The Speaker
Tuesday, 18 June 2024 – 16:01

Fear and Loathing: Why the state’s obligation to immigrants should be unconditional

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

Why does the British public seem to hold such contempt for migrants? The answer put simply is twofold, partly out of fear, and partly out of a gradual decline in the state’s duty of care. Amid recent media hysteria about the migrant ‘crisis,’ or as the Home Secretary Suella Braverman described it, ‘invasion,’ there has been a concerted effort to ramp up fear surrounding this so-called emergency. The justificatory role this fear plays in enabling the state to betray its obligations is strengthened by a wider decline in the public view of the role of the state. Therefore, any attempt to shift the debate onto more sensible, morally palatable grounds needs to address and change this double barreled problem.

It is a well documented fact that fear feeds into hate. Pavetich and Stathi cite numerous studies proving this, specifically one that shows that hate crimes in England increased by 500% after the June 2017 Manchester bombing. This isolated fact may not be all that significant; that emotion can impact our actions can be shown by someone eating food because they are sad, or jumping in the air because they are happy. A more important, yet more contentious claim however would be one that suggests that emotion impacts our judgement. That a person may order pizza when they feel sad is them being influenced by emotion but we may hesitate from saying that emotion has clouded their judgement. They are still completely aware of the price of the pizza, both physically and financially, it is just that emotion has overridden these factors. But emotion can indeed impact, and in some cases completely alter our judgement, both perceptually and philosophically. Zadra and Clore’s study ‘Emotion and Perception: The role of Affective information’ proves this, at least on the perceptual level. They show that participants standing on top of a hill in a state of mild fear made the hill appear far steeper than to those who were not in a state of mild fear. This proves the less contentious claim that emotion can impact our perceptions, and more broadly that our perceptions are not infallible.

Such an idea is pretty standard in many realms of philosophy, shown by Descartes’ ‘Meditations,’ where he highlights the precarious nature of relying on sense perceptions when we frequently undergo experiences like dreaming that appear real. Does this study show that emotions can affect our moral, not sensory judgement?

Perhaps not. But it alludes to something that is maybe more important; that our emotions are intimately linked to our perceptive faculties. Roberts argues that emotions should be thought of as ‘concern based-construals.’ Alexandra Hall interprets this as suggesting that as people’s emotions are so reactionary to the outside world, emotion in itself is a sort of form of perception. She writes that ‘emotions are not judgements in the sense of embracing a certain belief or appearance of a person, object or situation; emotions are part of the appearance, which may be supported by corresponding judgements.’ That emotions are so closely linked to our perceptions would provide a plausible basis for how our emotions could impact our judgement, especially in the moral sphere.

This is supported by Pavetich and Stathi’s findings that as the perceived level of control over terrorism in the UK declined, there was a general increase in perceived threat and so an increase in Islamaphobia. It seems clear then, that emotions, and in this case fear, can seriously impact how we perceive other groups in society, and subsequently influence public policy on such matters. This should not be all that controversial. In ‘Are Prisons Obsolete,’ Angela Y Davis shows how the Reagan years whipped up public fear of increasing crime, and this fear of crime was used to justify the massive increase in prisons and incarceration in general. From 1850 to 1950, California built 9 prisons, but under Reagan a further 9 were constructed. Davis highlights the irrational justification for this increase in incarceration by pointing out that once these 9 prisons under Reagan were completely built, the crime rate had already dropped. It could be argued that this British government is doing the same; Braverman’s talk of ‘invasion’ coupled with her generally military like posturing, like her flying to Manston immigration centre in a chinook army helicopter all seems designed to paralyse the public in fear, and make the public subsequently grateful to the government for saving them from this threat. This fear originates out of one group (in this instance, migrants) being dehumanised and separated as an ‘other,’ which then justifies morally reprehensible treatment of these people. One may draw a comparison to Giorgio Agamben’s concept of the Homo Sacer, the age-old estrangement of a particular group who are deemed to be both beneath and outside of the law, whose existence is ‘sacred’ specifically because it gives the state a licence to action that is without consequences. Yet, whilst much of this fear comes from the government and the media, a large portion of it manifests itself within the actual processes used to deal with these ‘others.’ Incarceration’s practices, a system criminals and immigrants are both punished by, necessarily dehumanises those within them. Davis references the writer Assata Shakur, whose time in prison saw her subjected to regular invasive strip searches, stripping her of her bodily autonomy and dignity as proof of this.

Furthermore, the very methodology of imprisoning ‘wrongdoers’ represents our societal fear of these groups. Hall identifies the existence of detainment centres as attempting to control and isolate these unknown groups, arguing that such extreme methods of control and surveillance show the fear many have of the unidentifiable, mysterious enemy that immigrants are often reported to comprise. She describes Locksdon immigration removal centre’s ‘high perimeter fence and barbed wire’ and it’s officers all being trained prison officers. She also highlights how unlike standard imprisonment, under the immigration acts there is no limit for how long one can be in custodial detention. That such centres, as Hall suggests, represents an embodiment of wider fear around immigration has been vindicated by recent events. Manston immigration centre has been in the news recently, two of many reasons being for a terrorist attack via firebombing at the centre from a British citizen, and for the dozens of cases of Diphtheria found within the centre. That a dangerous infection that the NHS says has been vaccinated against within the UK since the 1940’s is spreading in immigration centres is just one of many examples of marginalisation that shows the Homo Sacer to be still prevalent today. So, our methods of dealing with the immigration ‘crisis’ seem to be informed by fear based perceptions. The dehumanisation of immigrants takes place not only through the language and rhetoric of the media, but also in the very systems used to detain these groups.

A certain type of person may argue in response that looking after such people is simply not within the government’s duty of care. The fact that the government even houses immigrants at all is a gesture of great compassion; and the state is even criticised by some for being far too compassionate with immigrants, supposedly placing them in luxurious hotels. Fundamentally what such a view rests on is a conditionality of the state’s obligations. The state does not have to look after immigrants, and so what they currently provide should be warmly appreciated. On a micro scale, Hall documents how this attitude is expressed by immigration officers themselves. She gives the example of the contempt one officer at Locksdon felt for a detainee who had tried to kill himself the night before, who was seen playing football the next day. Many officers, Hall shows, feel that self harm is often done to try and get one moved to a centre that may have better facilities. Essentially then, contempt for these detainees and immigrants in general can rise from the view that one is attempting to access rights and equalities that they themselves do not deserve.

Again, parallels can be drawn more broadly with society’s view of criminals and the incarcerated. When unarmed black man Chris Kaba was shot dead by the police in South London recently, many leapt to the polices’ defence by arguing that Kaba’s criminal history justified the killing. GB News’ Nigel Fargage questioned ‘security expert’ Will Geddes on how the polices’ ‘reasonable suspicion’ of Kaba, due to a previous firearms offence that supposedly justified his death, somehow lowered public faith in the met. Geddes responded by saying ‘I have no idea.’ Put strongly, exchanges like this imply that past criminal action justifies public execution. Put weakly, it implies that some fault lies in the victim of state killing for previously positioning themselves to be considered as a threat. In suggesting that Kaba should not have met such a fate, some, possibly Farage, may feel contempt because they feel that Kaba’s criminality disqualified him from the most basic of rights, the right to life. So why do some feel that the state’s obligations should be so ruthlessly conditional?

One answer could lie in neoliberalism. As the welfare state in many countries like the UK continues to shrink, public expectations of what the state is meant to provide correspondingly decreases. Chancellor Jeremey Hunt has repeatedly warned the public that the state faces decisions of ‘eye watering difficulty,’ decisions which seem likely to result in an increase in taxes and a cut in government funding that will likely hit the poorest the hardest. However, as the Guardians economics editor Larry Elliot points out, the government’s economic choices are nowhere near as pre-determinedly narrow as Hunt implies. Regardless of it’s root cause, this view of a state with ever limited responsibility is not one that serves either the British people nor those who seek to come to Britain. Hall writes how Locksdon officers ‘expected passivity, subservience and gratitude: the detainees are illegal, after all, and guests.’ Instead, it enables fear to spread throughout public opinion, as the government appears unable to take any approach but a hard reactionary stance to eliminate this perceived threat. We know that emotions, including fear can severely cloud judgement. This, combined with the ostensibly plausible view that the state is not obligated to protect everyone that exist’s under it’s coercion allows for the justification of policies that are in no way reasonable. Contempt and fear of immigrants feeds into the narrative that harsh, military like action from the state is needed.

But as philosopher Arash Abizadeh shows, the ‘guest’ status of immigrants is no proper justification to negate their human dignity. He points out that on any mainstream account of proper democratic theory, coercive action (which border control clearly falls under) needs to be justified by and to the people this power is exercised over. Given that border control exercises excessive coercion almost exclusively over people who are not UK citizens and therefore not having such coercion democratically justified (by for example voting for how border control works), it is a fundamentally undemocratic organ of the state. He writes that ‘there are good internal grounds for saying that a polity denying women rights of political participation compromises its democratic legitimacy. Such a polity would subject a class of persons to coercion without that subjection being democratically justified by and to the persons themselves. The regulative principle in the case of foreigners and borders is the same one.’ Recognising the duty the government has, at the very least to acknowledge immigrants coming to the UK as people, and not as ‘invaders’ also recognises, according to Abizadeh’s argument, the principles which our democracy are founded upon. What is certain is that taking a more expansive view of government duty, whether it is to prisoners, innocent civilians or immigrants can only help to hold the government accountable in it’s actions. The death of Chris Kaba, the deaths of 1839 people following police contact in England and Wales since 1990, the overcrowding and mismanagement of immigration facilities all over the country are not all unjustifiable because of the specific harm they caused. They are fundamentally unjustifiable because they represent a state that dramatically failed to fulfil their duty of care. Understanding this can help to begin to distil notions of fear that pervade everyday conversation of such topics. Blame should not be squarely directed at the victims of brutal state force. The government is also a moral agent in this conversation, one with infinitely more power, and an infinitely stronger incentive to convince you that the Homo Sacer, and not themselves, are to be feared.

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