Reason, myth and migration

Phillip Cole

One of the dominant features of public debate about immigration in the United Kingdom is the absence of reason. Many political commentators have begun to notice the reluctance of people to abandon basic myths about immigration, despite the prevalence of evidence that shows those myths to be false. For example, net immigration has fallen over the past three years, but only one fifth of people believe that. The rest are convinced that net immigration is on the rise.

I think there is something deep seated at play here in the public sphere. I don’t mean to draw attention away from the importance of racism in anti-immigration stances, or the important role of the media in creating a great deal of hostility. But I do want to suggest the idea of ‘Heimat’ can supplement these explanations and help shed light on the persistence of myth within the immigration debate.

‘Heimat’ is an extraordinarily complex idea that plays an important role in German thought and culture, and I can’t hope to do it justice here. It captures the feeling of being at home, or, more accurately, is a reaction to the experience of not feeling at home.

In other words, ‘Heimat’ is a reactive idea, a reaction against the fluidity and change experienced under conditions of modernity, which result in alienation and a feeling of lost-ness. Heimat is an idea of a place where one really belongs, and so is an imaginary home set up against our experience of alienation. It is essentially backward looking and nostalgic, and so it does not exist in the present.

But equally it does not exist in the past. Although it is a place, and exists in the past in one sense, it is not a place that has ever existed. It is an imaginary place when things were, we are told, more innocent and simple and stable: it is motion-less and change-less.

This place is not open to rational criticism. When people say things were better in the past, pointing out to them that this past has never actually existed – it is an imaginary reaction to the present — brings about no change in their nostalgia. And although as an idea ‘Heimat’ has played a role in both right and left politics in Germany, one key element of it is mistrust of the outsider, whose presence is at least one cause of the loss of ‘Heimat’.

So the immigrant brings change, but change of something that lies in an imaginary past. The reality is that the world was never like that and has already changed. In fact the immigrant may symbolize change, but they don’t bring it. The world just has changed and is changing – it always has. And the immigrant is one who lives in the borderlands of change.

Although the idea of Heimat is explicit in the German-speaking world and has no simple equivalent in the English-speaking world, I have no doubt that it is present in the way we think. Patrick Wright’s description of ‘Englishness’ in his article, “Last orders for the English aborigine”, certainly fits the model, and perfectly captures the stance of UKIP and its supporters.

This Englishness “…finds its essence in that sense of being opposed to the prevailing trends of the present. It’s a perspective that allows even the most well-placed man of the world to imagine himself a member of an endangered aboriginal minority: a freedom fighter striking out against ‘alien’ values and the infernal workings of a usurping state”. At its heart is an idea of England “…in which the very thought of difference or change is instantly identified with degeneration, corruption and death” (pp.68-69).

And so ‘Heimat’ is a reactive idea, a reaction against the fluidity and change experienced under conditions of modernity, which result in alienation and a feeling of lost-ness. And it is the migrant – part of the process of motion and change – who is identified as the culprit for this lost-ness. But the key point here is that it is not open to rational criticism. It is an idea that lies beyond reason.

My suggestion is that if we study the public debate about immigration, and the anti-immigration stance that many take, we will find the theme of Heimat running through them – phrases keep re-occurring in those debates, most strikingly, I have found, the theme of not people to being at home in their own country. And the most important aspect of this theme is, of course, that it is not open to reason – the resistance to argument and evidence is an essential dimension of Heimat.

Myths, of course, can be combated through persisting with reason and evidence, and it may be that we can see this in the fact that Nigel Farage, UKIP leader, recently stated that he would rather be poorer with fewer migrants, an acceptance that immigration brings economic growth to the UK, and that it was the social/cultural impact of immigration that was important rather than economic impact.

This seems to show that the barrage of evidence and argument about the economic benefits of immigration have had some effect even within the minds of UKIP, where in the past the economic myths have been pretty much hard-wired. So the fact that we find our attempts to reason rebuffed by myth again and again should not discourage us from continuing with our efforts. The one thing we must never do is abandon hope in the power of reason.


Phillip Cole is a Visiting Professor in Applied Philosophy with the Social Ethics Research Group at the University of South Wales, and Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of West of England. He is co-author of Debating the Ethics of Immigration: Is There a Right to Exclude? with Christopher Heath Wellman (Oxford University Press 2011), and Philosophies of Exclusion: Liberal Political Theory and Immigration (Edinburgh University Press 2000).

Phillip presented these ideas as a paper for the Migration and Citizenship Seminar Series at the University of Birmingham. See the programme for details of forthcoming events.

One thought on “Reason, myth and migration

  1. Pingback: Anti-reason & unreason in immigration debate | Postcards from ...

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