As a Holocaust scholar, I am highly sensitive to rhetoric from politicians that creates an “us” versus “them” mentality. Creating a polarizing environment is one of the early warning signs that leaves a culture vulnerable to greater acts of discrimination and potentially violence against marginalized groups. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of Trump and his now infamous signing of the executive order on immigration has created the very cultural conditions that if left unchecked could lead to a series of more escalating policies against immigrants and other vulnerable minority groups in our society.
The genocide research identifies the lead up to increasingly violent government action against minority groups as a “continuum of destruction,” with smaller policies leading to larger scale ones and the eventual extermination of the target group. All the available prevention literature suggests that in order to stop a society as it is tilting towards the targeting and destruction of one particular group, active resistance must start early on when a regime starts implementing discriminatory policies. It is no longer hyperbole to suggest that if left unchecked, the Trump administration will continue to strip groups of their basic rights and increasingly develop into an authoritarian regime.
Unfortunately, the scientific research suggests that “in the presence of threat, there is increased activation of authoritarian responses” from participants (e.g. Hastings & Shaffer, 2005, Abstract). As such, as academics and civic minded citizens we need to be vigilant to stave off the incitement being created by the Trump administration that is creating threats (e.g. Muslims, immigrants more generally) that is disproportionate to the actual threats these groups pose.
Other fellow PT bloggers have reflected on the significant role that immigrants have played historically in our discipline. Take, for instance, the founder of Social Psychology, Kurt Lewin, who was a refugee fleeing Nazi persecution. Langley (2017) identifies in his PT post that Lewin’s contributions to the field were not only critical, but the intricate connection that his professional path had with some of the other stalwarts in our discipline, from Leon Festinger, architect of some of the most basic and classic theories in social psychology (e.g. cognitive dissonance; social comparison theory) to other similarly significant scholars.
Langley (2017) eloquently muses that, “even if you do not know that your family geology includes refugees (even though ultimately everyone’s does) your life’s genealogy somehow does. Some key part of your life, many to be frank, would not exist if some particular refugee had been turned away” (para 7).
My siblings and I are first generation American citizens, with our parents having emigrating from Iran in the 1970s. Originally, my father came to the states to pursue an internship in medicine at Johns Hopkins University, and intended to move back to Iran with my mother and the rest of the family once his studies were completed. However, as fate would have it, the revolution broke out in Iran, by that time my siblings and I had been born in the states, and it was safer for them to remain in their adopted country. My siblings and I are all professional, productive contributors to this nation, as are our other relatives who were eventually able to immigrate here in large part with my parents’ help. I specifically chose the path of education because it was the pathway that enabled both my parents and many others in the Iranian diaspora we grew up surrounded by to achieve their version of the American dream.
One can only wonder at the lost opportunities for those travelers returning to the United States or seeking asylum here for the first time that were turned away as a direct effect of the hastily thrown together executive order. The New York Times reports, for instance, a number of students enrolled in prestigious institutions who were blocked entry or re-entry yesterday into the states. One prominent and promising Iranian scientist was set to travel to Boston where he was the recipient of a fellowship to study at Harvard in the field of cardiovascular medicine. According to the professor who was assigned to mentor him, “’This outstanding young scientist has enormous potential to make contributions that will improve our understanding of heart disease, and he has already been thoroughly vetted’” (as reported by Shear et al., 2017, para 23). Now, because of Trump’s policy, the visa for this student and his wife have been suspended indefinitely.
I teach at a community college where I am surrounded by students of all races and ethnicities and countries of origin who are similarly seeking their version of the American dream and I find it an honor and a privilege to be one of their guides on that pathway. I have also worked part-time at prestigious institutions such as The George Washington University and more recently here in New York at New York University (NYU), and I am actively engaged in Holocaust related research. I see it as my duty as an academic to speak out when I see injustices being implemented, regardless of the scale. I encourage my fellow academics to sign the Academics Against Immigration Executive Order (https://notoimmigrationban.com/) and use their positions in whatever capacity they are able to in order to resist all signs of tyranny as they develop.
This morning while I was engaging in the relatively normal task of having brunch on a Sunday with my partner, I was musing that while on a micro level my world has remained unchanged, I could not ignore on a systemic level the changes that were being implemented because they will eventually trickle down to myself and my loved ones. We cannot and should not wait until that occurs to become active resisters. I am reminded by the infamous "Mea Culpa" by Martin Niemoller, a prominent Protestant pastor who is described by historians as “an outspoken public foe of Adolph Hitler”:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. (as quoted by Holocaust Encyclopedia, n.d., para 1-2).
It is heartening to see that the Trump administration appears to have already backpedaled on some of the restrictions of his order based on public protests and significant backlash. This resistance must continue on all levels our society, for when the rights of one person is being jeopardized, the rights of all of us are under siege.
Copyright 2017 Azadeh Aalai
Hastings, B.M., Shaffer, B.A. (2005, October 1). Authoritarianism and Sociopolitical Attitudes in Response to Threats of Terror. Psychological Reports: Sage Journals, 97(2), 623-630.
Holocaust Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Martin Niemoller. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved on January 29, 2017 from: https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007392 .
Langley, T. (2017, January 29). Kurt Lewin, the Refugee Who Founded Social Psychology. Psychology Today: Beyond Heroes and Villains. Retrieved on January 29, 2017 from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beyond-heroes-and-villains/201701/kurt-lewin-the-refugee-who-founded-social-psychology
Shear, M.D., Kulish, N., Feuer, A. (2017, January 28). Judge Blocks Trump Order on Refugees amid Chaos and Outcry Worldwide. The New York Times: U.S. Retrieved on January 29th, 2017 from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/28/us/refugees-detained-at-us-airports-prompting-legal-challenges-to-trumps-immigration-order.html?_r=0