As we watch the right wing unconscionably attack thousands of child refugees who have come here for safety and opportunity, partly with the old trope about diseased immigrants, Jesse Singal notes that this reaction is based on tribalism and fear of the other that is deeply ingrained in us.
A number of prominent public-health professionals have come out strongly against the idea that the newly arrived migrants pose a contagious medical threat to Americans, and it’s a particularly strange accusation to make given that children from Guatemala, one of the affected countries, are more likely to be vaccinated against common diseases than those from Texas, where a relatively high percentage of parents refuse to get their kids vaccinated. But the fact that this rumor is circulating at all can still tell us some interesting things about the way human beings are wired to view outsiders.
Erin Buckels, a researcher at the University of Manitoba who has studied this issue, explained in in an email that both her work and a great deal of prior research has “demonstrated a strong and automatic tendency to dehumanize outgroup members, even when we have no prior experience with those groups.” Notions of pollution and infection loom large here: We often “view outsiders with disgust — partly due to the risks of infectious disease that outsiders carried in our evolutionary past — and this causes a conservative shift in our thoughts and attitudes.” So unfamiliar people “are seen as closer to animals than humans, and therefore pose a danger to our bodies (and even our souls).”
This is basically a universal human impulse — every time you read a horrific story about a young couple being murdered for a relationship that stretches across sectarian or class or caste lines, that’s part of what’s going on. In certain contexts, people just can’t stand the notion of being “infected” by outsiders — and infection can mean anything from “them” crossing “our” border to members of an undesirable class having sexual relationships with “our” daughters — to the point where they will kill people to prevent that infection from occurring.
But we also know that this isn’t universal. We know from many studies that fear of people and experiences that are different from us is much more pronounced in political conservatives than it is in liberals. At least some of us manage to overcome this primal instinct enough to elevate compassion over a desire for purity. Personally, I find the idea of purity — racial, ethnic, etc — to be a vile and dangerous idea. And we’re seeing that proven true every day lately.
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