Dr. Dennis Dew gave a presentation that helped explain fear of immigrants from a social psychology perspective.
In East Africa, 3.5 million years ago, fear wasn’t the only thing to be afraid of. For our early human ancestors, the world was a harsh, dangerous place, full of all kinds of threats.
So it is not that surprising that our brains evolved with quick, subconscious reactions to stimuli. According to Dr. Dennis Dew, a psychology professor at Mount Mercy University, our almost automatic, hard-wired fears include fear of snakes, spiders and unfamiliar people.
Dr. Dew spoke tonight in the third forum of the Fall Faculty Series, Building Walls, Building Bridges: The U.S. as an Immigrant Nation. His presentation was called “Fear of an Immigration Nation: Prejudice, Stereotyping & Discrimination.”
He traced part of the fear to the ways in which are brains evolved. He also noted that humans have an innate tendency to be “cognitive misers,” and that it’s easier to quickly categorize people rather than think of them as individuals.
I liked the way he began, pointing out examples of fear of immigrants throughout U.S. history. For Benjamin Franklin, 20 years before the revolution, it was Germans who were a threat to the social order of Pennsylvania. Later, John Jay, an author of the “Federalist Papers” that helps push the convention that would write the U.S. Constitution, said that the new country needed “a wall of brass for excluding Catholics.” Well, Mexico is an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Has Donald Trump specified the building material he wishes to use?
Audience member, probably MMU student, poses a question.
Group cohesion has always been important, too, to humans, and that leads us to automatically think of an “in group,” our tribe that we’re comfortable with, and the “out groups” that we fear.
Those are just a few ideas Dr. Dew spoke of. He covered the classical conditioning and guilt by repetition that he wrote about in his Gazette guest column earlier this week.
The media came in for some of the blame, with Dr. Dew noting that there is an “if it bleeds, it leads” tendency in news reports. As an old newspaper editor, let me note that quote was originally descriptive of television news, but I think he had a point.
It all adds up too three ways of thinking that are detrimental to our approach to immigration:
* Stereotyping, which is our cognitive response, our internal picture of a class of people.
* Prejudice, which is our emotional response to the group we don’t like.
* Discrimination, which is our behavioral response.
Well, the situation is not all dire. Dr. Dew noted that while our brains our subconsciously hardwired to react to fear through our amygdala, it’s also true that we’re not strictly controlled by that region. We have higher brain functions and can recognize our pattern responses and whether they are rational.
And, he concluded, there are practical steps we can take. He suggested a few:
1) Mentally emphasize what we share. Enlarge our tribe, think of the “superordinate” group. For example, Dr. Dew said he is a middle aged white male, but in dealing with other faculty who are female and of a different age, he can think of “college professor,” the relevant, more inclusive group that both parties are part of.
2) Increase cooperative contact He noted that contact alone with immigrants may not change attitude—but it makes a difference if there is a positive task involved. It does tend to change ones outlook if one works with Habitat for Humanity with an immigrant to build them a house, for example.
3) Find out as much about each individual as we can. Reach beyond group identity. Once an individual becomes “personalized,” we aren’t so quick to mentally put them in the “in” or “out” group.
Once again, the event was well attended. The room seats about 100, and there were some people sitting at the sides. I don’t think every chair was taken, but I would estimate there were between 90 and 100 people.
Student takes notes during Dr. Dew’s presentation. Note packed room.
It was also a nice mix of faculty, administrators, students and community members. My hope is that this series, like some past ones, will build in popularity.
Dr. Dew makes a point while he looks at screen.
There are a few faces I’m starting to notice who attend each event. That heartens me—the topic at hand has not been in any way exhausted. There is much more to say—indeed, more to say than we’ll get to in the whole series.
So thank you Dr. Dennis Dew. I enjoyed your presentation.
Next week is Mercy Week at MMU, which means a brief break in the faculty forums, but there is a “Poems, Promises and Music of Many Nations” event next Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Chapel of Mercy—part of both the Fall Faculty Series and Mercy Week.
On Sept. 29, Dr. Mohammad Chaichian will speak on the logic of border walls, based on his sociological research into a number of such historic barriers.
It’s proving to be a very interesting faculty series, Hope you can make it to some of our events—see www.mtmercy.edu/immigration for more information.