Like most mornings, today I was out in the woods with our good dog, Bear. He is not yet two years old and lived “on the road” before he came to us about nine months ago. We are still working with him on not chasing every squirrel or deer he comes across. They are apparently terrible threats. This morning, he saw something that triggered the primal part of his brain to action. He began barking and pulling at the leash. In moments like this, it’s as if he doesn’t hear us when we call him back. Usually we call him back with fairly typical phrases. “No Bear. Come back. Leave it alone.” But today I said something to him more appropriate for my teenage son or, indeed, the mirror. “Stop. Remember who you are!”
We walked on and, laughing at myself, I began to reflect on my ridiculous command to him that encapsulates so much of what I want to say about the current conversation around Syrian refugees.
Most of us view ourselves as rationalists making our decisions based in facts and evidence. But as social psychologists have demonstrated many times over, much of our decision-making comes from emotions and intuitions that are virtually preconscious. The emotions come before our rational arguments meaning that our view of a particular issue may have no basis in fact. We’re good at pretending otherwise and we find rational means to back up what we already believe to be true. (Check out this book for more. http://www.amazon.com/The-Righteous-Mind-Politics-Religion/dp/0307455777 ). Here’s an application.
We turn on the news to learn of attacks in Paris, a magical city that lives in our collective imagination. A rash of associations are triggered – terrorists, middle east, face-coverings, weapons, 9/11, London bombings, Charlie Hebdo – and we are aware of emotion first: shock, horror, powerlessness, fear, all emotions that threaten to immobilize us. What comes next? Different emotions: anger, vengeance, emotions that feel powerful and allow us to believe we can be in control. But what is it that we can control?
Can I, as an ordinary citizen, professor, or even a legislator control individuals that have grown up in Western democracies and turn against their countries? Nope. Can I control or even understand complex geo-political realities that, even when they are broken down as they are in this great piece http://www.vox.com/2015/11/19/9760284/isis-history. Not really. So then what’s left? Hmmm… admit a lack of control? That could equal despair. Search for something I can control? That sounds better. And what would that be in this situation? People that I associate with all those scary things triggered by the initial news. Even better these are people I don’t know and have no clear obligation toward. Refugees from Syria that have been in the news every day for months. Syria, the name alone brings to mind associations of anti-Americanism, dictatorship, a government that is threatening and out of America’s sphere of influence. It feels so natural and so righteous to fight against Syria and, therefore Syrians. We look for arguments and spokespeople that justify what we want to believe in the first place. And all of a sudden we’re having “rational” arguments about why we should exclude some of the most vulnerable people on earth at the moment even though, as a country we do a great job at refugee screening, vetting, and resettlement. It’s so easy for these refugees that we don’t know and who can’t speak to us to become the focus of our anger, vengeance, and need for control. Our rationalizations are rooted in a desperate hope that using exclusionary policies, completely not in keeping with our national or personal character, will keep our loved ones safe and our magical cities from toppling. In short, we bark loudly and try to chase the deer away.
Stop and remember who you are. Hopefully not a barking dog. You are someone who teaches your children to treat others as they want to be treated. You are someone who has volunteered at your local soup kitchen so that others might eat. You are someone who has given money to help others in need. You are someone who cares about those without a place to sleep. You are someone with ancestors who came to this country out of desperation. You are someone whose ancestors were displaced and persecuted here or elsewhere. You are someone who, at some point in your life, needed help and someone helped you. When you remember who you are then your course of action becomes clear regardless of all that you don’t know and can’t control. You act out of love, to welcome those who need you, to use your talents, your knowledge, your skills, your connections, and your compassion. You and I are not so helpless that we have bark at threatening deer. We claim our power and our peace by remembering who we are.