Romanian and Bulgarian Migration Stirs up Ancient, Dark Parts of the Brain
Populist politicians' attempts to fan the flames of hatred rely on our hardwired suspicion of outsiders
Romanians and Bulgarians will gain the same rights as other EU citizens to move to Britain from 1 January. But for months the British media have been running alarmist reports about the imminent influx from these countries. What is it about this group of people that makes them seemingly so dangerous and so undesirable? Are they really different from any other group we have "welcomed" into our country? Will our national life really change after 1 January? As somebody who has conducted research into the process of stigmatisation, I have found the reaction in the British press to be both fascinating and terrifying.
Stigmatisation is a biosocial phenomenon, meaning it is a behaviour that can be attributed to both instinctual impulses and our cognitive ability to reason, using the information we are provided with. Many theorists suppose that our instinctual tendency to stigmatise evolved from the need to adapt to life in small bands or groups. This evolution may have occurred to prevent "free-riding" by individuals perceived as outsiders.
As a consequence, in most societies and cultures throughout human history, certain groups have been susceptible to stigmatisation. These include the sick, the old, social non-conformists and, most important, individuals who are perceived as coming from another group or having outside loyalties. Our brains are, in other words, hardwired to suspect individuals who fall into such groups, and may urge us to act in a stigmatising manner towards them. American social history provides an illustrative example of this where successive waves of immigrants (ranging from Dutch, Irish, eastern European and, more recently, those of Hispanic origin) were marginalised until, with time, they came to be seen as an accepted part of society.
This predisposition towards suspicion of immigrants means that reports that portray them negatively find fertile ground. We have been bombarded with stories of Roma who have kidnapped children and Romanian crime gangs on the loose. Often it is the political class that sets the tone. The Ukip leader Nigel Farage has recently spoken of a "Romanian crime wave" on its way to the UK.
Stigmatising attacks are even more effective (for the stigmatiser) in times of material shortage, perhaps explaining why the reaction to increased Romanian and Bulgarian immigration appears to be so much more visceral than it was for other east Europeans who migrated in 2004.
But potentially stigmatising behaviours are also influenced by conscious thought processes. This conscious cognitive process is shaped by the beliefs that we as individuals hold about the group in question. Civilisation, education and rational thought have helped us overcome a range of irrational negative impulses about other groups of individuals.
We can see, for example, that disabled people are individuals who should be treated with dignity and equal respect or that all Muslims are not a threat to our society.
It is such a capacity that allows us to live in large complex societies with individuals from different ethnic origins, despite the fact that we are essentially equipped with an innate suspicion of the different as a threat. Despite these advances, the basic underlying biological machinery remains.
As a consequence, there will be an eternal availability of receptive terrain for populist political forces that wish to rally support via negative stereotyping of vulnerable groups. Succumbing to the temptation to cast aspersions on such groups is analogous to lighting matches in a hayfield. Not only are such actions morally wrong, they are also dangerous.
History is replete with examples of those in power fanning the flames of hatred, exploiting the dark side of our human nature for their own benefit. False myths such as The Eternal Jew or the "baby-stealing Roma" should haunt our political class and teach it to beware of the risks of such opportunism. Let us hope these lessons remain with us after 1 January.