Illegal migration continues to dominate the Conservative agenda. Only weeks after Suella Braverman reignited the Brexiteer pledge to “take back control of our borders” at the Conservative party conference, a Dover migrant processing centre was fire-bombed by a 66-year-old from High Wycombe. Meanwhile, The the number of persons crossing the Channel illegally has surged to almost 40,000 this year, with nearly 1,000 making landfall on Saturday alone. The response of the Government has been to neglect those seeking sanctuary, in the hope it will deter them.
The news on Sunday of the attack on the Dover migrant processing centre heightened tensions in the House of Commons debate on the issue. Andrew Leak discharged four petrol bombs at the centre, later killing himself before he could be apprehended. Despite Leak’s very public history of racist and anti-immigrant rants on social media, police held back on investigating the bombing as a terrorist incident. The day after, Braverman used the inflammatory term “invasion” when describing the problem of asylum seekers entering via the south coast of England.
Leak’s attack could be considered as the culmination of grassroots radicalised violence against immigrants and asylum seekers. The centre he attacked, though, and the centre to which residents were temporarily evacuated, are products of a decades-long escalation of policy and incendiary rhetoric. That second centre, Marsden was designed to hold 1,600 migrants, but was reportedly housing 4,000. The overcrowded conditions were inhumane, with one previous resident, who had fled Iran in fear of his life, describing it was like living in a zoo. In other processing centres, children have been photographed sleeping on floors. Stories of degrading treatment and disregard - sometimes with lethal consequences - have been reported consistently over the past few years, but have failed to inspire much soul-searching from the public, much less from politicians, who, if anything, ratcheted up tensions.
Now, it would be unscientific to directly connect recent policy and rhetoric coming out of the Home Office with the specific attack in Dover. We don’t have data saying that, for instance, Leak was directly influenced by specific comments in the months or weeks leading up to the attack. But previous research does establish a link between political dog-whistles and rising hate crime. At their worst, they can inspire outbursts of lethal violence. As a matter of course, they justify the expression of prejudice.
Generally, humans have a hard time hurting other humans, whether directly or indirectly. This is often always the case with violence or mistreatment enacted upon an unknown victim chosen because of the group they belong to. To get to a stage where harming such a person is an option, a process of dehumanisation usually has to occur.
The process of dehumanisation is complex, and involves a series of stages from scapegoating outgroups (say, illegal immigrants) by blaming them for taking scarce resources from the ingroup (say, British citizens), to feelings of disgust at imagining foreign cultural practices, and ultimately to a lack of empathy and compassion when confronted with the plight of the ‘other’. None of us is immune from this process, and we routinely, either consciously or unconsciously, view some groups as less human than others.
A key reason for this is lack of emotional empathy (resistance to sharing the feelings of another) stems from unwillingness to engage in cognitive empathy (refusal to see the situation from the perspective of ‘them’). Psychologists have technical terms for similar phenomena. The process of mentalising involves imagining what it is like to be ‘them’, emotionally. Having theory of mind means being able to comprehend another’s beliefs, intentions and persuasions.
Both of these types of empathy are less likely to emerge when the ingroup rarely has contact with the outgroup. Conversely, positive contact can inspire empathy, and in turn reduce dehumanisation. But in the absence of one or both of these forms of empathy, compassion is unlikely to arise, allowing negative stereotypes to intensify to a point where entire groups are depersonalised. If you cannot bring yourself to imagine what it is like to be a member of the outgroup, you can only conceptualise ‘them’ as a collective, meaning the individual is lost. With no sight of individuals in the throng, it only takes a few additional steps to dehumanise all of ‘them’.
Terms like “infestation”, “swarm” and “invasion”, are not used casually when describing illegal migrants. These terms are meant to conjure up non-human images of insects, vermin and parasites. They ‘turbo-charge’ the dehumanisation process - they’re not so much a dog-whistle as a clarion call.
If a person vulnerable to extremist thinking gets to the end of the long road of the dehumanisation process, members of the outgroup are no longer people to them, but instead insects, vermin and parasites. Not only are they from an alien moral universe, they are imagined as a different species. To these subhumans, no obligations are owed, no rules apply, and their victimisation is tolerated.
Dehumanisation therefore allows for the outgroup to be treated with indifference and contempt. As objects at the disposal of the ingroup, their lives and deaths become inconsequential. They become seen as an infestation and a contagion that must be removed. Dehumanisation is always a prerequisite for the most extreme form of hate, genocide.
But there is a way back for those who find themselves at the end of this road. Spending time with others who are different from us can teach us a little bit about what it’s like to be somebody else. This is something we should be doing routinely. In the lab, exercises in imagining others’ perspectives and experiences have been shown to promote what psychologists call decategorisation, which means we come to see ‘others’ as individuals, and less as a part of a separate group. In some cases, we recategorise or cross-categorise others, meaning we see them not only as individuals but also as part of a group we belong to: ‘we may be from different groups, but we are on the same team’. These three processes break down negative stereotypes and ultimately undo the dehumanisation process.
When we encounter representations of the plight of others in newspapers, online and on TV, we should make a habit of imagining ourselves as the protagonist in their story. Would I trade places with them, and if not, why not? In what ways am I better off than them and why? What do we have in common? What were their goals and motivations? What must it have felt like to encounter the obstacles they faced? What must it have been like to endure their loss or pain? When we think hard enough about others, we can acknowledge any privilege we may have, and begin to see ourselves in them, and them in us.
Leak’s outright violent attack, and the Government’s flagrant mistreatment of overseas victims of persecution, have part of their genesis in this process of dehumanisation. If the Government rhetoric on asylum seekers doesn’t change, it will continue to enable an unjust detention system (that is failing to work as a deterrent) and risks further grassroots violent responses.
Matthew Williams is the author of The Science of Hate: How Prejudice Becomes Hate and What We Can Do To Stop It, published by Faber & Faber.