I told the man, “I’ll make you a deal. Invite one of them to your home for dinner, and give him your best hospitality. If you still think he’s trash, I will agree with you.”
Last week, in another part of the world, Iraqis began peaceful demonstrations to demand water, electricity, jobs and an end to corruption. The government opened fire. In a week, reports say more than a hundred citizens have been killed. Thousands more have been wounded and arrested. The government has blocked internet access to prevent information from spreading. Some of the videos that made it out show blatant assassinations of unarmed protestors.
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Meanwhile, the man in the story declined my suggestion. He said he has no interest in getting to know bad apples, and that he already knows poor and less-educated immigrants are “bottom-feeders.” He said, “They should not be coming here [to Europe and the US]. They should stay where they are and fix their countries.” The man is right.
And wrong. I disagree with him, so it’s important that I understand why he is right.
Peacebuilding is the field of work meant to prevent violent conflict and change the root causes of it. Peacebuilders often need to facilitate constructive conversations between people who disagree. I will briefly mention two concepts I have found useful in that regard.
The first has the potential to disarm even the staunchest made-up minds. It’s the cutting-edge bio-technology of listening. But wait. It’s not what you think.
Listening doesn’t mean agreeing or giving in. It’s a tactic to break through someone’s defensiveness and get to the substance of the issue. Psychologist Harville Hendrix recommends three things to do as an effective listener:
- Mirror: Paraphrase what the person said. Ask if you captured it accurately, and if there is anything more she wants to explain. This signals that she doesn’t need to repeat her argument again, because you’ve heard her.
- Validate: Explain why the speaker’s logic makes sense, even while you disagree. Her argument is honest and logical to her. Recognizing her logic says, “You are not crazy.” It reduces her need to keep justifying her view.
- Empathize: Acknowledge how the speaker’s experience must feel. Showing empathy biologically elicits empathy in return. Now she is much more open to actually hearing you.
Real listening works, but it’s not free. Nodding begrudgingly while you form your next argument won’t work. To use this power, you have to temporarily set aside the urgency of your truth.
If you can do it, your argument will not be ignored. In fact, it will stick in the person’s mind much more than if her defenses were up. And you don’t need her to say anything conciliatory. A crack in her worldview might happen down the road, and she may never acknowledge it. But the impact is the same.
The second tool for constructive conversations comes from the work of Roger Fisher, William Ury and others on negotiation. There is a difference between one’s stated position, real interests, and underlying needs. A person’s position is what he says he wants. His interest is what he really wants but doesn’t say directly. His needs are the reason he wants it.
In my conversation, the man’s position is that lower-income and less-educated people should not come to the West. They should stay where they are and fix their countries. For his interest and needs I can only speculate, because we didn’t get that far.
Maybe his interest (what he really wants but can’t say directly) is to live in a prosperous society without having to see or spend energy on struggling people. Maybe an underlying need behind that is to maintain his self-image as an accomplished person who earned his success through hard work.
He himself is an immigrant who left his country decades ago. He didn’t have the luxury of keeping his language and culture. He figured out the rules of a new game, educated himself and made a good living. Maybe the thought of recent immigrants receiving the same rights without paying their dues feels unfair. Maybe somewhere there’s a fear that people will view him differently, questioning whether his success came from merit or charity.
The man’s views make sense. According to a 2017 Pew Research study, the proportion of US immigrants who did not finish high school is three times higher than non-immigrants. (Although the proportion of people with bachelor’s degrees was roughly equal). I agree with the view that immigrants in the US should learn English. Through my own immigrant friends, I have heard stories about people gaming public assistance programs. I would feel resentment, too, if I saw myself as immigrant who did things the right way. I see the man’s logic, but I disagree with his conclusion.
Suggesting that people just “stay and fix their country” has no practical value. It’s like saying the man on the street should just get a job. You assume his problems are his fault, and that he would misuse any form of support. You don’t try to understand the barriers he faces or what he has already done to overcome them. You have weathered hard times and made it through, so you think he’s not trying hard enough. This mindset is intellectually and morally lazy. It means you are weighing down society.
It’s ok to make judgments about the world when we don’t have first-hand knowledge. How else can we participate? But it’s not ok to lock those judgments into a worldview molded around our own needs, and refuse to change them.
Right now in Iraq, people are doing everything they can to change their fate and make their country better. They are not collecting welfare, stealing jobs or changing demographics. They are using their collective voice in a democratic manner because they want to live in a society where rights are respected. In return they are being killed, jailed, and silenced. We can’t tell people not to come here, then turn a blind eye when they are being slaughtered in their home.
It takes courage to question ourselves. It’s a challenge I want to accept because I hope to add something positive to the world in the short time I’m here. Whatever your views on immigration or the violence unfolding in Iraq, I encourage you not to be satisfied only with a position that feels correct. Take some kind of constructive action to improve the situation. You will make things better for all of us.
Please do something small to help Iraqis. Think critically about my views and others expressed in the media. Share information or help in any way you think is right. US voters: you can contact your elected officials here. Calling your Congressional office is easy, and they do pay attention to constituents’ concerns.