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The Refugee Crisis and Seeing the World Through the Eyes of Others

Memes used in research study

 

The following analysis appears in the Special Issue on Refugees & Migrants in Volume 4 of the Peace Science Digest.

CitationGlăveanu, V. P., & de Saint Laurent, C. (2018). Taking the perspective of others: A conceptual model and its application to the refugee crisis.Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 24(4), 416-423.

Keywords: refugees, perspective-taking, otherness, us vs. them

At a time when hate speech, intolerance, and exclusion take place in the political spotlight of Western liberal democracies and the familiar “us” is cast against the dangerous “other,” the authors explore how people can take the perspective of others. In the current context of a global refugee crisis, refugees are the distant and unknown “others.” Do local people imagine themselves as the foreign “other” or in the refugee situation, or do they make assumptions about the foreign “other” or the refugee situation? In this article, the authors explore social and psychological processes involved in perspective-taking, “how we come to ‘take’ the perspective of other people.” They ask why it is so hard to take the refugees’ perspectives when there are humanitarian crises with refugees from war-torn countries such as Syria and how people can “succumb to fear and denial.” In the current refugee crisis, representations of refugees commonly emphasize difference over similarity. Refugees are frequently portrayed as non-White, Muslim men with foreign values and cultures, linked to the threat of terrorism. In research literature, psychological models on perspective-taking assume that the information people have about themselves and stereotypes are the primary ways to perceive less familiar “others.” Sociocultural models suggest that the origins, expression, and consequences of perspective-taking are socially driven, meaning that people’s exchanges, communications, and shared histories shape perspectives. Building on both psychological and sociocultural models, the authors introduce their own model of perspective-taking. The model distinguishes between four non-mutually exclusive processes by which perspectives may be constructed:

Commitment to similarity and the person

Commitment to similarity and the situation

Commitment to difference and the person

Commitment to difference and the situation

“If I were him or her”
“If it happened to me”

“People like this are”

“People in this situation are”

The authors illustrate their model based on their previously conducted study of four Internet memes about refugees (see image) — two of which are meant to provoke sympathy for refugees and two of which are meant to provoke disdain — and the almost 800 online comments written in response to these in late 2016. This time period marked the height of the European refugee crisis. By showing concrete examples of the social media comments and discussions, they highlight positive and negative consequences of the four types of perspective-taking. While a commitment to similarity might imply a more sympathetic view toward refugees than a commitment to difference, the analysis showed that each of the four processes can be used for both tolerance and discrimination. Participants in the online forums created eight main perspectives about refugees that they used to make their case for or against welcoming them:

Negative perspective-taking

Positive perspective-taking

Aggressors

Worthless

Unethical

Unable to integrate

Victims

Valuable

Ethical

Able to integrate

The authors illustrated those main perspectives by providing excerpts fromthe online comments. For example, phrases like “these people” resulted in a clear distinction drawn between “us” and “them.” Humanizing the refugee perspective — “take enough humans from any background” —suggested that engaging with “others” was not riskier than any human interaction. Placing religion at the roots of terrorism made it normal to “defend oneself against newcomers.” Emphasizing similarity based on refugees’ assumed desire to assimilate suggested a somewhat paternalistic perspective — “with some help, the other could become more like us.” Imagining the situation of refugees and oneself in that same situation was understood as a call for reflection among those engaged in the online forum conversations. In a negative sense, however, this same perspective has been used by forum commenters to imply cowardice by refugees for not standing and fighting for themselves.

So how do people take perspectives? Importantly, perceptions of refugees are rarely shaped by interactions with them but rather by interactions online forum commenters have with their co-nationals. Refugees are rarely part of the conversation about themselves. Perspectives that people in the online forums take, then, are limited to their own pre-perceptions, infor- mation available, the context of the conversations, and interactions among themselves. Furthermore, the analysis revealed that it is not enough to assume that a commitment to similarity is positive and a commitment to difference negative. When examined in context, the different processes of perspective-taking can be used “to promote tolerance and openness or, on the contrary, closed and discriminatory attitudes.”

Talking Points 

In the context of online conversations about memes depicting refugees during the European refugee crisis in 2016, 

  • The perception of refugees is rarely shaped by an actual interaction with them. 
  • Local people take perspectives on refugees by 1) imagining themselves as the foreign “other” or in the refugee situation or 2) making assumptions about the foreign “other” or the refugee situation. 
  • Perspectives of the “other” based on similarity can be both positive and negative. 
  • Perspectives of the “other based on difference can be both positive and negative. 

Informing Practice 

The study examined online discussions at the height of the European refugee crisis in late 2016. As we are publishing this special issue of the Peace Science Digest, hateful rhetoric, child-detention policies, and plans to deny asylum rights and bar refugees from entering the United States all come from the very top of the U.S. administration.The narrative of the inferior and dangerous “other” is not only tweeted out but also turned into an increasingly central pillar of the Presidential campaign. A chilling low point — to date — were the July 17, 2019, “send her back” chants at one of Donald Trump’s campaign rallies. In fact, ever since the President announced his run for office, the nativist rhetoric driving his campaign and policies has been informed by an overly simplistic “commitment to difference and the person,” as this study puts it, framing statements along the lines of, “people like this are…”

Awareness is a first step toward action. There needs to be a commitment to self-reflection. By understanding how we take the perspective of “others” more generally, it is possible to transform the destructive patterns of which we are currently part. The authors suggest, “it might be useful to consider, individually and collectively, not only how we take the perspective of others, but also what these processes say about us, the selves we are, the selves we are becoming, and the selves we would like to be.”

If Americans from all parts the political spectrum are serious about their common reaction to the current treatment of refugees, asylum-seekers, and immigrants — “this is not who we are” — they need to engage in a collective process of reflection as well as concrete steps to show who they are instead.

An inspiring model in our own hometown here at the Peace Science Digest is that of Portland Meet Portland. The organization aims to create a multicultural community with inclusion and belonging for refugees and immigrants. They focus on immigrant and refugee voices, their agency and access to power in society, advocacy by developing strong allies and speaking in concert with them, and accompaniment through community members supporting immigrants and refugees in walking their own journey.

When refugees and immigrants are constantly depicted as a threat, violence against them and against the places they come from is encouraged. Individual attacks by white supremacists on refugees and immigrants in the U.S., such as the recent shooting in El Paso, become predictable, just as on the international stage the waging of war against an “evil regime” such as Iran can be justified “because they hate us.” Local programs like Portland Meet Portland are bound to draw out the positive aspects of perspective-taking with those who are in immediate contact with refugees and immigrants but also those who take perspectives from the outside by changing the narratives they receive. Portland Meet Portland and likeminded organizations counter practices and narratives that depict the “other” as a threat. Refugees and immigrants are not passive recipients of programs concerning their well-being but should be part of the dialogue that will help to transcend locally held perspectives on them that are based on stereotypes and limited information.

Continued Reading 

In the context of perspective-taking: 

Couzin-Frankel, J. (2017, May 15). How can we blunt prejudice against immigrants? Retrieved July 23, 2019, from  https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/05/how-can-we-blunt-prejudice-against-immigrants   

Rotunno, M. (2019, June 11). Older Colombians and Venezuelans take care of each other under the same roof. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from  https://www.unhcr.org/news/stories/2019/6/5cffc16c4/older-colombians-venezuelans-care-other-under-roof.html 

In the context of wars and war prevention: 

Shahshahani, A., & Hilal, M. (2018, March 12). If wwant to support refugees, wneed tend the wars that create them. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from Foreign Policy In Focus website: https://fpif.org/want-support-refugees-need-end-wars-create/  

In the context of U.S. policies: 

IRC. (2019, June 18). New IRC analysis of U.S. Refugee Resettlement shows vastly reduced arrivals at a time of record global need and consistent popular support; Refugees targeted by country-of-origin, Muslim arrivals facing sharpest decline. (2019, June 18). Retrieved July 23, 2019, from International Rescue Committee (IRC) website: https://www.rescue.org/press-release/new-irc-analysis-us-refugee-resettlement-shows-vastly-reduced-arrivals-time-record 

Organization/Initiatives

Portland Meet Portland https://www.portlandmeetportland.org  

International Rescue Committee: https://www.rescue.org 

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