Schrödinger’s Immigrant and Crushing Fascism

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Here’s a juicy one in a totally non-controversial field: immigration.  Today at work, the topic of Schrödinger’s immigrant came up, as it does.  Schrödinger’s immigrant is the idea that immigrants simultaneously “take all our jobs” and “are unemployed and exploit the social system.”

This paradox is of course named after Schrödinger’s cat, which is locked in a box, its fate tied to the decay or non-decay of a radioactive particle, putting it in a superposition of life and simultaneous death.

Much like Schrödinger’s cat, Schrödinger’s immigrant is not really a paradox, I remarked, at the time not realizing how much it sounded like I was defending the two less than flattering characterizations of immigrants.  The reason is that “immigrants” are not a homogenous blob: it is entirely possible that some immigrants “steal jobs” while others “exploit the social system.”

The curious thing is that people who would characterize immigrants as “stealing jobs” or “exploiting the social system” are likely to be the kind of person who would view the group of people as one gray blob rather than individuals.  Consider for example how many people struggle with the difference between “immigrants” and “refugees,” applying immigration concepts to refugees.

On top of this curiosity is the ironic fact anybody pointing out the “paradox” of Schrödinger’s immigrant is in a way guilty of the same fallacy: they view people with a dislike for immigrants as a homogenous group with a single opinion.

I don’t think that is accurate.  I think the group of people definitely contain literal Nazis, but I also believe it contains people who less hate foreigners and more gave a (likely genuine and well-founded) fear for their job if they get competition from others that come from a poorer background and are willing to work for a lower salary.  Somewhere between these are people who (likely genuinely but probably also much less well-founded) believe that (some) foreigners pose a danger in the form of terrorism.

By viewing the group of people as one, we risk subjecting people anywhere on a wide spectrum to the same othering as some do to foreigners.  such othering creates a definite “them and us” dichotomy which has some unfortunate consequences.

Social pressure is a very powerful means to change people’s minds.  Making “being fat” or “smoking” a social faux pas has had a definite good influence on people’s health.  Similarly, making racial discrimination socially reprehensible will definitely deter some people.

The other side of the coin of such pressure is that it will reinforce the “them and us” grouping.  If people call you a racist anyway, why not live it and move further down the spectrum?

A social grouping also has as a consequence that once an opinion becomes part of our identity, it is much harder to change.  If a person “is a racist” as opposed to “having racist opinions” or even “just” “exhibiting racist behavior,” it has a veneer of being part of them, being permanent and unchangeable.  Basically, opinions you can change but people not so much.

Social grouping also means that the cost (figuratively and in some cases perhaps even literally) of changing minds goes up.  If a person “is racist” together with their friends and family, “becoming not racist” will remove them from their in-group containing their family and friends.  One can (reasonably even) argue that such friends and family are not worth keeping around, but it is hard to argue against something as simple as “changing one’s mind” becomes a lot harder if it is tied to a non-trivial human cost like this.

A final problem of this othering is that we lend legitimacy to the more outrageous individuals.  If somebody with an affinity for Hugo Boss suits, black boots, and using their body to show how high their dog jumped is categorized with somebody with a fear for their job, suddenly Nazism is grouped with “being concerned” and “thinking of public safety,” and I don’t think we should allow them that escape.

The past couple of years we have seen this heterogeneous group of individuals grow in multiple places, be it as Tump voters in the US, as Wilders voters here in the Netherlands, as Le Pen voters in France, voters for the rich spectrum of different parties hostile towards foreigners parties in Denmark, Sverigedemokraterna in Sweden, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany and whatever the same party is called throughout the world.

These voters have been put into the same category with a lot of the unfortunate consequences mentioned above.  It has not really reduced the size of the grouping – quite the opposite, actually.  Some have even begun to turn the social exclusion mechanisms into social inclusion techniques for the group (for example, some Trump voters carry the term “deplorable” as a mark of honor).

I’m not saying that I have the answer to solving fascism in Europe/US (and fingers crossed you don’t remember the titles promised exactly that), but it is fairly clear that the current tactic is not working.  I do believe that a solution will have to recognize that this voter group is more nuanced than typically given credit for.

On the one side are people with genuine concerns (yes, immigration might threaten the job of some people, and yes, it will be an issue for the social systems if millions of unemployed people are added overnight).  We should probably not categorize them with people who routinely recite “the 14 words,” and celebrate 4/20 for non-weed-related reasons.

Just listening to people on the less hitlery end of the spectrum will be a start.  Informing will help for some (though probably fewer than we imagine).  Accommodating the segment to some degree might also be a necessary and maybe even a good idea; on the shorter to medium term at least limiting access to the social services, the working market or even entry to the country should perhaps not be ruled out entirely.  People will accept a lot if they feel they are heard and given a reason for why their every wish is not accommodated.  Literally, any reason is better than no reason; in studies, people are more willing to let people cut in line when presented with the argument “because I’d like to get to the cash register faster.”

That said, we should not tolerate people on the more curb-stomping end of the spectrum.  Where the distinction is exactly is individual, but we should not cheapen the terms “Nazi” and “racist” by applying it to things like carnival costumes.  Just like we should not cheapen the term “rape” by applying it to somebody grabbing a butt in a discotheque – grabbing a but is in no way acceptable, but it is an insult to an actual rape victim to call this rape.

Only when we view and treat people as individuals can we detach opinions from the identity, and only then do we have a real chance of changing them at a meaningful scale.  There’s an analogy to the differnece between hating islam/muslims vs hating terrorists in there somewhere.

Time person of the year 2006, Nobel Peace Prize winner 2012.

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