In 2014 the British government stated it would not support the rescue efforts escalating in step with the pace of refugees who fled across the Mediterranean, an escape route that too often resulted in capsizings and deaths. There was some accompanying media commentary decrying the impending influx and calling for the European continent to prevent any spillover across the channel.
Meanwhile, in Italy, the country whose shores were often the first to receive refugees, the focus was on efforts to accommodate and to help.
Whatever the cultural differences between Italy and Britain, I’m certain the much stronger influence in these two reactions was that Italians saw individual refugees in all their desperate humanity and felt compelled to provide aid. The British government was responding from a much greater distance. At that time they had predominantly encountered only images and stories of boats filled with people.
In the spring of 2015, a professor at Coventry University (in Britain) whose specialty is international migration, pointed out that it was in the areas with the least number of people who had migrated from elsewhere that attitudes were the most hostile.
There is a lesson in this for all of us.
What is the first thing we do when we want to dismiss someone or cut them down to size? We distance ourselves from them. We focus on the ways they are different from us, or we simply pretend they are different. We create a them vs us narrative. Anyone who’s been through high school in the U.S. (and perhaps elsewhere but I only know the U.S.) knows all about this phenomenon.
The problem with all of our them vs. us narratives is that they are so out of sync with reality.
Even at the level of DNA, we are all very much alike. Sure, we are Buddhists, baptists, agnostic or ambivalent; we have skin and hair color from across the human spectrum; we’re teachers, artists, coders, attorneys; live in cabins, studios, houses, our cars. Those differences may influence who we hang out with but they have nothing to do with who should have a seat at the community table and share the feast or take part in the debate. It’s pretty hard for any community to make forward progress when each faction is pulling away from all the others.
So next time we’re tempted to sound off at or about someone, and we all will be at some point, we need to stop for a second. Look whoever it is in the eye—or if the contact is digital, give the situation an equivalent evaluation—and ask ourselves if we don’t see a little bit of someone we know in there.