You can’t talk about immigration

I don’t want to sound racist but…

Over the last two decades few things have been discussed more than immigration. Yet people still claim “you can’t talk about immigration.”



Sorry about that. But people feel like they can’t and I think I know why. They can’t use the language or topics they want. We’ve all made them verboten. People have accepted that being racist and prejudice is bad, but not that it’s wrong.

There’s limits to what language policing can achieve. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that the language people use dictates what they think think, or are at least are capable of thinking. If all you know to describe others are racial slurs you will necessarily have bad opinions of them. However we’ve done a good(ish) job of removing the prejudicial language but not so much in removing the prejudicial ideas. They’re just expressed differently.

A sort of folk ideology and praxis has built up around this idea, racist language and motivations are challenged more commonly than they used to be. This is a good thing, minimising abusive language and encouraging politeness is good. However, it doesn’t seem to have much changed people’s minds around immigration.

It’s also made people really, really confused.

So here we are. Instead of being straight-up prejudiced bastards people complain about immigrants claiming benefits, which they do at much lower rates than natives. Or people complain about immigrants taking jobs, which they don’t do, they create jobs. Or immigrants take poor people’s jobs, except immigrants take bad jobs and people move into better jobs. Or we need to “control” immigration, even though over 99% of humanity each year does not come to the United Kingdom.

And because people are expressing economic concerns people (well wonks like me) are addressing these concerns. But these aren’t the root concerns. The economic argument for immigration has been won. And people are still making economic arguments against immigration. And it is so frustrating, because we’ve won and they’ve lost and yet they’re still moaning they can’t talk about immigration.

Immigration is constantly spoken about but people can’t talk about it in terms they want. They transfer to discussion of economics as that is the approved political language of the today. And people, myself included respond in terms of economics. And we win that argument because the economics is on our side. But that’s not what people really care about so they keep complaining about not being able to speak about immigration.