I apologise for the language, it is not my own and I have never used the term. However, President Trump has introduced it in the context of immigration. I offer here some thoughts.
Is “Shithole Countries” foul language?
Is it racist to call countries “shitholes”?
Not in and of itself. If we take racism as the belief in the superiority of one race over another then the use of these words does not prove racism. We might argue that it betrays some sense of cultural superiority. We might see a belief in cultural superiority as immoral, but it is not the same as racism. If we take racism as discrimination and prejudice towards people based on their race or ethnicity then we would need to prove that the discrimination was on the grounds of race and ethnicity.
Is Trump a racist?
Some say yes, some say no. He might be, but that is not proven by his “shithole” comment. Unfortunately the term racism has become debased and is used as a catch all ad-hominem attack. If racism is redefined as a belief in limits to immigration and a sensitivity to the rights of existing populations and their cultures then every time Trump is accused of racism will strengthen his support amongst the white working class.
Are any countries really “shitholes”?
It depends what we mean by “shithole”, but there are certainly countries that suffer from rampant corruption, poor governance, impoverished economy, inadequate infrastructure, human rights abuses, censorship, nepotism, failing law and order and lack of opportunity. I wonder if you have lived in such a country? I did for four years as an educator. They are not countries that the typical tourist wants to spend their holiday. They are not countries that nationals are queuing up to return to if they have managed to emigrate. And they are countries where many nationals will be far more scathing than Trump, and the target of their disaffection is mostly with their government. The more thoughtful and honest amongst them will also be scathing of their own culture and will recognise that they need to change.
Are some cultures better than others?
You might say no, and that even to suggest such a thing is to be morally debased. My question then is “where would you choose to live given a completely free choice?”. The message of the millions of recent migrants is that they would choose the West. Does that mean that Western culture is better than theirs in some important respects? Even though we might not want to admit it, this is in truth The implication. Of course not every aspect of Western culture is superior, to suggest such would be arrogant nonsense. However, there is a way of life we have inherited that is deeply attractive to people from other cultures. In every culture there are characteristics that are objectionable, and there are characteristics that are admirable. However, it is clear that there are some cultures that have not managed to produce societies that reflect values such as freedom and human dignity irrespective of class, colour, gender, or sexual orientation. In this sense and in these respects they could be described as inferior.
The unwillingness to criticise other cultures may seem generous but it could also be seen as a pernicious form of racism. This is the racism of low expectations. It is a racism that refuses to stand for the rights of, for example, women in non-Western cultures on the basis that this is their culture. This lies behind the astounding disinterest of most feminists with womens rights in Islamic cultures and the hostility towards any women that do speak out. Evidence the treatment of Maryam Namazie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, both from Muslim cultures, both having suffered male abuse, but with very different political views.
Are Trump supporters and Brexit supporters opposed to all immigration?
A minority undoubtedly are. These are however at the extreme fringe.
Is it racist to believe in limits to immigration?
No. I do not believe even the proponents of completely open borders and the end of nation states would support a level of immigration that would lead to the replacement of existing populations. There is therefore an implicit acceptance that there is an appropriate limit to the level of immigration. The issue is over where we set that limit, and over the kind of immigration we accept. A certain level of immigration is healthy for a society in that it introduces fresh blood (meant literally), new ideas and a challenge to existing ways. There are economic benefits in bringing trade and new workers. However, it is not hard to argue that massive immigration has profoundly negative economic and social effects.
There is also the question of the rights of an existing population. This is both difficult and interesting. All of us live where we do because our ancestors migrated and oftentimes conquered, pillaged and destroyed. There is no nation on earth of which this is not the case. The best that can be offered is that the migration and probable genocide are lost in the mists of time. However, that is no justification and the moral consensus of the modern world is that no population should be forcibly removed, suffer genocide, or be subject to invasion. No one would argue that Uganda should accept the immigration of millions of Chinese on the basis that they have plenty of land. Nor would anyone suggest that Pakistan is too brown and needs the influx of millions of white Europeans. A few Chinese in Uganda, and a few Europeans in Pakistan are undoubtedly seen as beneficial but mass immigration would be unacceptable.
However, the same moral stance is not sustained when it comes to immigration into the West. It is worth considering why this should be. One possible reason is our colonial guilt. I’ll return to this later.
Is it racist to choose the kind of immigrants we allow?
The instant response to this is that it is certainly racist to profile immigrants on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity. This is entirely correct if we are talking about small numbers of asylum seekers who face persecution or death in their country of origin. To do otherwise would be a clear moral failure and a denial of who we are.
When we consider significant levels of immigration into a host culture we face a different set of questions. Large groups will inevitably bring their culture and norms of behaviour. They will inevitably form into ghettoes because of the entirely human preference for being with people like you. There is a much lower likelihood of integration. This brings challenges to both host culture and immigrant culture. The large Muslim communities in Britain bring a very different set of beliefs and practices and in particular around the status of women. Is it right that British women have the status of possessions of their husband? That their testimony is considered less than that of man? That they should accept their husbands having other wives? We may or may not wish to comment or criticise this kind of culture as it is found in the context of Bangladesh itself, but the issue is a very different one when we are thinking about Bangladeshi culture in the context of Britain. It is not whether one culture is better than another. It is how two cultures that are so different can co-exist in a single legal and political structure. This is not a question of whether Muslims per se can integrate into Western society, many clearly have done so. It is a question of the viability of two radically different cultures existing within a single political entity.
Whether we agree with them or not, this is precisely the reason that Eastern European countries such as Poland and Hungary are resisting immigration from Muslim cultures. Before condemning these countries and others in Eastern Europe as racist or immoral we would do well to hear the way they understand their own history and culture, and in particular their experience of the cultural invasion of Communism, and even further back than that the Islamic advances under the Ottomans that is certainly a factor in Hungarian sensibilities.
Should we accept mass immigration as penance for colonialism?
This is to address the issue of white guilt. There were without doubt some very bad and arguable evil things done by Western nations in the colonial era. That is not to be disputed. It is however naive and historically inaccurate to see it as one sided. It is also to put ideology before truth. There were some also some seriously good benefits to colonialism. A reading of history from different viewpoints will bring some balance to this question.
An assertion often made is that the West built its wealth on the fruits of colonialism. This is a fallacy. Some colonialists profited massively, these were the colonial entrepreneurs. Economic data demonstrates quite clearly however that the working populations and the economies of colonial powers were impoverished by colonialism. Whenever colonies we were added the nation became poorer. When colonies were divested we became wealthier. This is not the accepted narrative but it is based on economic facts that can be verified. The narrative however comes in useful to support the ideology of Western guilt. Should we let truth get in the way?
Should we regard “Shithole Countries” as acceptable political terminology?
No, but it’s not the most offensive thing that has been said or done in the Oval Office. Of those things of which we are aware I would rate Clinton’s exploitation of Monica Lewinsky as more offensive, both to the office of president and to the role of women in general.
Do we need more debate on the issues raised?
Absolutely. We have a polarisation of political and moral opinion that whilst not entirely created by social media is undoubtedly worsened by the ease of hideous comment and the existence of echo chambers in which people bolster their existing prejudices. There is a massive ignorance of what other people think. From Clinton’s “deplorables” to “bigoted Brexiteers” and “traitorious Remoaners” we have an almost total breakdown of common human understanding. Many that voted Remain commented that they did not know a single person that voted Leave. And vice versa.
The premiss I want to make is that whatever someone thinks or believes, they must have some very good reasons that make sense to them. As Atticus Finch said in To Kill A Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” It’s not an easy thing to do and we may find our views challenged but is also the most courageous affirmation of our common humanity.