Aylan was just one story in the huge current refugee crisis—a mass exodus of 4 million Syrians attempting to flee war and the occupation of their homeland by Islamic fundamentalists. More than 2,600 have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean for the imagined sanctuary of Europe. In stark contrast to countries like Germany and Sweden, the response from the British government has been pitiful: only 216 Syrian refugees have thus far qualified for the official relocation program and Prime Minister David Cameron originally said the total would not rise above 1,000. “I don’t think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees,” he said, thereby blithely consigning thousands to staying home to face persecution, torture, imprisonment and death, or else risking escaping on leaky, overcrowded boats.
The number of forcibly displaced people around the world reached a staggering 59.5 million by the end of 2014, compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago. The massive increase in people in search of refuge over past decades is no accident. It is the direct result of globalisation, a Third World crisis born to a significant degree of First World politics. As long as there are great disparities between economic, social and political conditions between countries in the world, migration in large numbers is inevitable.
The easiest way to justify such a profoundly unequal and unfair world order is to blame its victims, through a process of “othering” or what Edward Said calls “Orientalism.” Dominant powers establish “truth” about both themselves and those over whom they exert power. “We” are surely rational, developed, humane and good, while the “other”—foreigner, immigrant, refugee, asylum seeker, eastern European, Muslim, African, Asian, black, nonwhite—is portrayed as inherently barbaric, inferior, backward, aberrant, criminal, corrupt, violent, poor, lazy and dirty. The mobilization of such negative stereotypes by politicians and press in the U.K. has been going on for generations. Both of the two main political parties compete in a dismal race to the bottom for the perceived electoral asset of “toughness” toward outsiders, while sections of the British media, which have a long, horrible history of xenophobia, compete to see which can attract the greatest number of readers by publishing the most hostile, fearmongering stories. A columnist in The Sun recently called the refugees “cockroaches”; the Daily Mail wondered why the government could stop Hitler but not “a few thousand exhausted migrants.”
As Noam Chomsky writes: “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
And then, on Wednesday, a photograph appears, the corpse of a little boy, washed up on the shores of “Fortress Europe.” And through the democracy of social media, the public responds, magnificently, with great humanity, putting the politicians and tabloids to shame with campaigns (eg. #refugeeswelcome), fundraising and relief runs, petitions, marches, banners at football matches and all kinds of extraordinary, individual offers of help.
“I’ve worked for the UNHCR for more than seven years and, to be honest, this is the most generous response I’ve seen in terms of the way it has touched people and their willingness to offer help on a very personal level,” said Laura Padoan of the UN refugee agency.
In psychological terms, the demonizing “othering” process is called projection. All the unpleasant parts of us are ascribed instead to the “other” such that we can preserve a self-image of purity. This happens individually, between us, and it happens collectively, between nations. What Jung called “the shadow” does not live in foreigners from Third World. It lives in all of us.
Psychotherapy, too, has a tendency to project, to “other,” to blame the victims. Social environment psychologists like Erich Fromm, Harry Stack Sullivan and Karen Horney have pointed out that so much human psychological distress and suffering is born of dire circumstances, the result of a ravenous capitalism machine that mankind used to master but has now enslaved us.
Rather than looking for insight, the late British psychologist David Smail argued that therapists should look for “outsight”—an awareness of a person’s environment, of the oppressions of a deeply-unfair social order; an indefensible hierarchical power structure that keeps people down.
Not surprisingly, studies have shown considerably higher rates of psychological distress among refugees, including PTSD, depression and somatic complaints compared to the general population or other kinds of migrant. Let’s hope that the traumatized refugees who do manage to arrive at our green and pleasant land aren’t then exposed to the kind of counselling that invites them to consider their dysfunctional “negative automatic thoughts” or unhelpful “repeating patterns” of behaviour.
Writes Smail: “I can think of no mainstream approach to psychological therapy which doesn’t harbour at its core a humourless authoritarianism, a moralistic urge to control, that has the ultimate effect of causing infinitely more pain than it could ever conceivably hope to cure.”
The ways that counsellors and psychotherapists seek and work with both insight and “outsight,” the extent to which they “other” their clients, and the power dynamics in the consulting room determine whether they are part of the problem or part of the solution. Therapy, for better or for worse, operates at the intersection of the personal, the professional and the political,
In his 1955 book The Sane Society, Erich Fromm concludes: “In the nineteenth century the problem was that God is dead; in the twentieth century the problem is that man is dead.” The future, he argued, will either see a grand, mutual destruction—or else a rediscovery of our shared humanity.
Sometimes we are woken up to that shared humanity. We meet someone who rocks us out of our complacency. Or something dreadful happens to us that makes us see things afresh. Or we see a devastating photograph that completely stops us in our tracks.
The image of Aylan’s lifeless little body cuts through all the stereotypes, the xenophobia, the UN reports, the statistics of war (the greater the number of people suffering, the greater the likelihood of a collapse of compassion). He could have been your child, or a friend’s child or any child. He could have been you.
We look at that photograph and we feel outraged. We are impelled to do something. We might not get it right. We might be clumsy and make mistakes. But we try to come out from behind our own borders and boundaries and barricades. We join forces, we connect, we act. We are One World. And so, instead of “othering,” we tiptoe towards some kind of “togethering.”
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