Immigration virtue signalling in both directions

My latest:

As discussions about immigration levels and issues such as temporary foreign workers are likely to increase post-COVID, it is important to appreciate that these will occur at a number of levels, ranging from factual, to the underlying values that inform and shape narratives, and to how the arguments are presented.

Selection of facts often reflects conscious and unconscious decisions, which in turn are influenced by our values and beliefs. Understanding these influences is helpful to discussion, as it allows one to engage at a deeper level, appreciate the basis of different perspectives and, hopefully, find some common ground for discussion.

After all, meaningful discussion and debate cannot happen within a bubble of the like-minded, but we all need to engage different viewpoints and perspectives. My personal journey to this realization occurred during my time working under former then immigration minister Jason Kenney on citizenship and multiculturalism issues, where I was regularly challenged with respect to my values, biases and orientations, as recounted in Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias.

Taking a look at a number of immigration issues, it can be useful to try to identify the underlying meanings of common and current immigration “catch phrases.” The following seeks to unpack some of the narratives used by both sides:

What are the narratives behind asylum seekers?

Characterizing asylum seekers as “illegal migrants” fits into a law and order narrative, emphasizing controlled or managed immigration and fairness in that there is one process for all. It implies possible fraud or misrepresentation in their claims. It is a narrative that can appeal to immigrants and non-immigrants alike. But the managed immigration narrative downplays the humanitarian aspects of people, many of whom would be at risk if returned to their homelands, who are worried about their future in the U.S., particularly under the Trump administration.

Characterizing them as “irregular arrivals” fits into the welcoming or inclusive narrative that accepts that how people arrive is less important than giving them the chance to make their case before the Immigration and Refugee Board. Similarly, it downplays the management aspect of immigration and that these claimants are essentially exploiting a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement. As the technical arguments “illegal or irregular” are not simple to explain, this tends to resonate more with those who favour a more open and inclusive approach.

What are the narratives behind ‘old-stock Canadian’ or ‘a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian?’

While the former can be used in a neutral message to indicate Canadians of three generations or more, its use more often suggests a more exclusionary narrative implying a citizenship hierarchy based upon the period of immigration, with earlier largely white arrivals more “Canadian” compared to more recent visible minority arrivals. Moreover, it reinforces concerns that more recent immigrants are not adapting to Canadian values.

“A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” on the other hand, signals inclusivity, that no matter the time of arrival or their ethnocultural identity, all are and should be treated equally. At its extreme, it justifies citizenship rights as divorced from residency and connections to Canada, as seen in debates over birth tourism, voting rights, and arguments in favour of citizenship transmission beyond the first generation.

What are the narratives behind ‘extreme multiculturalism’ or ‘diversity is our strength?’

“Extreme multiculturalism” signals that the values and practices of immigrants and visible minorities are different and divisive, thus undermining Canadian society and consensus. It implies that multiculturalism is based on an “anything goes” approach, one that leads to “unreasonable accommodation” demands to the disadvantage of “old-stock” Canadians.

“Diversity is our strength,” on the other hand, welcomes diversity as a good in itself. By stressing inclusivity and flexibility regarding accommodation requests, it expands the space of Canadian identities to incorporate other identities. On the other hand, it can lead to downplaying the constraints to accommodation, whether legal, economic or social.

What are the narratives behind ‘social cohesion’ or ‘social inclusion?’

Social cohesion stresses common values and standards that all are expected to understand and comply with. While differences exist, these are portrayed as more cultural (language, food, etc.) than fundamental values. People need to “fit in,” with explicit or implicit limits on societal accommodation. Back in 2009 (the Discover Canada Citizenship Guide) and, again in 2015 (a tip line), the previous Conservative government’s use of the term “barbaric cultural practices” for “honour killings” and female genital mutilation can be seen in this light.

Social inclusion, on the other hand, implies a greater openness to accommodating cultural, religious or other practices and identities. While subject to Charter protections and the need to balance rights, the emphasis is more on accommodation of difference and a reluctance to state limits or qualifications. It can lead to silence on issues within communities about such real concerns as extremism, spousal abuse and female genital mutilation, and the resulting impact on women and other vulnerable members.

What are the narratives behind ‘anti-Muslim hate’ or Islamophobia?

Anti-Muslim hate allows those uncomfortable with the term Islamophobia to situate issues of anti-Muslim bias, discrimination, and racism in the context of individual rather than group rights and those of a religion, Islam. The focus on individual rights maintains some space for legitimate criticism of the religion or its practices (e.g., role of women, LGBTQ, etc.) and more explicit recognition of balancing religious and other rights.

Islamophobia, on the other hand, emphasizes the religion itself, with a greater focus on systemic racism and the rights of the religion as such in contrast to individual rights. Criticism of specific religious practices becomes more difficult as it is can be viewed as criticism of the religion and its institutions rather than criticism of the impact on individual rights.

What are the narratives behind individual acts of racism or systemic racism?

By stressing individual acts of racism, the emphasis is on the individual, the “few bad apples” in any organization or community, with government interventions more focused on education and enforcement of anti-hate crimes legislation. In so doing, it largely sidesteps issues pertaining to societal and socioeconomic barriers.

Systemic racism, on the other hand, situates racism in the context of societal and socioeconomic barriers that result in inequalities, intended or unintended. Individual practices and policies of governments and organizations can inadvertently make it more difficult for individuals and groups to have comparable outcomes to more established groups, as seen with respect to the economy, education attainment, incarceration rates, health and political representation.

What are the narratives behind multiculturalism, interculturalism or pluralism?

All three are “plastic” terms to describe civic integration that range from more integrationist to more separatist. All three can be used positively or negatively. Multiculturalism has been decried by European leaders as having failed at integration in contrast to how it is generally positively viewed by Canadian political leaders and society. It is important to note that what Europeans understand as “multiculturalism” may not be how it is understood in Canada. Interculturalism, while substantively comparable to Canadian multiculturalism with a stronger reference point of Quebec as a French-speaking society, is largely used to emphasize Quebec as a distinct French-speaking and identity-based society. Pluralism is broader in that it includes all forms of diversity (ethnocultural, gender and other) but with more emphasis on tolerance than integration.

Conversation not confrontation

Consciously or not, we all use narratives to drive our arguments and positions. The narratives we use reflect a mix of interests and values. Narratives have elements of identity politics (policies targeted to narrow constituencies) and virtue signalling (superficial support for positions) designed to target and attract individuals and groups.

When listening to discussions and debates, one needs to be alert to the interests, values and signals behind stated positions to improve understanding of them. In formulating our own arguments, one similarly has to “know thyself” and be more mindful of how our interests and values are shaping our positions and narratives. Greater awareness should allow for deeper conversations that either clarify points of divergence or, ideally, commonalities that bridge differences or at least improve civility.

Source: Immigration virtue signalling in both directions

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: