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The Psychology of Supporting Open Borders

Angela Nagle makes the case that open borders are not consistent with leftist politics. The wonderful thing about the intensity of the culture wars right now is that, with a little bit of courage, you can make quite a splash with ideas that were conventional wisdom for hundreds of years. This isn't a back-handed compliment, so as to belittle Nagle's taste for controversial arguments by calling them conventional. No, this is great — there are so many patently true observations lying around, which have been buried over the past few decades, that a little bit of courage right now goes farther than intelligence by itself. Today, time-honored insights are some of the most interesting and radical around.

Anyway, her article runs into a question that hides underneath most discussions of leftist politics today. Namely, whether radical leftists of the hyper-moralistic variety (sometimes called "social justice warriors") adopt their seemingly illogical positions for consciously strategic personal reasons, or because of non-conscious, automatic psychological mechanisms. (I have defended the term "SJW" in part because it's a lot quicker and easier than "radical leftists of the hyper-moralistic variety"). In the terms of academic psychology, this question can be restated, roughly, as asking about the relative involvement of System 1 (automatic) and System 2 (conscious reflection) in the SJW phenomenon. This is a little misleading because for many people even System 2 is most of the time a kind of repetition compulsion, but we'll set that aside for now.

Much criticism of the left implicitly suggests that the SJW is a conscious, sinister manipulator whose outrageously silly positions reflect ulterior motives. In some sense, I think people often invoke this model (implicitly, usually) just because it makes for better writing. I've done it before, for sure. When confronted with persistently non-sensical behavior, the mind naturally looks for larger motives that might lend more coherence to the befuddling automata under consideration. Here is the section in Nagle's article that got me thinking today.

I’m always amazed at the arrogance and the strangely imperial mentality of British and American pro–open borders progressives who believe that they are performing an act of enlightened charity when they “welcome” PhDs from eastern Europe or Central America driving them around and serving them food. In the wealthiest nations, open borders advocacy seems to function as a fanatical cult among true believers—a product of big business and free market lobbying is carried along by a larger group of the urban creative, tech, media, and knowledge economy class, who are serving their own objective class interests by keeping their transient lifestyles cheap and their careers intact as they parrot the institutional ideology of their industries. The truth is that mass migration is a tragedy, and upper-middle-class moralizing about it is a farce.

She's certainly correct in that last line, the moralizing is a farce. But most likely, the moralizing is simply ad hoc rationalization of essentially pre-conscious mechanisms. In the moment that a radical leftist states their belief in purely open borders, they are primarily expressing an emotion or intuition of Care. This is basically just Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind. They imagine a poor migrant or refugee dying of thirst at the Mexico-U.S. border and they feel a deep, categorical obligation to Care for any such person. Only then System 2 kicks in, and they will make some arguments about why open borders are good. I believe there is almost zero conscious reflection on personal interests, though. Emotion/intuition followed by post-hoc rationalization is what most people do most of the time, so this is no big attack on SJWs. What's unique and new and puzzling about the current situation is: How did the Left, which has always been characterized by these moral foundations (as well as personality Openness), suddenly become dominated in the public sphere by Compassion/Equity rationalization over Openness (once the presumable basis of phenomena such as the historic Berkeley Free Speech movement and my own analyses of the left wing's persistent free speech advantage.

In my book, I am considering the idea that SJWism (and also other shards of the macro Left-Right fragmentation) can be understood as a particular psychological component of the traditional Left (or Right) branching off into its own preferred interpretation of Leftism (or Rightism) and then getting selected by system-level factors as the dominant representative of their tradition. Haidt shows that the moral foundations of Leftism are Care and Fairness (as equity). Economic acceleration and digital media do not shift anyone's intuitions or beliefs, I don't think — they rather cause intensified sorting and specialization, and particular variants emerge as most adapative. SJWism is what happens when a particular variant of leftism— leftists who are lower on Openness and higher on Compassion/Care/Equity—can afford to kick out the other kinds of leftists, and it gets rewarded by institutional structures for doing so (the most visible and egregious examples of this right now are generally coming from academia).

SJWs are generally not fishing for the ideas and positions that promote their personal interests; they are only rationalizing emotions as most people do, but contemporary economic and technological factors have catapulted this type of person into hyper-drive as the face of Leftism. At least that's an informal description of one of my current views, but the book is still just a work in progress... Of course, as it becomes clear that SJWism has certain benefits in certain institutions, there is likely to be some semi-conscious strategy behind the adoption of certain politically correct positions. But this would be a second-order effect and here I have been referring to the initial, primary core of true-believer SJWs.

One comment on “The Psychology of Supporting Open Borders”

  1. On the question of why moralizing approaches to politics seem more popular these days and whether there is some kind of selection effect at work, this paper seems relevant: http://www.pnas.org/content/114/28/7313 "Abstract: Twitter and other social media platforms are believed to have altered the course of numerous historical events, from the Arab Spring to the US presidential election. Online social networks have become a ubiquitous medium for discussing moral and political ideas. Nevertheless, the field of moral psychology has yet to investigate why some moral and political ideas spread more widely than others. Using a large sample of social media communications concerning polarizing issues in public policy debates (gun control, same-sex marriage, climate change), we found that the presence of moral-emotional language in political messages substantially increases their diffusion within (and less so between) ideological group boundaries. These findings offer insights into how moral ideas spread within networks during real political discussion."

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