Us and Them

This is my latest sermon, to be given today at the Community Unitarian Universalists in Brighton.  Here is the abstract:

Abstract: Group identity is the source of many of the best and the worst things that people do. In the form of patriotism, school spirit, esprit de corps, or brotherhood or sisterhood, it can encourage crucial sacrifices and help provide meaning to people’s lives. But the dark side of group identity is the felt division of the world into “us” and “them”–with “them” viewed as not fully human. A key challenge for liberal religion is to help create a strong group identity that can embrace all of humanity.  

I have been a strong supporter of more open immigration. So I have been concerned by the strength of anti-immigration sentiment revealed by Donald Trump’s success as a political candidate on an anti-immigration platform, and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, also driven in important measure by anti-immigration sentiment.   

Economists argue over whether immigration is good for the people in the receiving country or not, for the most part coming down on the side of immigration raising the wages of the large majority of people in the receiving country, with the important exceptions of slightly earlier immigrants and those without a high school diploma. (Immigrants also are likely to raise rents and property values, which is good for those who own property and not so good for those who don’t.) But the most important benefit of immigration often goes unmentioned–the benefit to the immigrants themselves–many of whom come from nations that–relative to the United States–are in bad shape either economically or politically. To me, it is a breach of economic ethics to do a cost-benefit analysis that puts a zero weight on any category of human beings affected by a policy as anything more than a mathematical exercise; and to discuss immigration without mentioning the benefit of immigration to the immigrants themselves is to make the same error in a less formal way. 

Although I am skeptical of it, an argument can be made that for some policy-making purposes, it would be appropriate to give a higher weight to the effects of a policy to current citizens than to the effects of that policy on an equal number of potential future citizens, but as can be seen in an exercise I have had my students do, when coming from a desperately poor nation, the benefits of immigration to an immigrant are so much greater than the costs to those in the receiving country that even if the well-being of immigrants is counted as worth only one-hundredth as much as the well-being of citizens, immigration often looks like a good deal.

So the key issue in immigration policy is whose well-being counts: who is in the charmed circle of people whose lives we are concerned about and who is not. On this question of whose well-being counts, Aristotle encouraged Alexander the Great to view all Greeks as friends and all non-Greeks with only as much concern as if they were beasts (1,2). In the same vein, I don’t think it is just an anthropologists’ legend that the word many hunter-gatherers have for their own tribe can be reasonably translated as “the People,” with the implication of a less-than-fully-human status for those in other tribes. 

In many ways, we demonstrate that we do care about people in other nations. We provide both private and public foreign aid, with a fair bit of it altruistically designated for the world’s poorest of the poor. I think concern for the world’s poorest of the poor would be even greater than it is if there were a program for schoolchildren in the United States and other rich nations to chat over Skype–perhaps in broken English–with sister classrooms of schoolchildren in very poor areas of the world. I would be willing to bet a great deal that such a program would not go on for very long before someone got the bright idea that one of the best ways to help their friends abroad would be to help them immigrate to the the United States or other rich nation. And of course, if doable, that idea would be a sound one. The poorest of the poor, if brought to our shores, would soon be at a much higher standard of living than in the land they came from. The basic reason is simple. Leaving aside ruling cliques able to take over natural resource wealth, countries and regions become rich by being relatively well run. The same human being, in a relatively well-run country, does much better than in a poorly-run country.   

According to the Gospels, Jesus had an answer for whose well-being counts both in the way he recognized women, lepers, children, Samaritans and tax-collectors day after day as full human beings, but also in his great charge:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (Matthew 28:19)

In my blog post “‘Keep the Riffraff Out!’” which tries to ferret out that sentiment in many nooks and crannies of our public policy, I pursued an analogy between nations and religions, writing this:

Mormonism is a proselyting religion. Close to 35 years ago, I was one of many Mormon missionaries trying to persuade people in Tokyo to become Mormons. And most of you will one time or another see Mormon missionaries at your door, wherever you are in the world. 

One of the positive features of a proselyting religion that is not always fully appreciated is that newcomers are fully welcome, as long as they make even a minimal attempt to fit in. And if they so choose, it is not hard for them to become full members of the community.

Sometimes, members of the Mormon Church question the virtue of bringing someone into the community who has enough needs that they are likely to require more help from the community than the amount they are able to help others. But the young women and men serving for a year and a half or two as full-time missionaries and higher Mormon Church authorities quickly overrule such sentiments.

I don’t believe in the supernatural anymore, so I don’t believe in Mormonism. But I do believe in America. 

I wish America were a proselyting nation, eager to bring newcomers into the fold. I believe it would be a better world if more of the world’s 7 billion people were Americans. There are many people who would be willing converts to being Americans, but we keep them out.  

Today I want to pursue the analogy between nations and religions in a little more detail. I think there are three basic models, that I will call the Unitarian-Universalist model, the Mormon model and the Zoroastrian/Orthodox Jewish model. 

When my wife Gail and I, as well as some of our friends, fled from Mormonism sixteen years ago, we were not only welcomed by what is now the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor with open arms, but welcomed just as we were. I am sure former Mormons must have seemed weird to some of the members of the congregation, but they took all of that in stride, partly because they were conscious of their own idiosyncrasies.  

When converts join the Mormon Church, they are expected to follow a substantial set of rules of conduct and behavior. Right away, they are expected to contribute not only financially but in assigned roles in the congregation. And even patterns of insider jargon and oddities such as a positive attitude towards Jell-O are soon inculcated. So it isn’t long before newcomers have patterns of action and speech that feel comfortable to the long-timers in a congregation.  

Zoroastrianism has relatively few converts, and Orthodox Judaism makes it hard for people to convert if they weren’t Jewish at some level to begin with. One reason they are not proselyting religions is that historically, they were minority religions in lands where trying to convert others would have been seen as an affront to the dominant religion. But even now–though attitudes toward converts may be shifting–there are many Zoroastrian priests and Orthodox Rabbis who are very reluctant to accept someone as a convert who shows up on their doorstep wanting to convert. 

The analogy is to three types of immigration policies:

  1. Welcoming people as they are, with all of the multicultural complexity that entails, 
  2. Welcoming people on the condition that they quickly take on the patterns of the dominant culture, 
  3. Discouraging people from coming in. 

There are sincere believers in each type of policy. Personally, I find it hard to decide between the Unitarian-Universalist model of accepting people as they are and the Mormon model of trying to change people to better fit the cultural norms of the nation they are joining–if only to help guarantee people’s willingness to accept newcomers, and to help generate extra esprit de corps that may help people be more altruistic toward one another. 

So far I have been talking about citizens and foreigners or members and non-members of a religion. But these are both special cases of a powerful psychological lens: “us” versus “them.” For many of the few people who would ever pay any attention to anything I said, the main us-them distinction is between those who are relatively well-educated–say those who have at least some college education or maybe a bachelor’s degree (or who act as if they do) and those who don’t have so much education (or act as if they don’t). Or for others, the main us-them distinction may be quite directly between the “us” of those who accept foreigners and other marginalized groups and the “them” who don’t. 

It is hard not to want to exclude those who want to exclude and hard not to be intolerant of those who are intolerant, but Edwin Markham’s poem “Outwitted” shows the way to be intolerant of intolerance and to exclude exclusion without being intolerant of people who are intolerant or trying to exclude people who are exclusionist. Edwin wrote:

“He drew a circle that shut me out-

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle and took him In!

For those of us who can empathize with foreigners who want to join us in our fair land, one of the great tasks of empathy that we face is to understand the feelings of those who want to “keep the riffraff out” without thinking of them as riffraff. Full human beings–who should be treated as full human beings–can and do often want to treat other human beings as less than full human beings. This is not a rare quirk of human nature, but a common one. So we had better learn to deal with it.

My point of entry into attempted empathy with anti-immigrant sentiment is to think of the difference between a big city and a small town. Big cities are complex and attract people who like complexity. Adding, say, 5% to the population of that big city by the entry of additional immigrants adds a bit to the complexity, but doesn’t change the fundamental character of the big city. By contrast, in a small town of, say, 1000 people, where everyone knows almost everyone else, adding three families of immigrants could seem as if it totally changed the character of the town. Things just aren’t the way they used to be once those immigrants arrive, and there was a certain comfortable charm to the way things used to be. So the effect of immigrants on their surroundings isn’t just a matter of population percentages, but also a matter of how demographically complex the community was to begin with. Of course, in addition to the first few immigrants seeming like a big deal, the point at which “outsiders” become numerous enough to gain serious political influence–when it didn’t seem as if they had it before–is also a potential moment for distress. 

In a Twitter debate I had about immigration policy after the Brexit vote, Morgan Warstler and Nick Rowe both argue that some of the opposition to immigration comes from people’s desire to, in effect, belong to a club that they like. A hint of evidence for this view can be found in the claim I have seen that those who are “socially-connected” by attending church or belonging to a literal club have been less likely to vote for Donald Trump. One theory for this would be that if one’s main social group is something smaller than the entire geographical community one lives in, immigrants moving into one’s geographical community are less disruptive of one’s social relationships than if one’s main social group is one’s entire geographical community. If this is true, a church one actually attends, by providing a social group somewhat buffered from demographic shocks, may tend to make make one more accepting of immigrants coming into one’s geographic community. By contrast, a church one doesn’t attend may act as a quasi-ethnic identity that makes one less tolerant of outsiders.  

As I read the current news, it is painful for me to see refugees from war-torn lands shunned as if they were nuclear waste that can’t find a home even in Yucca mountain. And I hate to see people so eager to exclude immigrants that they will accept other serious costs to do so. To me, one of the most important principles is that human beings are human beings, and that everyone’s well-being counts. 

I would love to find the secret to instilling in people a kind of patriotism not only for their own nation, but also for humanity. It may be only my parochial pride talking, but I think we are a remarkable and wonderful species. Without treating other animals or plants or sophonts badly, we should feel good about belonging to the ranks of homo sapiens.

On the other hand, when we see people behaving badly, it is worth remembering that they, like us, are still apes–so, perfect behavior is not to be expected. Let us give each other a break and forgive often, even as we strive to encourage the best in ourselves and others, while standing firmly against the worst impulses of human nature in others and ourselves.