Gorillas in the midst of refugees

Do you see gorillas? There are gorillas in the midst of the refugee crisis but all some American politicians can see is fear (see recent statements and proclamations from numerous presidential candidates, governors and mayors). When there is a focus on fear, politicians and their followers create a blindspot where facts and even dancing gorillas go unnoticed.

In a famous study known as the “invisible gorilla” experiment, psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons demonstrated that when most people fix their attention on something they are told they are supposed to see, they tend to overlook anything outside their scope of focus. Chabris and Simons asked their study participants to watch a fast-paced video of people passing a basketball and count how many times specific players within that group received the ball (click here for the 2 minute video). The problem was that at least half the observers didn’t see the person dressed in a gorilla suit dance a jig in the middle of the video; their focused or selective attention on counting caused inattentional blindness. Most people see only what they want to see or are looking for. When our politics are focused on fear, our policies are filled with blindspots where facts are overlooked. Inattentional blindness is running rampant in America’s corridors of political power.

We have a gorilla problem in American politics, especially when it comes to refugees and immigrants. There are at least four factual gorillas in the refugee/immigrant issue that some of our current and ‘wannabe’ political representatives just simply do not see because of their focus on fear.

The Sprouting Gorilla. Nearly all the terrorists responsible for the Paris attacks sprouted from within France or the European Union. The argument by some American politicians that we need to “halt” and “ban” Syrian refugees because of what happened in Paris is neither logical nor based in fact. As Francois Hollande, the French president, said in a speech before the joint session of parliament following the Paris attacks: “it was Frenchmen who killed other Frenchmen.” The November 13th terrorists were homegrown and that fact seems to be lost on Governor Christie and others who would ban even Syrian “orphans under fiver [years old]” from seeking refuge in the United States. Shouldn’t we be concerned about why and how ISIS can recruit people from some of our neighborhoods rather than with refugees, who happen to be mostly women and children, hoping to be our neighbors?

The Screening Gorilla. Refugees already go through between 18 months and two years of an intense screening process (including interviews and biometric data) by intelligence agencies. It takes some refugees much longer than two years to clear the process so the argument of making it even stricter is surreal when you combine the sprouting gorilla idea of why this is akin to climbing up the wrong tree with the reality of the extensiveness of the process. While we screen, many seeking asylum in western countries don’t make it through … alive. The image of 3 year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body washing ashore in September generated a wave of civic compassion throughout the western world. Approximately half of the 4 million Syrian refugees are children. Too many politicians running for our country’s highest office and running our states’ executive branches, however, seem to be running in fear from families needing our help (I am fortunate to live in a state where the governor has followed a compassionate path on this issue). Politicians ride fear to build their own careers but statesmen redirect fear into building a stronger, united world. Do we want more statesmen or politicians?

The Reversing Gorilla. The front-runner in the Republican presidential campaign, Donald Trump, has called for a “big & beautiful wall” across America’s southern border to stem the influx of Mexican immigrants. It appears that Mr. Trump’s fear of immigrants has blinded him to the gorilla of reverse migration. As recently reported by both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, “More immigrants from Mexico are leaving the United States than coming into the country…All told, the number of undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. has dropped by more than one million since 2007.” Immigration reversal is a fact but we still have leading political candidates such as Mr. Trump calling for constructing a wall to stop immigrants from coming into the United States. If we follow Mr. Trump’s blind lead on building a “big & beautiful wall,” wouldn’t we be building it to keep immigrants in the country? We all know what happens to walls throughout history anyway: they fall (Berlin Wall, The Great Wall, etc…). In contrast, there’s a statue from France overlooking New York that is doing pretty well standing the test of time. Our politicians might want to focus on her for a little inspiration on the topic of immigration; some might even be inspired to become statesmen.

The Repeating Gorilla. This is Yogi’s gorilla: “It’s like déjà vu, all over again.” We seem to be repeating the same mistakes with ethnic groups all over again. The United States turned away Jewish refugees on the eve of World War II and we are considering doing something similar with today’s refugees? The recent call for creating a special I.D. for Muslims (Mr. Trump) and the Mayor of Roanoke’s not so subtle recommendation for modeling America’s World War II internment camps bring back to life our national embarrassment of how we treated fellow Americans of Japanese descent. We can’t let our fears blind us to literally and figuratively walking into the same mistakes we made in the past. We need to learn from fear rather than continually learning to fear.

When politicians make decisions and policies out of fear, the results are usually outside the realm of logic. Under current law, for example, if someone is on America’s no-fly list, they cannot board a plane but they can still buy a gun. Because of their fear, some political leaders can’t see the gorillas of fact because they apparently can only see guerillas of terror everywhere (even in five-year old refugee orphans) except in their blindspot; and homegrown terrorists are very thankful. Maybe, just maybe, when more of our politicians start seeing gorillas, our world will have less … guerillas.

(First published here; reprinted by permission.)

Dr. Chris Kukk is Professor of Political Science at Western Connecticut State University, a Fulbright Scholar, Director of the Kathwari Honors Program and founding Director of the Center for Compassion, Creativity and Innovation. He is also the author of “The Compassionate Achiever,” a forthcoming HarperCollins/HarperOne book, and co-founder & CEO of InnovOwl LLC, a ‘think and do’ consulting firm that solves micro and macro problems through innovative education.

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