In the Trump administration’s first two weeks in office, it issued three executive orders on immigration. One of the orders – issued on Holocaust Remembrance Day – halted refugee admissions for three months and barred people from seven targeted countries from entering the country. The order prevents refugees who have already undergone “extreme vetting” from resettling in the United States, leaving many homeless or in peril. In response to a lawsuit claiming Trump’s order was unconstitutional and unjust, a federal judge appointed by George W. Bush issued a temporary halt to the order.
As others have suggested, the executive orders on immigration appear to be part of a larger discriminatory agenda – propelled by fear and uncertainty – that threatens the foundation of our democracy and the quest for peace.
Over the past several months, I’ve been working on a book project that highlights the central importance of certain key principles – liberty and justice, love and tolerance, and hope and opportunity – in efforts to prevent and address violence. Much of the book draws upon my experiences as a human rights physician working with asylum seekers and refugees.
When I began writing it, Barack Obama was President of the United States. By the time I finished, Donald Trump had been inaugurated as president. There are dramatic differences between these two men – beyond their politics. Hope guided the election of President Obama, whereas fear and uncertainty bolstered the election of Trump. The exploitation of bigotry – and of what divides us – marred the period of time leading up to Trump’s election. And since Trump was elected, hate crimes have surged.
The connections between fear, uncertainty, and bigotry are not coincidental. As neuroscientists have shown, fear and intolerance of uncertainty can widen “empathy gaps,” which stem from an inability to recognize and respond effectively to the feelings of others. They are at the heart of many polarizations in society, from racism to xenophobia to our treatment of animals. Most of us are capable of empathy, to varying degrees, but we distribute it inequitably.
At the same time, scientists have also shown how a consistent moral framework based on clear principles can override fear and prejudice – and narrow empathy gaps.
The human mind is fallible. Intolerance of uncertainty can cause reasoning errors founded on cognitive biases.
To our brains, uncertainty can be read as a threat. It can lead to paralyzing fear or irrational actions. Frequently enough, to avoid uncertainty, we choose either to do nothing – and become bystanders – or to automatically follow those who offer certainty. (This phenomenon could explain why the percentage of Americans open to an authoritarian alternative to democracy has increased by at least two-fold over twenty years.)
As a result of intolerance of uncertainty, we often avoid novel situations perceived as risky, leading to confirmation of biases rather than correction of biases in the face of actual experience – all of which exacerbate gaps in empathy.
Research has shown that a clear moral code – based on values like freedom, tolerance, and a sense of justice – can help us overcome fear, uncertainty, and empathy gaps.
But we must start early and be consistent. For example, the ways children witness people and animals being treated strongly influences whether they develop principled behaviors such as respect for others, sharing, and cooperation. Even at an early age, children realize that consistency – the absence of contradictions – requires application of the same moral standards across the board.
The more ubiquitous values are, the more applicable they are. And the more substantive they are, with clear consequences and functions, the more likely they are to be adopted as normative behaviors.
A set of principles, absent contradictions, can help us overcome erroneous intuitive judgments and resulting violence. (Even counterterrorism experts have begun to focus on the importance of a principled moral code in prevention and de-radicalization efforts.)
We too seldom consider how ideals like freedom, love, and fairness apply to our daily lives and choices – a problem that has plagued humankind throughout history.
Under the threat of uncertainty, there is the risk that we will move further away from democratic principles. History has shown how a failure to consistently apply principles like liberty and justice can result in a loss of their value and enforcement. Now more than ever, with consistency and courage, we need to reinforce these values and speak up.
Martin Niemöller, a prominent Protestant pastor who opposed the Nazi regime, once stated,
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Who will we speak for today so that others can speak out tomorrow?