Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Why we hate migrants

They remind many of us of the sissies that we have become.

My parents were migrants. They fled the great depression in Europe before World War II in pursuit of greener pastures in far-way lands. They were, of course, far better off than today’s migrants because many were not only encouraged but welcomed at destinations seeking skills and a certain ethnicity. But still, it was a tough decision and a tough life with not much milk and honey in their new habitats.

It is difficult to document the full story of the modern refugee – to capture the true anguish; the hopelessness; the fear, and the despair that drove them from their homes and the huge leap of faith and raw courage that it takes to crawl through razor wire, board rickety boats to brave angry seas and run a gauntlet of horrendous perils in a strange new world -- sometimes to be consigned to camps of human decay, other times to survive on guts and wits; abandoned and alone.

It’s a strange world that can revere the status of a banking plutocrat but be repulsed by the unsung valour of a refugee in rags. Yet in their misery lies their greatest strength. And, with some licence in the use of the word “we”, it is the reason why we hate them so. They have been purged of our biggest weakness – the virus of expectations. Those who are not caged by fences or regulations will fall back on something we have mostly forgotten – a deep reliance on self-help and self-accountability. Those who do not commit crimes mostly stand tall among us; and like monuments, we blame them and want to tear them down in a vain attempt to remove our own shortcomings. At the same time it triggers in us a combination of toxic emotions – anger, envy, resentment, and a spark of “skaam-kwaad” that gives way to irrational and unfettered malice.

The steady stream of media comment has mostly fallen back on commonplace albeit valid postulates. Except one: veteran politician Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who at his King’s Imbizo lambasted the country for embracing entitlement. Entitlement is simply another word for deeply held expectations – that creed upon which rights are built or the misguided hypothesis that we can be guaranteed something simply by being born.

At the same time, Buthulezi hit firmly on the real fault line of our country – the gap between expectations and reality. Worse still: the rampant growth of expectations and the declining level of aspirations – that resolve that inspires one to effort and self-help. It’s a subject I covered many years ago in one of my first Moneyweb articles (see here) in which I described expectations as a deadly economic virus.

Social scientists know well the critical and potentially explosive interplay between expectations, aspirations and reality. A gap between what people expect to be done for them and what reality is or can provide, ferments revolution. When expectations are high and aspirations are low you have very little chance of reversing or even slowing down a slide into Yemen, a failed society with widespread misery.

Reverse that to a state where aspirations are high and expectations are low, and you will consistently uplift reality and fuel innovation, entrepreneurship, progress and prosperity. This has been shown repeatedly in history with dramatic examples of post-war Germany and Japan. Imagine what those countries would have become, and how unlikely their subsequent strength would have been, had they adopted a national attitude that the rest of the world owed them a living, and they could expect to be nurtured back to economic health beyond the kick-start of a Marshall plan.

It boils down to a simple equation: when people by and large are giving more than they are taking you create surpluses and prosperity; when people by and large are taking more than they are giving you create deficits and poverty. Aspirations fuel contribution and giving; expectations fuel taking and demands.

Wherever you look in this country, you see the symptoms of rampant expectations – protests, strikes, crime and violence. Perhaps President Zuma (see report here) should heed the message of his wiser elder: we may have inherited a culture of violence but it is inflamed and maintained by a culture of entitlement, something which politicians themselves have largely created. We are witnessing the devastating effects of a worsening reality and waning aspirations.

For example, we all accept the absolute need for social security, but it is for the most part seen in isolation with little regard for unintended consequences, such as its impact on raising expectations, and weakening aspirations. Another example is the holy cow of affirmative action and BEE. Irrespective of their laudable intentions, they increase the expectations of one group, diminish the aspirations of another; which is then expected to mentor and empower the first group. For a large part the second group sabotages that effort out of pique and insecurity and one is left on balance with the toxic mix of higher expectations, lower aspirations and a worsened reality from incompetent deliveries.

One simply cannot isolate an issue or problem from the triangular prism of expectations, aspirations and reality. They are either a cause or an effect within that vital prism, each reflecting on and influencing the other. Many of these are blatantly self-evident, yet we continue to ignore them and focus on fragmented parts in a dismally misguided belief that solving one issue will have no price to pay elsewhere – a cost that is seldom calculable or understood.

Why do we do this? And how can we avoid it? This will be the subject of a future article but one immediate answer that springs to mind is the indomitable power of vested interests seeking popularity and self-gain in every response.

Continuing with this approach is clearly a road to ruin.

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