(De)vilifying Roma Refugees
Professors Benjamin Berger and Sean Rehaag published an article in the Toronto Star entitled “Stop Vilifying Roma Refugees.” In this article, the authors criticize the use of ethnic stereotypes in the public rhetoric surrounding refugee and immigration policies:
Talking about crime and immigration issues in terms of ethnic tendencies and cultural habits is more than just a lazy way around hard issues—though it is certainly that. Ethnic vilification and stereotyping are historically proven evils that are harmful and dangerous for the targeted communities and degrade the society that allows such views to take hold. Such stereotyping is an easy and rhetorically powerful way to draw attention and excite political passions. That it does so at the expense of not only reason and deliberation, but also of the vulnerable and innocent, is one of the reasons that, left unchallenged, this way of speaking about whole groups of people has led to so much harm and suffering.
The article draws out many thought-provoking points about the value of public debate and the responsibility of public officials to police the rhetorical boundaries of this debate. As the authors note, damaging stereotypes are infiltrating what could otherwise be a productive discussion about immigration and criminal law policies. The authors suggest that certain opinions or claims should be excluded from public discussion because they detract from the value of public debate; especially when they are expressed by public officials.
To this, one might suggest that policing the boundaries of what kinds of comments are (and are not) allowed is a form of censorship that is problematic because it requires someone (or some group) to do the policing. We should, the argument goes, allow all perspectives and attitudes into the debate so that it is well-rounded and fulsome. If we are concerned about negative stereotyping, allowing these kinds of viewpoints into the debate provides an opportunity for those who disagree to refute them.
This view, however, assumes that all ideas and opinions will have equal persuasive force in the public domain—an assumption that is quite far from reality. Stereotypes are persuasive because they ignore complex realities of the people to whom they apply, and in being so simplistic, are very easy to grasp onto. Refuting stereotypes requires examples of individuals who defy the stereotypes, however (arguably), the most damaging effect of stereotypes is that they silence their targets.
Perhaps one way to phrase the issue is that it comes down to whether we want debate for debate’s sake or whether we want valuable debate, and the latter means being aware of the presence of stereotypes and how these can actually detract from the quality of the discussion. We might also question whether we should require public officials to genuinely recognize and engage with the complex realities faced by immigrants and refugees, rather than latch onto harmful generalizations about ethnic groups and distribute the benefits of immigration and refugee policies according to these generalizations. As Professors Berger and Rehaag eloquently note, civil liberties should not be distributed across ethnic lines and the rhetoric surrounding Roma refugees threatens to do just that.