Immigration and Scapegoating

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There is some evidence suggesting that high levels of immigration from foreign cultures erodes public trust and feelings of social solidarity. Some recent books by David Miller and Paul Collier cite this evidence in the course of arguing for controlled immigration.

Why should cultural diversity undermine public trust? Collier builds a model to explain it. The model is revealing — it shows up many of the assumptions that underlie opposition to multicultural immigration. But the facts can be explained in many ways. I propose to explain them in a different way to Collier. But first let me give his account.

Public cooperation depends on altruism. A cooperative society is governed by rules and norms of behaviour, prohibiting individuals from exploiting others. There is always a temptation for individuals to ignore these rules in pursuit of personal gain. Society can devise a system of punishments to discourage non-cooperation. But punishment is itself an altruistic act. The punisher pays costs — e.g., there is the risk of retaliation from the punished. The benefit — the maintenance of the cooperative system — accrues to society as a whole, while the costs are focussed exclusively on the punisher.

We can do what we can to spread the costs of punishment as evenly as we can across society. But, Collier insists, a functioning system of cooperation will always depend on “heroes” — those who go the extra mile to keep society safe.

Think of Batman: he spends his own money on military hardware and works frequent night-shifts to keep the streets of Gotham safe. He pays all the costs and he gets very little of the benefits. He probably makes himself less safe than he would have been had he left the policing to the police and not made himself a target for every villain in town. Very selfless of him. Not all heroes don’t wear capes.

The main threat to a cooperative system comes not from those that Collier calls “minor villains” — those who don’t cooperate — but rather from those he calls “supervillians” — the people who punish the heroes. Collier is not explicit here, but he seems to be thinking in terms of a positive feedback loop. A hero might be willing to altruistically pay a certain cost to keep the cooperative society going, but the presence of supervillains will keep upping the ante. Punishing one crime will lead to retaliatory crimes, punishing those crimes will lead to more, and so on until the hero has drained her moral capital.

The crucial ingredient in a cooperative system is therefore ‘villains who do not retaliate when they are punished.

But this, Collier argues, is culturally rare. Most cultures of the past, and many of the present, remain committed to the principle of the vendetta and the blood feud: attack one of ours, and we will attack one of yours. Punish the transgressor, and her allies will punish the punisher in retaliation. Collier notes:

The same claim appears in the work of René Girard. Girard’s pioneering anthropological study, Violence and the Sacred (1972), identified the phenomenon highlighted by Pinker. For Girard the crucial distinction is between private and public vengeance. ‘Primitive’ societies, as Girard called them, have only private vengeance: “an interminable, infinitely repetitive process”. Public vengeance, by contrast, “is the exclusive property of well-policed societies, and our society calls it the judicial system”.

Girard goes on: “Under the public system, an act of vengeance is no longer avenged; the process is terminated, the danger of escalation averted”. Again the crucial point: public vengeance is not avenged. This, to speak in Collier’s terms, keeps the cost of punishing (avenging) noncooperation within reasonable bounds. It allows ‘heroes’ to sustain a reasonably cooperative society with only a few minor transgressions.

So what is the problem with multicultural immigration, according to Collier? Put simply, it is that while Western societies have overcome the culture of the vendetta, allowing the formation of what Girard calls “public vengeance” — the judicial system, non-Western societies have not. “Migrants bring not only the human capital generated in their own societies; they also bring the moral codes of their own societies.” They import the vendetta and the blood feud, and these destroy the cooperative systems of their host societies.

Since Collier’s whole argument hangs on this crucial empirical claim, it is surprising how little evidence he offers for it. Instead, he offers anecdotes. I find them unconvincing.

For instance, in the 1960s a (white British) criminal shot dead three policemen; his criminal network refused to hide him because he had broken an unwritten code that neither criminals nor police carry guns in the UK. By contrast, when in 2011 Mark Duggan pulled a gun in a police car and was shot by the police (who pleaded self-defence), his community of peers rose up and rioted in retaliation.

Collier’s proposed analysis is as follows: Duggan was of Jamaican descent. In Jamaica there is no unwritten code against carrying guns, and Jamaicans had brought their own foreign morality to the UK. It is true that the police who shot Duggan had also given up on the unwritten rule against guns, but this was because Jamaican immigrants had already broken the covenant (Collier is not so explicit, but I can’t think what else he could mean). Given what Collier has said before, the implication is clearly that Jamaicans still operate on the principle of the vendetta, whereas ‘traditional’ Britons accept that retaliations against certain violations should not be avenged.

The argument is readily extended to defend harsh policies towards immigration from Arab countries (not from Muslim countries — nobody talks about Indonesia, the largest Muslim country of them all). The stereotypical Arab loves a blood feud; in Lawrence of Arabia a tribe is only saved from a spiral of vengeance by the intervention of a white infiltrator.

Suppose we grant all these premises, unfounded though many of them are. We then need to ask one crucial question. If the spirit of the blood feud is so common in most societies, how have Western societies overcome it? How come we can punish criminals without setting off an interminable spiral of vengeance?

Collier’s answers are highly unsatisfying; he makes vague gestures towards supposed cultural and intellectual ‘revolutions’ that changed ‘our’ attitudes, without going into any historical detail.

To find a better answer, I propose to first ask another question — the question with which Girard begins. If societies collapse so readily into blood feuds, how do they survive at all? If each attack must be avenged by another attack, how does this not escalate to the point of mutually assured destruction on all sides?

Girard’s answer is one word long: Scapegoating. The opposing parties of the vendetta, by some psychological magic, both transfer all blame onto a single third party — a scapegoated victim. Either the scapegoat is chosen on account of his or her social isolation or steps are taken to cut the bonds of solidarity with anyone who might avenge him or her. The victim can than be destroyed or banished. Everyone’s thirst for retribution is quenched in this final act of vengeance. And there is nobody to avenge it.

Have Western societies somehow got beyond scapegoating? At times Girard seems to think so (though this is tied up with his Christian faith). But if you have the stomach for it, have a look at the book Scapegoat, by Katherine Quarmby, which documents a series of horrific torture-murders of disabled persons. In every case, the victim is blamed for some arbitrary crime; in every case, the victim is, as disabled persons often are, socially isolated and cut off from anyone who might intervene (or seek vengeance).

Quarmby’s book is almost unbearable reading. Slightly less nightmarish is the recent history of immigration policy in the UK. Here is an excerpt from Michael Dummett’s Immigration and Refugees:

Why was this done? In terms of security, the migrants could have just been detained upon first arrival. The policy was clearly punitive, but what was the crime? The migrants were people living in newly decolonised nations who had elected to retain British citizenship rather than taking on the citizenship of the new countries. They were eventually forced out of their home countries and, due to recent Home Office policy, unable to enter the only country for which they held a passport. This was the crime for which they deserved to spend days on end flying with small children.

I propose that the immigrants were not being punished for their own crimes. They were the convergence points, convenient outlets, for vendettas that did not begin with them. They were scapegoats.

Scapegoating, on Girard’s analysis, saves society in its way. It concentrates dangerous vendettas onto helpless victims who cannot retaliate. Otherwise the vendettas would run wild. This doesn’t justify scapegoating; it simply identifies its social function.

Immigrants make excellent scapegoats. Some people might try to protect them, but very few people will avenge them when they are victimised. Refugees are even better — almost by definition they are without the protection of anyone (only the relatively toothless UNHCR).

Thus I propose a different reading of the facts to Collier. Maybe societies do begin to function less cooperatively when they take a welcoming attitude towards culturally diverse migrants. But maybe this is because, in doing so, they stop victimising a convenient scapegoat. Also, the larger an immigrant community — a disapora — becomes, the harder it is to scapegoat the members of that community — there are too many potential avengers.

To explain why a more open immigration policy can harm a cooperative society, we don’t need to tell a triumphalist story of how the West went through a magnificent cultural enlightenment while the rest of the world remained in darkness. We don’t need to pretend that our societies alone have purged the ‘supervillains’, though millions of them are lurking over the border.

We’re all supervillains. We’re all prone to falling into cycles of endless retaliation. We can stay safe from each other if we agree to collectively beat up on someone who can’t hit back. But a kinder immigration policy cuts off one convenient source of scapegoats. To that extent, it is dangerous. But that sounds like a moral reason to change ourselves, not the policy.

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Lecturer in Philosophy, University of St. Andrews — personal website:

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