The heightened state of anxiety following the recent terrorist attacks around the globe is palpable. Chatter about the state of Syrian refugees and whether they should be granted entry into the United States is happening everywhere--during morning commutes, at the supermarket, and certainly online. Everyone has an opinion, and as we have gotten increasingly comfortable sharing our thoughts in online spaces we have established as our own, these opinions aren't always sanitized for public consumption. Many are singling out Syrian refugees and Muslims in general, calling for death (and mass extermination) or separation. This unfolding discourse is revealing a change to the social norm against prejudice.
We tend to affiliate with or trend toward things that appeal to a majority that we identify with. We rely on assumptions about others that drive decisions on the degree of social inclusiveness or exclusiveness that we can display in given situations. This tendency provides a basis for group cohesiveness, and serves to hold the group together when minor differences arise, as well as when larger conflicts occur between groups regarding more divisive issues such as race, ethnicity, or religion. In online spaces, these affiliations can be both expansive and restrictive; it is possible belong both to a large network online comprised of family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, while also holding membership to groups with specific interests that may exclude members from the larger collective.
Within these groups, there are acceptable ways of speaking to each other, as well as acceptable topics. We establish what is acceptable based on social feedback. Prejudicial comments may be made for any number of reasons: to shock or exclude or amuse or signal belonging, among other reasons. And these comments may be accepted with varying degrees within the group. Prejudice is a collaborative output. Racially or ethnically prejudices are accepted when they are shared by people who hold the same understanding about the social acceptability of prejudices. Prejudicial comments are reinforced or suppressed by the responses they elicit during social interaction. This is known as the social norm against prejudice. There is a degree to which we can exhibit prejudicial behavior without repercussion, and it can shift with prevailing social norms. These decisions about prejudice don't happen on the individual level; the social norm against prejudice is determined by the language we allow, and the ways in which we define prejudicial behavior.
The social worth of people--the degree to which we regard them as equal and eligible for rights and benefits, and as members of our social collective--is reinforced via a group consciousness that is reflected back to us in media. News and media reports are key in normalizing the unequal treatment of people who are considered different or less than equal to the main group. These media carry with them a legitimacy believed to be rooted in research and journalism. So though we may have varying opinions as part of the sub-groups we belong to, these opinions are governed by the larger social collective which can tell an individual that his actions toward someone else is prejudicially unacceptable. While it may be acceptable to say something in a small setting, it's not always advisable to say the same thing with a wider audience. But when the media begins to tell us that is okay to fear a specific group or single out a specific group, we see these sentiments reflected more frequently in personal interactions beyond group boundaries.
Conversation within our online social networks is less governed when compared to real-time verbal communication. We can fully outline a thought, post it, and walk away--and then choose to whom and how we respond. We can make prejudicial statements without having to address the grievances of a larger collective because we don't have to oftend then in real-time. We can pretend that everyone agrees with us, and for those who don't, we're effectively challenging them to say something publicly. Facebook comments regarding Syrian refugees is telling of a shifting tide in terms of acceptable prejudice. While there are people who are outright making genocidal statements and encouraging the harassment of Muslims, the discourse is marked by several major trends.
First, there are comments that use safety as justification for prejudicial remarks against Syrian refugees:
"While President Obama is issuing veto threats from halfway around the world, the People’s House is focused on listening to our constituents and keeping the American people safe. It is inexcusable for the President to threaten to veto this bill that would boost security screenings and help keep terrorists out of the United States. The House passed the bill today anyway and had enough support to override a veto."
"Refugee Vote a Failure for Obama. 14 months and counting. We need a commander in chief who will fight our enemies, not back the army that runs away. History is littered with the repercussions of ignoring your enemies. Obama again failed to read the mood of Congress and many Americans, who after the Paris attacks are fearful of admitting anybody from the Middle East. Good reason: Islamic terrorists live to commit jihad against western culture and democracy. It's like watching Hoover ignoring the signs of the approaching Great Depression."
"Let's make sure this passes and goes through. The vote is in. The American people have made it very clear what they want. But Obama is going to keep fighting it. Obama will not quit. He is a lame Duck and this is his last front. He wants more Muslims in this country and will jeopardize our National Security to bring them in. Please stop Obama. Say NO."
And second, there are the comments that establish empathy:
"I am not against immigration, for my grandparents were once immigrants. However the difference is twofold. 1) immigrants were used to coming in with an understanding of America & the way of the land becoming part of them instead of coming in with expectations of changing the land. 2) Immigrants came knowing they needed to work hard, probably harder than others to survive, rather than the mentality of many today with expectations of free handouts (but not free to hard working citizens of this country).
I am not prejudice, I really can't stand either party (but I vote for the lesser of 2 evils), I am not against immigration BUT I believe in putting the American people first and protecting this land no matter the cost to outsiders. I would agree to sending volunteer military overseas to help foreigners fight for a just cause before endangering American citizen."
Third, there is a highlighting of the Othering that is occurring even among allegedly sympathetic groups:
"Longtime Arab immigrants in a Detroit-area enclave are wary of Syrian refugees and some even agree with the Michigan governor who wants to bar them from the state."
"Their own Muslim countries don't want them but we're to open our borders to the Syrians?"
And finally, there are numerous memes being circulated that show homeless children and veterans here in the United States who, it is being made to seem, are being overlooked in favor of helping these refugees. There is cry to turn inward.
Counter to these types of comments, are statements that attempt to draw on facts:
"1. A professional terrorist would be crazy to try to enter this country by pretending to be a refugee. It would be far easier to obtain a tourist visa. To be admitted as a refugee, the terrorist would have to get to join the 4.3 million other Syrian refugees at refugee camps outside Syria and then be selected to be among the 10,000 Syrian refugees the United States is planning to admit next year (the vast majority of whom are children, women, and the sick and elderly), and get through a set of checks that already can take years.
2. Other nations are doing their parts to admit Syrian refugees. Germany has already accepted 38,500; Canada has accepted 36,300. French President Francois Hollande said in the days after the Paris attack that his country will accept 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years.
3. We have a moral responsibility. This is one of the largest humanitarian crises since World War II. So far more than 200,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict. And the United States is not exactly an innocent bystander to this mayhem."
"The United States has accepted 1,200 Syrian refugees this year, and three quarters of them are women and children. Only 2 percent of those admitted have been military-aged males not traveling with families. It takes up to two years for a refugee from Iraq or Syria to be approved for admission; nearly half are rejected. Stopping refugees at the border will have little to no impact on the movement of terrorists, who generally either enter illegally or are born here."
Religion is also employed as people call for compassion:
"Who wants to end up being a refugee. Have a heart. [Obama]'s also human with a big heart. We could all be refugees too. Our forefathers could have been refugees during the 1st and 2nd world wars. Remember the boat people of Vietnam? It's very sad to be in those situations. Don't laugh or smear too much and too early. We can never tell what will happen to us next. No matter how vigilant we can be, there are always loopholes. Pray of each other's safety. AMEN"
"And, didn't Jesus talk about this same issue in the story of the Good Samaritan? He never said "Love only those who believe the way you do." I seem to recall He said stuff about loving even your enemies.
Personally, I'd open my own home up to a Syrian refugee family today if asked to (and I know Katrina would support that 100%). Because that's what Jesus would do. Not saying it would be easy or that I'm some kind of paragon of the faith (because I'm certainly not). But Jesus calls all Christians to love the way He did: beyond reason."
And finally, there are groups that are simply calling for help:
This group is donating baby carriers to Syrian refugee families to help them carry their babies and small children on their long journeys. Please visit--Carry the Future Facebook page if you are interested in donating a carrier, or money, and a note of love and encouragement. What a beautiful thing we can do in the face of such sadness and tragedy.
The groups that suspect Syrian refugees may harbor terrorists and present a threat and the groups singling out Muslims in the United States are largely doing so on the basis of safety. Whenever possible, they try to establish that they are empathetic but make clear American lives are a priority. They also highlight in-group suspicion and exclusion. The proliferation of these kinds of posts reinforce that it is okay to refuse Syrians and establish them as Others on these terms.
As the social norm against prejudice flexes, the efficacy of the counterpoints is challenged because the media is feeding the social conscious with images and stories that that create a feedback loop on social media that is difficult to interrupt.
Historically, prejudiced people have been seen as those who have not accepted the qualities of social norm. We say that they're behind the times in a lot of ways, and we might excuse them or overlook them because the norm for their lifetime isn't something they seem to be able to let go. But what this discourse reveals is that it is people living in the moment who are driving this shift. We are the ones perpetrating prejudice. Our language of refusal will lead us to new parameters for how to we think of and talk about prejudicial matters. As these beliefs are confirmed throughout online networks, they will gain a legitimacy with more impact than has been seen before because of the potential to spread with speed on these channels. The impact will likely be felt by more than just Syrians.
Have something to say? Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook.