Tribalism and the Myth of the Diseased Immigrant


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.

Comments

  1. raven says

    It also depends on which tribe you identify with.

    I was born into the American tribe.

    Which seems to be dissolving into a huge number of fragments.

  2. Evan Brehm says

    This tribalism can been seen in horrifyingly extreme levels on Wingnut hate sites like Moonbattery, which is basically Stormfront lite.

  3. D. C. Sessions says

    Personally, I find the idea of purity — racial, ethnic, etc — to be a vile and dangerous idea

    Not to mention boring.

    Let’s see a show of hands: who would be content to live on a diet confined to the cuisine of your maternal line back to wherever.

    OK, how about music?

    Yeah, though so.

  4. D. C. Sessions says

    I was born into the American tribe.

    How ’bout that? Me too. Of course, mine was a mix of Cajun and New England with Irish, Scotts, German, and a heavy dollop of Damfino thanks to a century and a bit spent back in the woods somewhere. Plus I’m not at all sure about that Cajun when you get down to it.

    Which seems to be dissolving into a huge number of fragments.

    We have always been fragmented. To the extent that there’s any dissolving going on, it’s just the pot liquor you get as the ingredients get to know each other.

    Not a melting pot, a stew pot. The parts are all still somewhat distinct, but the edges are blurring.

  5. uncephalized says

    Ed wrote: “At least some of us manage to overcome this primal instinct enough to elevate compassion over a desire for purity.”

    I’m not sure this is an accurate analysis. The more I learn about personality, the more I think some of us are *born* (and also raised/made by culture) with a smaller sense of tribalism than others, meaning we have a much smaller hurdle to get over before we can start treating “outsiders” more equally. This goes along tightly with not being a “joiner”, not being as into sports fandom, etc., and also with not being an authoritarian, and maybe with being more introverted, in my limited experience. I don’t think we can congratulate ourselves on having been dealt a more egalitarian hand by nature and nurture than others have.

    The trick seems to be learning to *appeal* to the tribal natures of people, rather than trying to defeat them. If we can convince folks that the labels they are using are not as good as a more inclusive set, and get them to internalize ideas like “we are all one tribe”–which very much includes defining a common enemy–we might make more progress.

  6. busterggi says

    You’re right D. C., it just took modern technology to allow the tribalism to become more obvious.

    Back in ’67 my folks and me moved into our house and were met with a lot of hatred, vandalism, etc that went on for years – because even though we were white we had lived previously in a mixed race housing project and our new all-white meighbors were afraid we were carrying non-white cooties.

  7. moarscienceplz says

    Let’s see a show of hands: who would be content to live on a diet confined to the cuisine of your maternal line back to wherever.

    My sister would. She is almost pathologically afraid to put an unfamiliar food into her mouth.

  8. badgersdaughter says

    It’s very strange. My husband and I just moved to Ireland. His family here and in the UK simply think of me as “the Yank” if they think of it at all. If I say my dad was born in rural Hungary, and my mother’s parents in Rome and Moscow, I get a good-natured round of laughter that that sort of thing even matters to me.

    Meanwhile, my friends back in the US are beside themselves with envy that I “got to” move to where they believe their ancestors were from. They think of themselves as Irish, and Cherokee, and Mexican, and German, and English, and French, and whatever else, and they don’t understand why I no longer think of it as important. I tell them, “Suppose you went to Germany, and you were talking to Dietrich and Tilde, and they told you that Dietrich’s parents were Italian and British, and Tilde’s mother was Maori. Wouldn’t you still think of them as Germans?” I suppose this is not the best analogy, because they say “Yes of course” but fail to understand why I’m content to be simply “that American”.

  9. says

    Sure, foreign cuisine is good, but everybody knows that’s what the “Melting Pot” refers to. Us Americans are happy to accept your foreign food. It’s you forgeiners that we don’t want. That’s why the Founding Fathers wrote “Send us your meats, your cheeses, your egg noodles yearning to be free…” on their Statue of Liberty. It’s doesn’t say anything about you coming along with them.

  10. Kevin Kehres says

    @9…so “melting pot” is a mistranslation of “fondue pot”?

    Explains a lot, actually.

  11. dugglebogey says

    If a few thousand homeless children can take down America, what good is it? If that’s the case American doesn’t deserve to survive.

  12. matty1 says

    @8 I can’t help feeling your Cherokee example is somehow different. Maybe because there is no Cherokee nation outside the US. Otherwise I largely agree, there is something odd about defining yourself by where your great grandfather was born.

  13. laurentweppe says

    and infection can mean anything from “them” crossing “our” border to members of an undesirable class having sexual relationships with “our” daughters

    I suspect that there is a more coldly calculating aspect to this behavior:

    In a society where economic competition and access to resources is rigged (favoring an hereditary nobility over the commoners, then favoring commoners of certain ethnic backgrounds over the rest of society), allowing the underclass to venture outside its ghettos or the interbreeding between aristocrats and commoners are likely to increase the empathy felt among the privileged toward the lower classes, and therefore to an increased opposition of the established social stratification.

    In other words, those who enjoy the perks of hereditary privilege have a vested interest in keeping each social stratum as airtight as possible.

    ***

    Personally, I find the idea of purity — racial, ethnic, etc — to be a vile and dangerous idea

    Personally, I see these ideas as little more than incestuous fantasies masquerading as ideology.

  14. D. C. Sessions says

    Folk, y’all might consider how the Aryans in India dealt with their “uppity people” problem (not an immigration thing, since — as in the USA — the people in charge were the newcomers.)

  15. hunter says

    “I find the idea of purity — racial, ethnic, etc — to be a vile and dangerous idea.”

    Not to mention that it’s nonsense. Even a casual acquaintance with human genetics demonstrates that.

  16. hunter says

    “. . . who would be content to live on a diet confined to the cuisine of your maternal line back to wherever.”

    Gods, no! My mother was from Appalachia — they overcook everything.

  17. lochaber says

    This reminds me of a pretty neat quote I read a while back. I wish I could remember it, but it basically conflated purity with weakness, and compared it to steel – with pure iron being weak, but impure steel being much stronger.

    I thought it was by Salman Rushdie, but I couldn’t find anything. Don’t know if it’s due to my sub-par google skills, or if the quote was by someone else. Or maybe no one but me liked it enough to bother to remember it…

  18. matty1 says

    @17 It’s different enough we are probably thinking of different quotes but that reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s “alloys are stronger”. For anyone not familiar that is used by a fictional ruler to explain why he has opened his city to all races (and made it the richest in the world in the process).

    The real world parallels are too obvious to list.

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