One of the many online arguments with strangers I had between election day and inauguration day was defending my mother’s fear of the incoming administration against a woman who claimed she had suffered greatly under Obama. After patiently wading through her insistence that a friend of a friend had seen the president’s Muslim prayer rug at the White House with his own eyes, I finally arrived at the root of her discontent.
She said there was an immigrant living in her community who was running a successful business and “living more of the American dream” than she was. Ah, so she was jealous. I guess immigrants only deserve to be poor?
Anyway, she insisted I was attacking her because I gave her opinions some labels: xenophobic and racist. She explained that she was a very compassionate and “extremely Christian” person, as if her labels negated mine.
So I used her own words against her, asking her where her compassion ended. Did it stop at people who happened to be born in the same country as her? Did it extend to people whose skin color or religious practices were different from hers? Did her caring cease when those people found prosperity?
As a reaction to the current presidential administration’s ban on Muslim immigrants, there’s been an onslaught of articles detailing the many important things Muslim immigrants to the U.S. have accomplished: how they have fought for our country, contributed to scientific breakthroughs, enlivened the economies of various communities. As for small children, we use their cuteness and innocence as reasons to care.
These are important stories, to be sure, because they can help cultivate empathy and understanding among those who see immigrants as, at best, mooching usurpers who are “stealing our American dream” or, at worst, terrorists. Ultimately, though, I fear they will only further the “good immigrant/bad immigrant” narrative. Saying, “Don’t deport me or forbid me entry because I’m a Muslim immigrant who is working on a cure for cancer,” is saying, “Don’t deport me or forbid me entry because I’m one of the Good Ones.”
People are literally begging us to accept their humanity. Why? Because some seem to have forgotten every life has inherent worth and instead search for an extrinsic value: usefulness. What can immigrants do for me, for society at large? These defensive stories undermine the idea that human life has intrinsic value because they are saying: “Don’t deport or forbid entry to the potentially useful.”
We cannot define people’s worth by their usefulness or ability to contribute to society. This is heartless, selfish utilitarianism, and we should be ashamed. What about immigrants with disabilities? What about elderly immigrants? What about the sick or mentally ill?
No one should owe you anything ― a tale of woe, their cuteness, their usefulness ― in order for you to care about them. Why should you care? Because they are a person.
It’s not just that we’ve gone beyond caring for the marginalized ― which Christianity, I might add, exhorts its followers to do ― and meandered into apathy. We’ve ventured far into the polar opposite of caring: fear, and even hatred, of anything we deem “other.” In the U.S., this means anything other than white, straight, male (or subservient female), Christian, cis and able-bodied. The marginalized have been marginalized typically because they are deemed Other. This otherness is compounding: the more boxes you check, the more feared or reviled you’ll be.
White people can’t bear to look in the mirror, though, because that would mean accepting that The Monster is Me. Because the truth is, it’s the violence largely perpetrated by white people (typically men) ― abusive spouses, white nationalists, disgruntled former employees, home-grown terrorists ― that’s most deadly. The truth is that terrorism by Muslims only makes up one-third of 1 percent of all murders in the U.S.
The Americans who hate Muslims do so not because they are dangerous but because they are different.
The story has been that Trump’s win took us liberals by surprise because we refused to believe our countrymen could be so hateful as to vote for a platform so blatantly espousing racist, xenophobic, misogynist and anti-Semitic policies. What we underestimated was how selfish conservative white Americans of all classes can be. How they saw only the promises of a better economic position for themselves and didn’t care how it gets achieved, who gets trampled in the process.
We underestimated how many of them live under the delusion that the Other represents the greatest threat to their safety and prosperity. How many believe they can be at once good Christians and intolerant, fearful and hateful toward the Other. Because even when the Other is deemed not overtly dangerous, they are seen to be stealing a piece of the pie.
Next time you find yourself in an online argument with a Stranger (or “friend”) who is imploring everyone to “all just get along,” to accept that you lost the election and move on while insisting they are a good person, remind them it’s their lack of Otherness that affords them the privilege to make those statements and that it will likely protect them from being denied their rights, or their very humanity, as a result of this administration’s policies.
Ask them how much other people’s lives are worth, exactly. Ask them where, precisely, their compassion ends.
This piece was originally published on Latterly.