014

"Them" and "Us": The damaging rhetoric of immigration 

Guest post by Judith Vonberg

Where do we get our ideas about other nationalities, other religious groups, other ethnicities? It’s a complex question with no less complex answers. My current research looks at British and German popular culture just after the Second World War. I wanted to know what ideas about the former enemy were in circulation in each culture and how those ideas changed as the conflict retreated.

I’ve recently made a curious discovery. The ideas about Germans that dominated popular culture and popular opinion in the 1950s are strikingly similar to the ideas and opinions currently dominating British views about migrants.

We come into contact with popular culture every day and its potential for good is undisputed. The Harry Potter Alliance is one of many expressions of Harry Potter fandom. Inspired by the heroes they love, its members strive (according to the HPA website) ‘to destroy real-world horcruxes like inequality, illiteracy, and human rights violations’. The cartoon “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” has inspired a mass altruistic movement called “Bronies for Good”.

But popular culture also has the power to damage relations and breed negative attitudes. My research so far has revealed an overwhelming presence of highly stereotyped and wholly odious German villains in post-war British popular culture. This is perhaps unsurprising considering the Nazi crimes of the 1930s and 1940s.

But these villains persisted – in the media, in popular fiction and films, in radio and television programmes – for several decades. They kept alive a generally hostile attitude towards the German nation, which should otherwise have subsided as the war retreated in memory.

A stark division between “them” (the bad Germans) and “us” (the good British) became entrenched. The same division is currently being established between “migrants” and “British citizens” and is resulting in the same hostile attitudes. In this case too, representations in popular media are at least partly to blame.

An article in the Daily Mail on 6th March 2014 asked, ‘What about the impact of mass migration on housing, schools, hospitals, transport – not to mention social cohesion and our very identity as a nation?’ The implication is that migrants can never be part of ‘our’ nation and are indeed a threat to it.

The same paper published an article on 4th April that examined the supposed threat from migrants in a more extreme way. 600,000 migrants are ready, according to Hannah Roberts, ‘to set sail from North Africa, in an onslaught on Europe’s coastline’. The warning originated from Italy’s home secretary, who said that his nation would “fight” the rising tide and protect the frontiers of the Mediterranean. As far as I know, we are not at war against “migrants”, but the language used here suggests otherwise, painting this disparate crowd of people as an organised enemy group. This is simply untrue and the insinuation is dangerous and irresponsible.

My research has shown that direct encounters between Brits and Germans were the best means of dispelling hostile attitudes. It’s impossible to claim that an entire group of people is villainous when you’ve met a few who aren’t. You begin to question whether there aren’t more like those you’ve met and the stereotype soon collapses. Quite simply, you discover that there is no “them” and “us”.

Many of those encounters took place between British servicemen and German civilians in occupied Germany. Those men had received a book of instructions published by the Foreign Office before entering the defeated country. Five times it warned them how little like “us” the Germans were. ‘The likeness, if it exists at all, is only skin-deep,’ they read. And then in bold type: ‘The deeper you dig into the German character, the more you realise how different they are from us. So don’t be taken in by first impressions.

Yet close encounters proved otherwise. The likeness was far deeper than those men had been told. Indeed, they found that the Germans were very much like us. And as individuals, they were just as unique and varied.

To stereotype a whole nation is irrational. To do so with “migrants” – a group of people disparate in origin, background and reason for being here – is entirely absurd. The same label covers a Chinese undergraduate student, a Nigerian asylum seeker fleeing persecution and a seasonal fruit picker from Bulgaria.

None of them belong to a vast organised enemy group ready to attack Britain. None of them want to damage ‘our very identity as a nation’. Indeed, the majority want to make that identity their own and contribute to its evolution. Like the Germans, migrants do not deserve the crude descriptions they are given in popular culture. Like the Germans, they are not “they” at all, but so much like “us” that the distinction is meaningless. After all, many migrants gain British citizenship and many British citizens migrate – the contrast is a false one.

Most of us regularly have encounters with people whose place of birth is not Britain. If we are honest with ourselves, we can see that the media representation of these individuals is far removed from reality. The British servicemen in Germany recognized the falseness of the propaganda they’d been fed after meeting Germans for themselves. Yet too many of us have stubbornly maintained our belief in the crude and stereotyped images offered to us in the media, denying the significance of our own experiences.

We must counteract the language used by the media to discuss migrants. We must challenge the false dichotomy made between migrants and British citizens. We must defy the crude generalisations made about “migrants” and give voice to the thousands of unique individuals currently struggling under the burden of that label.

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