The Dehumanization of Immigrants and the Rise of the Extreme Right

The ascendance of the far right has jolted both American and European politics. It has undermined liberal democracy in Hungary and Poland, and threatens it throughout Europe. That ascendance depends on virulent opposition to immigration and immigrants. Opposing immigration is Donald Trump’s lodestar. Anti-immigrant rhetoric defines his central political message. But he is not alone. With the refugee crisis of 2015-16, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) staked its very existence on its opposition to immigrants and thereby rose to become Germany’s third largest party.

For Trump, the AfD, and for other extreme right-wing parties across Europe, the anti-immigrant message is bolstered by the rhetoric of dehumanization. Migrants, e.g., human beings who were born across their borders, are called “congenital criminals, lepers, thieves, unclean,” “garbage,” “animals,” “predators,” “testosterone bombs,” and worse. Dehumanization of others denies them the dignity, consideration, compassion, and empathy that we typically give other people.[1] Dehumanizing language pollutes the debate, blocks solutions to social problems, and can relax our instinctive aversion to aggression and violence.[2]

How have we arrived at this point?

The Role of Rights and Their Absence

The dehumanization of specific groups of people is usually coupled with policies and edicts that strip them of their rights and exclude them from the wider human community. In the Third Reich Jews were deprived of their citizenship and human rights, called insects and vermin, and removed to ghettos and later, to concentration and death camps.  Throughout history, slaves have had no human rights at all, and slave traders and those who bought slaves deprived them of human rights, called them subhuman animals, and segregated them from the rest of the population.[3] The Rohingya people of Myanmar were denied citizenship rights in 1982; Buddhist monks then proclaimed that they were reincarnated from snakes and insects, and the government later began a program of terror that resulted in ethnic cleansing.[4]

The justification for dehumanization and isolation is the absence of rights. Without guaranteed citizenship rights, people have little recourse to the protection of the law. Although the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, setting forth universal, fundamental human rights, was adopted by the UN General Assembly and was approved by a majority of its members, it is clearly aspirational and not enforceable. States always assert their sovereign rights and their responsibility to protect the rights of their citizens over the acknowledgement of universal human rights. Stateless persons, those whose home country governments are unable or refuse to protect the rights of their citizens, and migrants who are seeking but have not found refuge are, in the words of Hannah Arendt, “rightless.”[5]

Those who find themselves in a state of rightlessness are both verbally dehumanized and excluded from the perceived “human community:” they are segregated, jailed, detained, and deported. For migrants, the journey to find safety throws them outside the realm of humanity, where their human dignity has been stripped away, without protection, without human rights, and without others’ recognition of their worth. They are easily deprived of their right to life: between 1994 and 2018, over 34,000 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean.[6] No one is held responsible. Between 1998 and 2018, the United States Border Patrol recorded the deaths of 70,505 migrants attempting to cross the border from Mexico to the United States.[7] No one is held accountable. When migrant women are raped and abused, when their property is stolen, no police reports are taken.

Migrants are perhaps the most vulnerable of all people to acts of dehumanization. Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee and Pulitzer Prize winning author, put it this way: “You have hopes, dreams and expectations. You take your humanity for granted. You keep believing you are human even when the catastrophe arrives and renders you homeless. […] You try to make it to the border. Only then, hoping to leave, or making it across the border, do you understand that those who live on the other side do not see you as human at all,[8] [emphasis added]. To be able to endure their dangerous journey, migrants must come to embrace their own worth as human beings while those around them refuse to acknowledge it.

To be able to endure their dangerous journey, migrants must come to embrace their own worth as human beings while those around them refuse to acknowledge it.

Seventy years ago, the international community promised the right of asylum to those fleeing persecution and death, no matter how they crossed the border.  But they can only seek protection within the borders of an asylum granting country. Despite this right, for many parties to the convention, asylum seekers do not have the right to cross a border without authorization. If apprehended, they can be detained and imprisoned indefinitely without due process until their hearing before a judge. Throughout the arduous journey to refuge (which can often include detention), asylum seekers depend on highly arbitrary political and legal decisions or unreliable sentiments like compassion.[9] For example, in the United States, the 1997 Flores Settlement limited the time that children would be forced to stay in detention and stipulated the level of care they must receive.  On August 21, 2019, the Trump administration issued a regulation abolishing these provisions, stipulating that children could be detained indefinitely and abolishing standards for their care.   If, however, immigrants are granted asylum, they are given the status of refugee and are allowed the right of life, liberty, and security, the right of non-refoulement, the right to move freely, the right of asylum for family members, the same right of due process as citizens, and the same right to education and employment as other foreign nationals. Importantly, it is the absence of guaranteed human rights in the process of seeking refuge that is the first step in dehumanizing migrants.

The Rhetoric and Consequences of Dehumanization

Nazi depictions of Jews as rats in the film, “The Eternal Jew,”[10] current images of Muslims in Austria with the message “Wir müssen draußen bleiben”(a command usually reserved for dogs[11]), pictures of large groups of asylum seekers captioned with the word “invasion,”[12] calling migrants aliens, illegals, human garbage, and tonks—all are words that separate migrants from humanity. The separation is compounded by their identification as faceless large groups who pour into, flood, and invade the host country. These dehumanizing images conjure up threat and fear and demand urgent action to stop migrants from crossing the border. Trump argued for a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico by claiming that migrants are pouring into and infesting the United States.[13] During his presidential campaign, he compared Syrian refugees to snakes.[14] The AfD posted a video falsely depicting immigrants assaulting people at a public swimming pool.[15] A claim that Merkel was planning to swap out the ethnic German population and replace it with foreigners[16] is one of the most “shared” and one of the most popular conspiracy theories circulating in Germany, reflecting the widespread threat of The Great Replacement that motivated the El Paso murderer in August 2019.[17]

Both anecdotal evidence and large-scale academic studies suggest a causal relationship between dehumanizing rhetoric spread through social media and violent attacks on migrants. In March 2019, the UNHCR charged Facebook with exacerbating ethnic violence in Myanmar, claiming that it allowed hate speech and fear-mongering to spread and added fuel to the ongoing genocide of Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar’s military and Buddhist majority. In 2016, Dirk Denkhaus, a young firefighter trainee, broke into the attic of a refugee group home in Altena, Germany, and tried to set it on fire. Prosecutors argued that Denkhaus had sealed himself off in an online world of anti-immigrant rhetoric which had led him to violence.[18] Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz recently published an influential study strongly suggesting that dehumanizing anti-immigrant language on Facebook posted by the AfD predicts violent crimes against refugees in German cities with higher social media usage.[19] While this study is the closest we come to a smoking gun, the intertwining of dehumanization of migrants and violence against them strongly suggests a causal relationship.

Why Do People Believe Dehumanizing Rhetoric about Migrants?

Dehumanizing rhetoric has spurred the rise and spread of anti-immigrant movements. But why? Other issues like the stability of the currency, the financial crisis, and the rise of income inequality are less visible but more crucial to the well-being of Western populations. Immigrants are a drop in the bucket of the European population, and the cost of welfare protection is relatively low while the benefits of migrants in the workforce are likely to be high.[20] The United States celebrates itself as a “Land of Immigrants.” But the extreme right recognized that it could gain adherents if it focused on an issue that would strike and intensify fear of “the other” in the hearts of voters. According to a 2017 European Parliament survey, immigration symbolizes dissatisfaction and anxiety that many white people feel about their relative economic situation, their life opportunities, the shrinking of their demographic, their security, their claim to a culture they believe to be slipping away, and their declining position in the social hierarchy.[21] Anti-immigrant movements and parties promise their adherents that excluding aliens will secure their social identity, their jobs, and their political power. Migration has become the battlefield in a culture war between an open conception of society in which migrants can gain status and opportunities and a closed off society in which aliens are locked out.

The extreme right recognized that it could gain adherents if it focused on an issue that would strike and intensify fear of “the other” in the hearts of voters.

Tribalism, “Hot Cognition,” and the Spread of “Tribal Epistemology”

According to Amy Chua and Stephen Pinker, the flames of this culture war were fanned in the tinderbox of anti-liberal “tribal practices.”[22] These include violent acts against immigrants; calls for their expulsion and walls to exclude them; and social media narratives that stir emotions of intolerance, fear, and hatred of foreigners and minorities. Throughout modern history, extreme nativist and atavistic nationalist communities have sought and sometimes gained the political power to wall out migrants and expel minorities. “Tribal” practices today, however, differ profoundly from traditional nationalist practices of the postwar period, in which dehumanizing rhetoric about “the other” emanated from a single anti-democratic group or leader. In contrast, anti-immigrant and other anti-liberal tribal communities today are diverse, often unconnected, and include unrelated sub-national and transnational practitioners, like members of incel, Qanon, 4Chan, Truth24.net, pop-up alt-right communities, and more.

These groups and their practices threaten social stability in liberal democracies where democratic strength has traditionally rested on established political parties who routinely weeded out anti-democratic extremists in order to maintain political compromises that allowed them to govern. That strength also rested on a strong national identity that was understood to encompass the identity of all citizens and permanent residents. In contrast, modern “tribes”—anti-liberal communities that tout their own superiority and victimhood—are characterized by exclusive collective identities that prevail over individual and national identity. Members may be full citizens of the nation, but their deeper loyalties are to their exclusive ethnic, racial, or sectarian tribes which provide them with a sense of belonging. They detest and scorn liberal openness and have a vocal disregard for facts; they dismiss scientific methods that produce evidence-based claims. Their opinions call for no verification; they denigrate liberal norms of tolerance, compromise, and forbearance; they try to lower the social status of those who adhere to those norms. They mock and attack liberal democratic institutions. They often act to impose their own exclusive identity on the identity of the nation. They believe they are locked in a deadly battle with groups advocating open borders and protection of minority rights, and they loathe them as the enemy. Their battle with institutions that protect forced migrants is part of a larger war with liberal democracy and open society itself.

“Hot cognition” replaces dispassionate reasoning and has long been present in all political discourse, but has also been underestimated.

A hallmark of a “tribal” community is the predominance of “hot cognition”—thinking influenced by emotion over reason and dismissal of methods by which scholars discover and produce factual evidence.[23] “Hot cognition” replaces dispassionate reasoning and has long been present in all political discourse, but has also been underestimated. In anti-immigrant tribal communities, cognition is on fire: gut feelings of fear, anger, and hatred toward “the other” dominate thought. Heightened emotions forge hardened, unsubstantiated opinions. Opinion becomes a sacred value, an affirmation of allegiance to one’s community. This is “tribal epistemology,” in which information is evaluated based not on conformity to standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of reality, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders.[24]

Social Sharing

Forged in the furnaces of hot cognition and tribal epistemology, hardened opinion dominates cool, fact-based knowledge and provides fertile ground for the spread of falsehoods through social sharing. People in general are biased toward confirmation: they wish to believe that which endorses what they already believe to be true, and they share information that confirms their values, beliefs, and passions.[25] Information is shared, not just to inform or even to persuade but as a marker of one’s identity and a way to proclaim one’s affinity with a particular community.[26]

Liberal communities are also guilty of confirmation bias, but their members often cling to the practice of reasoned debate to hone, strengthen, and change positions through amassing evidence. Members of tribal communities, however, act first on “hot cognition” and “tribal epistemology,” and then tend to double down on their convictions especially after being presented with contradictory evidence, which causes an uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. “Doubling down” helps resolve the feeling by dismissing the evidence.[27]  When “hot cognition” dominates thought, sharing opinions further hardens them and makes them impervious to facts. Several studies suggest that conservatives more strongly avoid dissonance-arousing information about politics and religion than liberals, who assimilate that information more readily into their views.[28]

The nature of tribal sharing means that fact-checking to gain the upper hand in debate can backfire because stoking conflict with outsiders strengthens tribal cohesion.

The nature of tribal sharing means that fact-checking to gain the upper hand in debate can backfire because stoking conflict with outsiders strengthens tribal cohesion.[29] When hot cognition prevails, anti-immigrant communities find it easy to spread false information that engenders and maintains fear of “the other.” Those who spread falsehoods intentionally play on the fear that sub-human criminals, terrorists, and disease carriers are hiding among mass groups of immigrants.

Together these factors help explain the rise of anti-immigrant communities and their dehumanizing rhetoric. Numerous studies demonstrate that anti-immigrant voter attitudes about immigration are not driven by facts. For example, most respondents to extensive surveys believe that levels of immigration in their country are much higher than they actually are. The majority of Germans believe that one-third of the people living in Germany are Muslim; the official percentage in 2016 was 6.1 percent. The majority of Americans believe that immigrants do not assimilate into American society and culture, while the bulk of research strongly suggests that the majority do assimilate. Most Americans believe that immigrants commit more crimes per capita than native born Americans, but they do not. Most believe that immigration increases the risk of terrorism. But more terrorist acts after 2001 were committed by right-wing domestic terrorists than by foreign-born jihadists. These erroneous beliefs are the products of the rapid and almost universal spread of misinformation, disinformation, and outright falsehoods.

Motivations for Twenty-first Century Post-Truth

An old proverb claims that “a lie will go ‘round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” Since antiquity, religious authorities and political regimes have used disinformation campaigns to instill fear and loyalty in their realms. But their environments were marked by the spread of deceptive propaganda from a single source for the purpose of achieving or maintaining political domination—often through the regime’s control of the media. As noted above, the twenty-first century environment is markedly different. In addition to disinformation from political leaders, numerous unconnected sources now spread falsehoods from obscure and unknown corners of society for reasons that often have nothing to do with political domination. These falsehoods are then “shared” widely through highly decentralized digital communication technologies, ensuring the most rapid spread of falsehoods in human history. In spreading information this way, tribal communities join journalists, scientists, and political authorities to share what they know, believe, and feel. Both “citizen” and professional journalists vie for a “scoop” and exaggerate their narratives in the hope of attracting attention and advertisers. Exaggeration facilitates widespread degradation of legitimate information and propagates social distrust in factual knowledge. Speed of content delivery and entertainment take precedence over truth. Speed blurs the line between information, misinformation, disinformation, and entertainment. Truth is often tinged with falsehood and falsehood tinged with truth. Truth and falsehood become difficult to separate. In this way, mainstream media has become increasingly guilty of purveying misinformation, thus cultivating a general distrust of professional sources of information.

In addition to disinformation from political leaders, numerous unconnected sources now spread falsehoods from obscure and unknown corners of society for reasons that often have nothing to do with political domination.

When the ground of distrust is cultivated in this way, conditions are ideal for the germination of falsehoods in the soil of “hot cognition,” particularly within the hothouses of “information bubbles” that prevent cross-fertilization of knowledge.[30] With each community ensconced in its own bubble, there is no chance for opposing sides to debate with each other. Without civil discourse and reasoned debate, the practice of “sharing” within the bubble can deepen discord between tribal and liberal communities. Tribal communities believe themselves to be in a war in which facts, science, and liberal communities are their adversaries. Liberal communities who depend on facts feel themselves in a losing war with liars. Liberal discourse is rarely possible when confronted with hardened intolerance, widespread misinformation, and the absence of civil discourse.

Conclusion

Given the absence of immigrants’ guaranteed human rights and the circumstances described above, one can easily imagine why lies about migrants are told and why they persist. The dehumanization of migrants has aided and abetted the rise of an extremist anti-immigrant right wing and the rhetoric of dehumanization has seeped into everyday language, animated mainstream political rhetoric, shaped politics and policy, and accompanied violence. In order to counter this phenomenon, pro-immigrant groups need to work with those who have legitimate concerns about migration to create a nuanced account, avoid debunking false information without creating a new, more persuasive narrative that speaks to the skeptic’s experience, and create and maintain contact with migrants in order to affirm their humanity.


Supported by the DAAD with funds from the Federal Foreign Office (FF).

[1] David Livingstone Smite, “Dehumanization, Essentialism, and Moral Psychology,” Research Paper, 2014, https://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~rja14/shb14/smith14.pdf

[2] Allison Skinner, “The Slippery Slope of Dehumanizing Language,” Common Dreams, June 4, 2018, https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/06/04/slippery-slope-dehumanizing-language

[3] David Livingstone Smith, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011).

[4] Amina Haq, “The Sociological Dynamics of Statelessness: Case analysis of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar,” Major Research Paper Submitted to the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies, University of Ottawa, April 2018, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/47b7/524e0618a84c3a5bc993a5309176a4487098.pdf

[5] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Mifflin, 1968).

[6] See “Missing Migrants,” https://missingmigrants.iom.int/region/mediterranean?migrant_route%5B%5D=1376

[7] See “Southwest Border Deaths By Fiscal Year,” United States Border Patrol, https://www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/assets/documents/2019-Mar/bp-southwest-border-sector-deaths-fy1998-fy2018.pdf

[8] Viet Thanh Nguyen, “March’s Book Club Pick: ‘Exit West,’ by Mohsin Hamid,” The New York Times, March 10, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/10/books/review/exit-west-mohsin-hamid.html

[9] Ayten Gündogdu, Rightlessness In An Age of Rights: Hannah Arendt and the Contemporary Struggles of Migrants (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[10] “Der Ewige Jude,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/der-ewige-jude

[11] See http://nationales-versandhaus.de/product_info.php?info=p5414_aufkleber—wir-muessen-draussen-bleiben.html

[12] President Trump Rally in Macon, Georgia, November 4, 2018, https://archive.org/details/CSPAN_20181104_210200_Campaign_2018_President_Trump_Rally_in_Macon_Georgia

[13] Tweet by President Donald Trump, June 19, 2018, https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1009071403918864385?lang=en

[14] Kylie Atwood, “Donald Trump compares Syrian refugees to snakes,” CBS News, January 13, 2016, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/donald-trump-compares-syrian-refugees-to-biting-snakes/

[15] Felix Huesmann, “Die AfD macht Stimmung gegen Migranten – mit einem Schwimmbad-Video aus Israel,” Watson, July 5, 2019, https://www.watson.de/!957498263

[16] “The Changing Face of the Country,” Spiegel Online, April 19, 2018, https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/germany-and-immigration-the-changing-face-of-the-country-a-1203143.html

[17] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Replacement

[18] Amanda Taub and Max Fischer, “Facebook Fueled Attacks on Immigrants in Germany, New Research Shows,” The New York Times, August 21, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/21/world/europe/facebook-refugee-attacks-germany.html

[19] Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz, “Fanning the Flames of Hate: Social Media and Hate Crime,” Available on SSRN, December 7, 2017, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3082972

[20] Florence Jaumotte, Ksenia Koloskova, Sweta Chaman Saxena, “Impact of Migration on Income Levels in Advanced Economies,” International Monetary Fund, October 24, 2016, https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/Spillover-Notes/Issues/2016/12/31/Impact-of-Migration-on-Income-Levels-in-Advanced-Economies-44343

[21]  “Attitudes towards immigration in Europe: myths and realities,” European Parliament, June 19, 2017, https://www.europeansocialsurvey.org/docs/findings/IE_Handout_FINAL.pdf

[22] Amy Chua, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations (London: Penguin, 2017). Stephen Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Science, Reason, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Viking, 2018).

[23] David Yun Dai and Robert J. Sternberg, eds., Motivation, Emotion, and Cognition: Integrative Perspectives on Intellectual Functioning and Development (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2004), https://zodml.org/sites/default/files/%5BDavid_Yun_Dai%2C_Robert_J._Sternberg%5D_Motivation%2C_E_0.pdf

[24] Anne Waters, “Tribal Epistemologies: Essays in the Philosophy of Anthropology,” The American Indian Quarterly Vol. 25:4 (Fall 2001), https://muse.jhu.edu/article/277/pdf

[25] Nickerson, Raymond Nickerson, “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises,” Review of General Psychology, 2:2 (April 1998), pp. 175–220.

[26] Chei Sian Lee and Long Ma, “News sharing in social media: The effect of gratifications and prior experience,” Computers in Human Behavior Vol. 28:2 (March 2012), Sdl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2109078

[27] Craig Silverman, “The Backfire Effect: More on the press’s inability to debunk bad information,” Columbia Journalism Review, June 17, 2011, https://archives.cjr.org/behind_the_news/the_backfire_effect.php

[28] H. Hannah Nam, John T. Jost, Jay J. Van Bavel, “’Not for All the Tea in China!’ Political Ideology and the Avoidance of Dissonance-Arousing Situations,” PLOS One, April 19, 2013, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0059837

[29] Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions,” Political Behavior Vol. 32:2 (June 2010), https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11109-010-9112-2

[30] Yochai Benkler, et al., “Study: Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda,” Columbia Journalism Review, March 3, 2017, https://www.cjr.org/analysis/breitbart-media-trump-harvard-study.php

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Beverly Crawford Ames

University of California at Berkeley

Beverly Crawford Ames was a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow in mid April - mid June 2019. She is Professor emerita of Political Science and Political Economy at the University of California at Berkeley and is the former Director of Berkeley’s Center for German and European Studies. She has written on German foreign policy, ethnic and religious conflict, international trade and security, the European Union, globalization, regionalism, and topics in international relations theory. In 2015 she received fellowships from the Turkish National Science Foundation and from the European Commission to study the demographics of the refugee crisis in Turkey and Europe, and became an “accidental volunteer” aiding Syrian refugees on the streets of Izmir.  In 2016 she was a Senior Fellow at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin where she worked on a project on refugee integration in Germany for BAMF, the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. In 2017 she taught a course on the Global Refugee Crisis at the University of Haifa.  Her most recent publications are "Merkel III: From Committed Pragmatist to ‘Conviction Leader’?" with Ludger Helms and Femke Van Esch, German Politics, Vol. 27, Issue 3, 2018; "The Euro, The Gold Standard, and German Power: A Cautionary Tale," with Armon Rezai, German Politics and Society, Issue 125 Vol. 35, No. 4 (Winter 2017): 77–104; and "Moral Leadership or Moral Hazard? Germany's Response to the Refugee Crisis and its Impact on European Solidarity” forthcoming in Crisis, Resilience and the Future of the EU (working title - editors Akasemi Newsome, Marianne Riddervold, Jarle Trondal), Palgrave Macmillian, 2019.

During her fellowship at AICGS, Dr. Crawford Ames will examine the representation of migrants and the role of  misinformation, exaggeration, distortion of facts,  and fabricated content about them in both social and mainstream media as important factors explaining the rise of right-wing extremism in both Germany and the United States.