Talking about mass deportation

A lot of people have only one thought about mass deportation: “These people are here illegally, so they must be removed.” The reasons their presence is illegal or the consequences of removing them apparently don’t concern them. They’ll gladly help with any program of removal. Finding a way to discourage them, at least to reduce their enthusiasm, could save lives.

The left’s favored approach is to yell “Racist!” at them repeatedly. No doubt people think this ought to work, but so far its effectiveness has been limited. The election itself shows that.

I’ll admit that the approach which I find natural won’t work much better. I’d say that these people are living peacefully, earning a living, and being productive, that most of them overstayed their visas rather than sneaking across the border, and that the government is the aggressor in removing them. I’d draw analogies such as “illegal couples” in the Old South and ask if they should have been prosecuted simply because miscegenation laws existed. The reasoning is sound, but in most cases I’d get an answer like “So why didn’t they leave when their visas expired?”

But there’s another approach which could be more effective. That’s to talk about the human consequences of mass expulsion. One part of me says this won’t help; the pro-expulsion people would just say, “Who cares if illegals and anchor babies suffer?” But studies have shown that appealing to human sympathy generally works better than arguing abstract principles.

Yes, I just said in my last post that we should deal in principles, not personalities. But this isn’t about changing principles according to the people involved. It’s a way of concretizing the principles. People understand human stories more readily than abstractions.

We could talk, for example, about the Crystal City internment camp and how the United States treated ethnic Japanese, Germans, and Italians during World War II. Jan Jarboe Russell’s book does a splendid job of showing how individuals experienced being put into a prison camp for no crime. We can talk about the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia after World War II. Millions of people had to leave or couldn’t return, and by even the most conservative estimates thousands died in the process.

That approach will have limits, too. A lot of people have been seen accounts and videos of police violence and don’t care. Persistence can shift ideas in the long run, one person at a time; we’ve seen it on interracial marriage, marijuana, same-sex marriage, and other issues. Persuading people in time to avoid a disaster next year? That’s harder. But I think presenting the issue as human reality stands the best chance.

At least, it has to work better than denouncing opponents vociferously.

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2 Responses to “Talking about mass deportation”

  1. Eyal Mozes Says:

    First, some good news (and we certainly are in desperate need now of any good news we can get): support for mass deportation isn’t nearly as widespread as you seem to think; it’s a minority position even among Trump supporters. See here and here for data on this.

    That is of course no reason for complacency. There’s the real danger that Trump will ignore public opinion, even among his own supporters, and proceed with mass deportations just because he feels like it. We need to prepare for that. But as far as the battle for public opinion, on this issue it’s already won.

    Regarding your thoughts on how to change people’s minds, I have to note that manipulating people’s emotions by using anecdotes that appeal to human sympathy is a game in which statists, of both the left-wing and right-wing variety, have had centuries more practice than libertarians, and they’ll beat us at it every time.

    In the past few years some opponents of Obamacare have made suggestions similar to yours. They suggested that rather than arguing on abstract principles, we should appeal to people’s sympathies by pointing out all the suffering Obamacare is causing, for example the many patients with serious conditions who’ve had their care disrupted by being thrown out of their insurance plans and being unable to find a plan with a network that include their doctors. This approach, as far as I’m aware, has been totally ineffective; I don’t know of any Obamacare supporters who’ve had their minds changed by such stories. I would expect that similarly, very few if any supporters of mass deportation will change their minds; and if any do, they’ll change it back the next day after listening to Trump trot out some testimony about a rape or a murder committed by an illegal immigrant.

    Of course people are more willing to listen to appeals to human sympathy than to abstract principles; there’s ample evidence to prove that, both in human history and in the day-to-day experience that we’ve all had, and there’s no need for “studies” to demonstrate that. It’s not hard to understand why. Sympathy is easy; all you have to do is feel the immediate emotion that an anecdore evokes, take or support whatever action will relieve the suffering, and then congratulate yourself on how caring you are. And for every sympathetic anecdote supporting one idea, it’s always possible to find equally powerful anecdotes supporting the opposite, so you can pick and choose which anecdotes to sympathise with and never need to change your mind about anything.

    Abstract principles, in contrast, are a lot more work. You need to look beyond specific stories and work to understand their causes and the wider context; before you can support a course of action to relieve immediate suffering, you have to also think about what unintended and less-obvious consequences it will have; you run the risk of seeming cold and uncaring; and you run the risk of finding conclusive arguments contradicting what you want to believe and having to change your mind. Of course most people would rather have their sympathies appealed to than listen to arguments about abstract principles. (Still, we should not lose sight of how much progress there’s still been on this over the long term. Changing people’s minds by rational argument over abstract principles is enormously easier today than it was a few centuries ago).

    So working to change people’s minds by rational argument is very frustrating; the temptation to abandon the effort and appeal to people’s emotions instead is certainly understandable. But for libertarians, that’s a temptation we have to resist. Statists can always find stories of human suffering that will lead people’s sympathies to support whatever violent action will relieve the immediate suffering and ignore the human rights being trampled; if we also start focusing on sympathetic anecdotes rather than on abstract principles, we only help to make people more susceptible to such appeals. Rational argument, futile as it might sometimes seem, is the only effective weapon we have.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      I wouldn’t say “rather than” but “in addition to.” I think, for example, that Radley Balko has some some very good work in reporting on specific cases of police abuse, showing what it really means. Trump and his supporters have cited the Japanese-American internment camps on several occasions, but most Americans don’t know what actually went on there. Pointing out how specific individuals and families were affected gives ties the principle to the concrete consequences.


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