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Demonstrating in Washington state, November 2015. David Ryder/Reuters

Syrian refugees: will American hearts and minds change?

Editor’s note: This article is part of our collaboration with Point Taken, a new program from WGBH that will next air on Tuesday, April 19 on PBS and online at The show features fact-based debate on major issues of the day, without the shouting.

How do we change our minds about a person or group we consider a threat?

As the first Syrian families arrive in the United States from refugee camps in Jordan, it is important to consider public attitudes about this group.

On April 19 PBS’ Point Taken debates whether the U.S. should take in more or fewer Syrian refugees. WGBH, Author provided

Governors of 31 states have declared their unwillingness to accept any Syrian refugees despite having no authority to turn them away. The two leading Republican candidates for president have openly asserted their suspicion of and hostility toward these refugees.

Syrians fleeing the devastating war within their country are not the first group to face such a response.

Many groups have been labeled as “the enemy” in the past – including Native Americans, rebellious slaves, people of Japanese descent, communists and, most recently, Arab-Americans and Muslims.

As a literary scholar, I am interested in how we tell stories about unfamiliar persons and, over time, how we open ourselves to their complexity and humanity. My recent research has looked specifically at the fate of Japanese Americans interned during the Second World War and the lawyers working in defense of detainees at Guantánamo Bay to explore the conditions under which empathy for an unfamiliar “other” emerges.

Let’s examine some of these conditions.

The ‘magnificent enemy’

The first perceived threat – from the perspective of the 17th-century European settlers whose vision shaped the American nation we know today – came from the Native Americans these settlers encountered.

Two 19th-century women writers – Lydia Maria Child and Catharine Maria Sedgwick – in their novels “Hobomok” (1824) and “Hope Leslie” (1827), respectively, both set in 17th-century Massachusetts, countered the prevailing hostile view by portraying two unforgettable Native American characters.

Child’s protagonist Hobomok is impressive for his courage and selflessness, which earn him the love of the daughter of an early Puritan settler.

In Sedgwick’s novel, the Native American woman Magawisca is equally impressive. She speaks about the dignity of her people and defends their attacks against the white settlers. With the force of her personality, she secures the admiration of the white male and female protagonists.

These novels contributed an empathetic perspective to the national conversation about Native Americans. In the end, however, they had little impact on the aggressive policy of Native American removals, and may have even unwittingly advocated it.

By contrast, within abolitionist circles at least, Frederick Douglass’ 1853 novella “The Heroic Slave” had a strong impact.

A white traveler from the North overhears the eloquent monologue of the nobly named runaway slave Madison Washington:

This living under the constant dread and apprehension of being sold and transferred, like a mere brute, is too much for me. I will stand it no longer… These trusty legs, or these sinewy arms shall place me among the free.

Frederick Douglass. George Kendall Warren, National Archives

The traveler is so impressed by Washington’s “triumphant” demeanor that he determines that he will not turn him in as a fugitive, despite the law of the time requiring him to capture and return runaway slaves.

Douglass’ book, coming soon after the publication of the influential anti-slavery novel Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” helped present the slave as a person of strength and complexity and not an abject human being.

These all are examples of how a magnificent enemy, a near-perfect specimen of humanity, jolts us out of our assumptions about the threatening “other.”

Literature provides us a space in which to encounter the “ideal” other and “practice” our ability to shed our fears.

In the real world of laws and social rules, however, the perceived enemy rarely comes in such a noble cast.

The laws and structures that organize our societies are crafted to serve the most ordinary and least remarkable individuals, not just those with celebrated qualities.

What makes a just society?

People who come to the defense of groups and individuals considered to be threats do so not because they are swayed by a particular remarkable individual. What motivates them is commitment to an ideal.

Members of the organization No More Deaths, for instance, aid undocumented border crosses in Arizona by setting up water stations in the severely inhospitable desert through which the migrants travel.

Though the volunteers break no immigration law, they profess loyalty to a higher law, a Christian law that enjoins them to treat their fellow human beings as their neighbor.

Likewise, it is fierce allegiance to the values enshrined in the United States Constitution – such as due process – that has motivated many lawyers to defend the detainees at Guantánamo Bay.

A room used for Guantánamo detainees to meet with their lawyers. Note the ankle shackle. Bob Strong/Reuters

The seven lawyers I interviewed may have come to empathize with their clients over time, but initially it was their faith in the Constitution and their refusal to see it tarnished that took them to Guantánamo Bay.

A just society, philosopher John Rawls argued, is one that formulates its laws and policies through a “veil of ignorance,” that is, with no knowledge of the “original position” in which anyone is placed (i.e., race, sex, socioeconomic class or other attribute affecting life prospects).

Political scientist Joseph Carens takes this veil of ignorance condition and applies it to the global stage.

We likely, he concludes, would organize global society and its institutions so that regardless of where we are born, we would all have the same freedoms, and the least advantaged would be able to improve their conditions.

My question, therefore, is this: What laws do you wished existed if you were in the position of Syrian refugees?

Empathy is hard work

At an April 11, 2016 panel held at UMass Boston on what the U.S. response to the Syrian refugee crisis should be, a Syrian woman, displaced by the war and now living in the Greater Boston area, spoke about the need to make connections to those whom we don’t understand.

How many of you know a Muslim person? How many of you have asked us to tell you the story of what we have been through?

Her reprimand and plea exhort us to make the effort to break free from our own emotional barriers.

Literature is one vehicle through which to make this outward journey. It allows us to prepare for the actual connections we must seek to forge with the perceived enemy.

But this outward journey toward empathy requires labor and commitment.

It was only in 1988, 40 years after the closing of the camps and 10 years after the Japanese American community started its redress effort – that the U.S. government officially apologized for the internment and promised compensation.

At the time, Japanese Americans represented only 0.7 percent of the total population. Their campaign could not have succeeded without the support of the wider national community.

That the country was not at war with Japan certainly helped. But there is no doubt that the admission by several individuals, including one of the architects of the internment policy, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, that the internment had been morally and constitutionally flawed was crucial in changing public sentiment.

By contrast, the U.S. is still actively engaged in the global “war on terror.” And, arguably, media coverage of terrorism and Muslims continues to be sensationalized.

At least two of the Guantánamo lawyers I interviewed explicitly attributed the public’s indifference or hostility to the detainees as a key reason for Congress’ unwillingness to close the prison facility at Guantánamo Bay.

In this political and social context, it requires commitment at the individual and governmental level to hold to constitutional and ethical ideals.

What would happen, for example, if leaders at the neighborhood, state and national levels initiated town hall conversations about the fears that keep us from empathizing with the dire predicament of Syrian refugees?

Would this affect our willingness to create spaces of refuge for them within our towns?

A refugee makes Syrian coffee in Oakland, New Jersey. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

As a human rights scholar, I believe that people have a responsibility to remind their leaders of what we value as a society. For their part, leaders have a responsibility to evoke in the public the best attributes of our collective humanity.

This is not an easy process. Nor is it quick. But we owe it to ourselves not to succumb to exaggerated fears that make enemies of those who, in reality, share our dreams and hopes.

Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer’s powerful short story “Once Upon a Time” is a cautionary tale about the siege mentality of white South Africans during the racist apartheid era.

Focused on one family that surrounds itself with a foolproof security system against the threat of black South Africans, the story shows how the family is itself destroyed by the security apparatus.

We would do well to heed that warning.

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