Empathy and U.S. Refugee Resettlement Plans

The mass exodus of Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn nation to the opportunistic shores of Europe coupled with the recent terrorist attacks in Paris have sparked intense debates over immigration and border security within Europe and the United States. The reactions from government officials on both sides of the Atlantic have been similar - calls for halting all refugee resettlement plans and demands for more intrusive surveillance of Arab Muslims. However, while European lawmakers have reinforced their existing commitments to accept a number of Syrian refugees (just days after the Paris attacks, Francois Hollande, President of France, restated his country’s pledge to accept 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next year), American lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike,  have been busy touting their challenges to Obama’s plan to accept a mere 10,000 Syrian refugees, arguing that it is somehow inevitable that ISIS will embed combatants into the pool of refugees bound for the United States.

Aside from indicating a lack of understanding the U.S. refugee vetting process and ISIS’s operations, this position also points to an empathy gap between U.S. lawmakers and “others,” particularly minorities and, in this case, Syrian refugees. This is not to say that U.S. lawmakers are incapable of being empathetic; on the contrary, human beings are by nature empathetic beings. Research has shown that our brain’s pain matrices are stimulated when we perceive another person suffering, as if we are the ones actually experiencing pain. However, empathy is much more than a biological reaction. Empathy requires a willful detachment from one’s self in an attempt to understand the conditions and perspectives of another, and in this way, it is distinct from sympathy. Whereas sympathy is simply feeling compassion for another person, empathy means to actually feel as another feels. If recent pronouncements are any indication, U.S lawmakers, as well as the leading Republican presidential candidates, have an especially difficult time empathizing with the Syrian refugees.

At least thirty state governors have come out in opposition to resettling Syrian refugees in their respective states. With a vote of 289-137, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to add unnecessary red tape to an already thorough refugee screening process. Donald Trump is open to registering and tracking all Muslims and refugees. Ben Carson compared Syrian refugees to “rabid dogs .” And, Senator Rubio essentially argues that, “sorry, we would love to take you in, but you’re a huge threat to our security, so, no.”

While the rhetoric towards Syrian refugees is concerning, it is not all that surprising. Studies show that we have an easier time expressing empathy towards those we perceive as similar to us, characteristically and relationally. For instance, Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Jeb Bush, both Christian men, argue that the United States should only accept Christian refugees, leaving Syrians Muslims to fend for themselves. Having never been refugees, the two presidential hopefuls cannot relate to Syrian refugees on a relational level, but they can relate to some of them characteristically. Despite the overwhelming evidence that both groups are suffering equally at the hands of ISIS, Cruz and Bush actively dissociate the plight of Christian refugees from the plight of Muslim refugees. It is not that they are incapable of expressing empathy, they can by nature of being human beings; instead, Cruz and Bush are just more empathetic towards Christians seeing as their shared belief in Christianity makes them far more relatable than the Muslims seeking sanctuary.

Okay, so many U.S. lawmakers fundamentally struggle to relate to “others” who are different from them. Who cares? Why does empathy matter? Well, as the process by which we come to or attempt to understand the conditions and perspectives of another, empathy is a humanization and individualization tool that enables us to recognize the inherent dignity and uniqueness of each human person. The lack thereof results in the dehumanization and deindividuation of the “other.” The “other” is no longer recognized as a human being, and therefore, in the eyes of many U.S. lawmakers, the rights and freedoms typically afforded to the human person do not apply. In this case, resettling Syrian refugees within the United States would mean safeguarding their basic human rights, which would require providing them with our water, our food, our shelter, and our security; but, apparently, that is too much to ask. 

U.S. lawmakers have a difficult job: they have to reform and create the rules that frame our nation. What makes their job even more difficult is that these rules impact the whole of the country. Granted members of Congress are first and foremost representatives of their constituents, but they must also be cognizant of the far-reaching implications of their decisions. As CJ Shogan notes in “The Political Utility of Empathy in Presidential Leadership,” U.S. lawmakers must understand how their actions affect all persons in order to make informed decisions and be effective leaders. Empathy is key to understanding the needs and perspectives of “others” who grew up and live in completely different circumstances than your own. Actively ignoring the needs and perspectives of “others” is selective governance and results in the perpetuation of stereotypes and prejudices that ultimately lead to disenfranchisement and rights-violations. For instance, the inability of U.S. lawmakers to effectively strengthen voting rights, combat drug addiction, lessen the influence of money in politics, and provide assistance to Syrian refugees and others adversely affected by armed conflict is in-part a failure to empathize with the “other.”

Rather than give into fear and suspicion, which is exactly what ISIS wants, we must stay true to the principles of freedom and acceptance engraved in Lady Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Empathy is at the core of this message and is the lifeblood of international cooperation. So rather than hide behind a veil of weak national security arguments, U.S. leaders should first try to empathize with all of the Syrian refugees, not just the Christians. In doing so, they may, and hopefully will, come to realize that resettling Syrian refugees in the United States is not only a moral obligation, but, as a nation jostling for respect and influence in the Middle East, it is also a wise international security decision. 

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Tags: Syria, dehumanization, empathy, refugees

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