Stereotyping restrictionists and invoking disgust reactions

I’ve blogged in the past about accusations of racism in the immigration debate and how they may detract from substantive debate. In that earlier blog post, I concentrated on the reports that the Southern Poverty Law Center prepared on the “racist” and “white nationalist” agendas behind a number of prominent restrictionist groups such as VDARE, CIS, FAIR, and NumbersUSA. While this kind of digging around is SPLC’s job (and they seem to not shy of exposing real and potential hate groups of all races, cultures, and belief systems, as is evident from their website), I expressed the view that advocates of open borders would do better to concentrate on the actual citizenist arguments made by restrictionists and ignore these hidden agendas. I wish to elaborate on that theme.

Here are some examples. An article titled The Unwanted: Immigration and Nativism in America by Peter Schrag (the full article is a 12-page PDF, the link goes to its cover page) says:

It’s hardly news that the complaints of our latter-day nativists and immigration restrictionists—from Sam Huntington to Rush Limbaugh, from FAIR to V-DARE—resonate with the nativist arguments of some three centuries of American history. Often, as most of us should know, the immigrants who were demeaned by one generation were the parents and grandparents of the successes of the next generation. Perhaps, not paradoxically, many of them, or their children and grandchildren, later joined those who attacked and disparaged the next arrivals, or would-be arrivals, with the same vehemence that had been leveled against them or their forebears.


Tanton’s organizations were also the primary generators of the millions of faxes and e‐mails that were major elements in the defeat of the comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007. In Congress, both were accomplished with the threat of filibusters, and by putting the immigrants’ face on the often inchoate economic and social anxieties—the flight of jobs overseas, the crisis in health care, the tightening housing market, the growing income gaps between the very rich and the middle class, and the shrinking return from rising productivity to labor—that might otherwise have been directed at their real causes.

Here also there was broad precedence in the economic and social turmoil arising in the new industrial, urban America at the turn of the twentieth century. The descriptions of Mexicans taking jobs away from American workers, renting houses meant for small families, crowding them with 12 or 14 people and jamming up their driveways with junk cars, echoed the rhetoric of 1900 about inferior people brought in as scabs, crowding tenements, bringing disease, crime and anarchy, now become terrorism, who would endanger the nation and lower living standards to what the progressive sociologist Edward A. Ross a century ago would have called their own “pigsty mode of life.”

In the age of Obama, the overt, nearly ubiquitous racialism of the Victorian era, like eugenic science, is largely passé and certainly no longer respectable. Eugenic sterilization is gone. The race‐based national origins immigration quotas of the 1924 Johnson‐Reed immigration act have been formally repealed. But the restrictionists’ arguments echo, often to an astonishing degree, the theories and warnings of their nativist forbears of the past century and a half.

This article of the Immigration Policy Center is not an isolated instance. The introduction of Jason Riley’s Let Them In has this passage:

Steve King, a congressman from Iowa, compares Mexican aliens to livestock. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado congressman who sports T-shirts announcing that AMERICA IS FULL, says Hispanic immigrants have turned Miami into a “Third World Country.” And Don Goldwater, nephew of conservative icon Barry Goldwater, and an unsuccessful candidate for governor in Arizona, has called for interring illegal immigrants in concentration camps and pressing them into forced labor building a wall across the southern U.S. border.

A little later, Riley writes:

Nativists warn that the brown influx from Mexico is soiling our Anglo-American cultural fabric, damaging our social mores, and facilitating a U.S. identity crisis. Anti-immigrant screeds with hysterial titles like Invasion by Michelle Malkin and State of Emergency by Pat Buchanan have become best-sellers. Tomes by serious academics like Samuel Huntington and Victor Davis Hanson make the same arguments using bigger words and giving the cruder polemicists some intellectual cover.

Now, my thoughts.

I think proponents of open borders are correct in pointing out that a number of restrictionists craft their arguments in a manner as to invoke disgust reactions against immigrants and to bolster anti-immigrant sentiment. This is perhaps not the conscious goal of many restrictionists, who simply wish to inform the public about the harms of immigration. But I do think that this kind of disgust reaction does represent part of the virulence of anti-immigrant sentiment among some of restrictionism’s most passionate followers, and few restrictionist groups take pains to counter this — Roy Beck and his group NumbersUSA being exceptions. This ties in with my observations on the moral foundations of immigration restrictionism, where I wrote that while the in-group/out-group distinction, with its focus on in-group loyalty, is the driving distinguishing foundation between anti-immigration and pro-immigration folks, restrictionists may also tend to be stronger on the purity/sanctity foundation (please read that whole blog post; there are many subtleties there that I’m glossing over in this crude summary).

There is also some truth to the assertion that many restrictionists use negative and degrading stereotypes of immigrants. Now, I don’t think stereotypes are always bad (my opinion on stereotypes closely matches that of Bryan Caplan) but I think that restrictionists engage in a bit more of it regarding immigrants than is healthy (more on this some other time).

The irony is that some critics of restrictionists often turn the tables around on restrictionists and treat restrictionists in the same shabby fashion that some restrictionists treat immigrants. By constantly harping on the “racist” and “nativist” and “white nationalist” hidden agendas of restrictionists, critics of restrictionists seem to be seeking to invoke disgust reactions against restrictionists (one might call this “second-order disgust” as the kind of disgust that’s being invoked is disgust about disgust). The unstated message seems to be these restrictionists are yucky-mucky folks, don’t listen to them or read them or you’ll be infected too. Further, just as some restrictionists tend to use negative and degrading stereotypes of immigrants, some critics of restrictionism tend to use crude caricatures and false stereotypes of restrictionists, ignoring the many subtle differences between restrictionists.

As somebody not too sympathetic to restrictionism, I might be tempted to gleefully celebrate restrictionists getting their comeuppance, “a taste of their own medicine” — but I think that invoking disgust reactions and using degrading stereotypes is wrong, regardless of the target. Moreover, since not all restrictionists engage in the false stereotyping or disgust invocation, it is not appropriate to tar them all with the same brush. Strong arguments against restrictionist positions should speak for themselves rather than attempting to portray restrictionists as creatures to be despised.

However, setting aside my personal discomfort with the use of second-order disgust and demeaning stereotypes about restrictionists, there is the question of whether such tactics work in the narrow sense of whether they make restrictionism less popular. To this question, I don’t know the empirical answer, but I see two effects, one favorable and one unfavorable.

When critics of restrictionists portray restrictionism as disgusting, they make other people who were already biased against restrictionism even more biased against restrictionism and less likely to read restrictionist literature with an open mind. This may be good for activism and fundraising — I wouldn’t know. Even here, though, there is a flip side — it means that many opponents of restrictionism don’t get appropriately schooled about the intricacies of restrictionist arguments which makes it harder for them to counter these arguments effectively.

The bigger flip side of arguments portraying restrictionism as disgusting: those who already identify with restrictionism may get offended at these demeaning descriptions. More importantly, restrictionists reading such arguments may conclude that their critics haven’t bothered to understand their actual positions and are using ad hominem arguments to shut out honest debate and truth-seeking. This may add to restrictionists’ sense of being ahead of the curve and their image of themselves as bold and fearless truth seekers not intimidated by groupthink and political correctness.

So the upshot seems to be that people who were already against restrictionism have an even lower opinion of restrictionists, and those who were already for restrictionism have an even lower opinion of arguments against restrictionism. My guess would be that, splitting the difference, the status quo gets strengthened. This, however, is a problem because the status quo is currently highly restrictionist. Thus, from this perspective, it is also tactically short-sighted for critics of restrictionists to lose sight of restrictionists’ actual arguments and attempt to invoke disgust reactions against them.

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