It's time to stop thinking in black and white
Whenever I think I understand the world, I’m due for a rude awakening.
Consider the recent events in Cologne. We know by now that many of the New Year’s Eve assailants were migrants. We know the attacks weren’t isolated to Cologne. Right-wing pundits are saying “told you so” while the left wrings its hands trying to avoid anti-refugee backlash (unfortunately, it’s already underway).
As I read pieces on both sides, I wonder why we think in such extremes. I used to see the world in black and white: oppressed vs. oppressor, right vs. wrong. Events like this would seriously challenge my worldview. I’ve since learned that to really grasp such a situation, it’s necessary to recognize simultaneously the good and the bad. The truth lies in nuance, not in generalization.
According to the left, the real problem is integration. The fault lies with European governments and haphazard immigration policies. Left-wing pundits are quick to point out that trauma from oppressive regimes, lack of education and patriarchal conditioning are the underlying causes of the violence toward women.
These are valid arguments. However, regardless of reasons, there are legitimate safety concerns for countries taking large numbers of refugees. It’s not just xenophobia. While compassion and understanding are necessary, it’s also crucial not to tolerate violence, even when committed by minority groups. We can understand the forces molding people while still requiring them to conform to basic Western values. To do otherwise would be disrespectful of their personhood and autonomy.
Moreover, there is ample evidence that a sizeable portion of the world’s Islamic population in certain regions holds beliefs antithetical to ours. These views certainly played a role in motivating the New Year’s violence. Denying or minimizing this only bolsters the stereotype of the excessively politically correct Left. We can have a conversation about causes, we can point out that most of the world’s Islamic population opposes ISIS and we can still advocate for lending a hand, but we need to recognize the facts.
Acknowledging this doesn’t mean we’re making blanket statements about Muslims or encouraging violence. There are a range of views between “Islam is a religion of peace” and “Islam is incompatible with Western civilization.” The reality of any religion is complex. Our understanding must be too.
The right takes the opposite tack. Its myopia is seeing “refugees” and “Islam” as monolithic and threatening. This is also overly simplistic. One million refugees from more than ten countries came to Europe in 2015. Most of them will likely be able integrate, given proper support, and bring economic benefits to host countries. Since New Year’s, many refugees have spoken out against sexual violence and shown support for victims. One woman even recounted how a group of Syrians saved her the night of the attacks. Beyond this, many Islamic groups have been extremely vocal in condemning terrorism. Selectively ignoring such demonstrations of solidarity is just as willfully ignorant as refusing to acknowledge anything beyond them.
Of course, there’s the elephant in the room: ISIS stands to gain if we alienate refugees. Rejecting millions of people fleeing from them will only fan the flames. From a pragmatic perspective, it is absolutely vital to respond with caution. Reacting with impulsive violence is not just wrong; it’s dangerous.
Let’s pause a moment and admit that we all have biases. It’s hard to admit the truth in the “other side.” We’re afraid of losing ground. We’re afraid of our words being twisted. We’re afraid of doing wrong.
If you’re a liberal, take a minute and consider how you would feel if the perpetrators were white, black or Jewish. Imagine different ethnic groups. Observe your reactions. Ask yourself if a desire to combat racism or oppression just might be coloring your view. I know it colors mine. Now suppose there is a sudden influx of migrants to Durham. A group of them assaulted your friend on New Year’s. How do you feel? In this hypothetical situation, it would be harder for me to welcome refugees with open arms. It’s easy to call for benevolence when the personal cost is low.
If you’re a conservative, ask yourself this: should Western justice prioritize punishing the guilty or protecting the innocent? Imagine that you’ve been blamed for the rioting of far-right activists. Your rights and freedoms are now restricted. Is this fair? Now ask yourself how the large numbers of innocent families feel.
Why don’t we recognize reality: there is no way a country can be perfectly safe, even if it completely seals its borders. That would, of course, mean millions of innocent deaths. Thus this refugee crisis is a moral dilemma in the truest sense. Nations must balance conflicting ethical principles.
Despite the risks, there is still a strong moral imperative to help. European nations (and America) should continue to accept refugees, with stricter integration and screening. I second The Economist here: “it is not culturally imperialist to teach migrants that they must respect both the law and local norms such as tolerance and sexual equality.” Norway offers classes about European sexual mores. Such classes should be mandatory for all migrants. Those who adapt should be welcomed with open arms and provided with work. Those who cannot or will not must be summarily deported.
This is the right thing to do. We’re going to have to grapple with the fact that it has a price. That price may be a bit of safety.
Neither European governments nor any well-intentioned leftie can proceed in denial. We cannot force the world to fit a comforting narrative because we want it to. Otherwise, we risk knee-jerk reactions when something happens like on New Year’s. How the world responds to this challenge will speak volumes about our collective character.
Let’s not give into our fear. But let’s not live in fantasy either.
Ted Yavuzkurt is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. If you have a comment for him, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.