What Is He Thinking?

Decoding the male psyche.

Why People Are So Mean to Immigrant Children

The Psychodynamics of Xenophobia and Hatred of the "Other"

 

The hate and fear directed at immigrant children today is mean and offensive.  There are a lot of good people who agree with me, but they aren’t organized and don’t get much media attention.  Progressives and people committed to compassion in public policy should fight for open borders and provide sanctuary and protection for the victims of persecution and poverty who come to the United States

While advocacy, organizing, and political action should be our response to the current crisis and the antipathy toward immigration in general, understanding the psychological roots of the current xenophobic responses reported in the media every day is also important.  Understanding our political enemies is vital to a longer-term strategy aimed at weakening their power and even deepening their compassion for "the Other."

By understanding anti-immigrant sentiment, I’m not referring to the crass cynicism of politicians, conservative commentators and other public figures who use such sentiments for political advantage.  My interest is in better understanding the fear and anger of ordinary people toward these immigrant children fleeing from persecution and poverty, feelings that not only bring protestors out to scream epithets and stop buses but that motivate active resistances to welcoming such children into their communities.

The psychology of xenophobia is based on at least two powerful unconscious dynamics.  The first is the deep conviction that “they” are not like “us.”  Forget for a moment that we all come from immigrants.  I’m talking about a common psychological dynamic often seen in individuals and groups; namely, the irrational need to project undesirable aspects of ourselves onto others whom we can then attack or get rid of. When this dynamic is enacted in the public arena, the result is xenophobia.

The reason some people have to harden themselves against empathizing with children who are vulnerable, frightened, and rejected is because such threatening and shameful feelings exist in all of us to some degree.  Attributing our own uncomfortable feelings to others and then demeaning and eliminating these others is a way of (temporarily) getting rid of what they represent in us.

Whether we like or admit it or not, many us wrestle with internal and painful feelings of vulnerability, isolation, “outsider-ness,” and fear.  Such feelings are often unacceptable and shameful and we need to condemn or deny them in ourselves and to others.  Projecting them onto innocent children who are seeking security and comfort for similar feelings leads to an anxious need to get rid of those who embody them.  Instead, it appears that our own government offers them refuge, comfort, and support, leaving the rest of “us” to have to go it alone.  Such paranoid feelings lead to mythic stories of children being put up in luxury hotels while the rest of us have to struggle to make ends meet.

Getting rid of such children in the external world offers an opportunity to get rid of their reflections in our internal world.

The second dynamic behind the hatred of immigrant children—of immigrants in general—is and always has been the need for community.  The “us” who belong wants to get rid of the “them” who don’t.  Most of us have experienced not being welcomed or wanted, whether not being chosen in a pick-up softball game, or not being asked to dance at a party or, on a larger level, being the object of a resentful and exclusionary ethnocentrism by virtue of simply being part of a particular ethnic or racial group.  Being an “insider,” however, enables us to do unto others what was done to us—what psychologists call “identifying with the aggressor”—namely, excluding and devaluing other individuals or groups.

Not only does such identification with the aggressor enable us to feel one-up and special, it satisfies, in a distorted way, the need for community, to be part of a “we” temporarily bonding around a perceived common interest.  Community and connection are elusive goals in our society and xenophobia represents one temporary, albeit pathological solution.  It is pathological because it depends on the presence of a scapegoat, a demeaned “other”—in this case, immigrants and their children.

Pathological attitudes and behavior, then, stem from understandable sources that have few alternative outlets in our society.  At least 20% of Americans feel isolated and lonely (probably an understatement because of the shame of admitting to such feelings).  The wish for connection and community is universal but also systematically frustrated.  And facing our vulnerability and insecurity in this context is especially difficult which lends power to the process of projection.

The growing movement by ministers of all faiths to advocate compassion and inclusion in the name of a moral community and collective religious faith is one such response that seeks to address the sources of xenophobia.  A progressive movement that speaks to a collective memory of the pain of prejudice and exclusion is another way of addressing these underlying causes.  Anything that helps people identify with the fear and loneliness of immigrant children fleeing persecution in the name of a healthy and collective empathy seeks to accomplish the same thing.

Such a psychological analysis of the problem and possible solutions doesn’t supplant the need for political organizing but can only deepen it.

Michael Bader, D.M.H.,  is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is the author of Male Sexuality: Why Women Don't Understand It—and Men Don't Either.

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