Threats Make Society Less Liberal, Tolerant, So Should We Have Mass Immigration?


Doesn’t this just test progressive mores? We’ve a finding – published in The Guardian no less as well as Science – that perceived threats to a society or culture make it more authoritarian. There’s even the comment that the strict societal desires of such as the Front National are driven by some – misplaced no doubt – fear of mass immigration and the threat that poses to societal arrangements.

As so often around here this isn’t to say that any part of this argument is correct, nor that it is overall. Rather, let’s assume that it is and see where the logic takes us. Which is, well, if we want a liberal and tolerant society then why would we also have mass immigration?

Here’s the science behind the Brexit vote and Trump’s rise
Michele Gelfand

Well, that’s good, we’d like an explanation for both of those.

My research shows that when people feel threatened they want ‘tighter’ social norms, with profound consequences for politics

OK, sounds reasonable enough. Huddle together like with like when feeling threatened.

My research across hundreds of communities suggests that the fundamental driver of difference is not ideological, financial or geographical – it’s cultural. Behaviour, it turns out, depends a lot on whether the culture in which we live is a “tight” or “loose” one.

Tight cultures have strong norms and little tolerance for deviance, while loose cultures are the opposite.

There’s nothing which seems obviously wrong with this so far at least.

A discovery I and my team published in Science is that the strength of a culture’s norms isn’t random. Though they were separated by miles and, and in some cases centuries, tight cultures as diverse as Sparta and Singapore have something in common: each faced (or faces) a high degree of threat, whether from Mother Nature – disasters, diseases, and food scarcity – or human nature – the chaos caused by invasions and internal conflicts. Strong norms are needed in these contexts to help groups survive. And when we look at loose cultures, from classical Athens to modern New Zealand, we see the opposite pattern: they enjoy the luxury of facing far fewer threats. This safety is used to explore new ideas, accept newcomers, and tolerate a wide range of behaviour. In contexts where there are fewer threats and thus less of a need for coordination, strong norms don’t materialise.

Well, we’re not trying to examine the truth of this, merely the implication if it is true.

Tight-loose differences can explain global patterns of conflict, revolution, terrorism and populism. They operate as a universal faultline, causing cultural cohesion to buckle and rifts to open up. As threats arrive, groups tighten. As they subside, groups loosen. Threats don’t even need to be real. Our experiments show that, as long as people perceive a threat, the perception can be as powerful as objective reality.

Fine, fine. And note that the threat doesn’t have to be real, it just has to be perceived.

Our research confirms that the strongest Trump supporters, as well as the supporters of Marine Le Pen in France, believe their country is threatened, whether by terrorism, illegal immigration, natural disasters or disease. They felt their countries were too loose, and they wanted tighter rules and stricter leaders. Fearful voters also drove the UK’s Brexit decision and the candidacies of far-right or autocratic politicians in Poland, Russia, the Philippines, Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands and Italy.

OK, great. And it’s really not a stretch at all to say that mass immigration is going to be perceived as a threat by some significant portion of the population. Again, note, it doesn’t need to be such a threat – Rotherham hasn’t happened everywhere after all. Perception is what matters here.

Which does leave us with a question really. So, it’s a general presumption of liberals that we’d prefer a liberal and tolerant society, a loose one in this terminology. Which seems to be inconsistent with having the levels of immigration which a significant portion of the population view as a potential threat – again, rightly or wrongly.

So, why is it that the liberals in favour of the loose society also seem to be those so in favour of the immigration which militates against that tolerant and liberal society?