As you know from previous blog posts, I'm in the early research phase for a grant project exploring the psychological foundations and conceptual metaphors underlying the ways in which evangelicals understand and relate to those in other religions. Now that I am more aware of these things and how they work in our minds, I can see the ways in which we filter our world through them, often without even being consciously aware of it.
An example of this came through an email exchange I had with someone who is a part of our grant advisory group. We were discussing conceptual metaphors, and he mentioned the Trump Skittles incident. Remember that one? In 2016 Donald Trump, Jr. created controversy with a Tweet and image that compared Syrian refugees to a bowl of Skittles candy with the possibility that a few of the pieces were poisonous. You can see the Tweeted image and text above.
This Tweet brings certain moral foundations and conceptual metaphors together. On the one hand is the moral foundation of purity. Notice that the possibility is raised that perhaps a few of the candies in the bowl might be harmful. Here the concern is a deadly contaminant that threatens the purity and health of individuals and the country. This moral foundation then works in tandem with a conceptual metaphor, that of A SOCIAL GROUP IS A CONTAINER. In this metaphor the understanding is that the container serves to keep things fresh and healthy, and to separate that which is good for you from that which is bad and unhealthy. The container metaphor is violated and purity is threatened because the candies are all mixed together, the majority of the good ones with the few pretenders that might kill us if we don't keep them out of our container.
The result is that the purity moral foundation and the container metaphor come together in application to Syrian refugees. This has a strong emotional impact because people have had experiences with tainted food, and may recall the hysteria associated with claims of Halloween candies in the 1970s, or poisoned Tylenol capsules in the Chicago area in the early 1980s. This then raises fears about the potential harm that a few Syrian refugees might pose to the safety of the nation. The emotional impact of psychology and metaphor coming together in this way are significant, and they have tremendous repercussions.
This isn't the only metaphor at play. I recently came across an article online that noted the prevalence of the inundation metaphor when speaking of refugees and immigrants. This is the case in the past history of America, and also in the present, and this metaphor has been used by conservatives and liberals alike. Refugees are called "waves," "floods," and "tsunamis," who threaten to overwhelm a given nation. The article points out that this inundation metaphor has a historic connection to xenophobia. Perhaps the reality is something different: refugees from Syria and elsewhere aren't waves of destruction, but their very lives are threatened and often taken in the waves as they try to flee for a better life, much like Alan Kurdi's body in the image above.
Thinking of Syrian refugees as poison hiding in our midst, or a destructive tsunami, creates fear and panic. Out of a desire for self-preservation and the safety of our loved ones, it also contributes to support for anti-immigrant policies, particularly in relation to those coming from certain places in the Middle East. It is deeply saddening that our moral foundations and conceptual metaphors reinforce our worst fears, particularly since Syrian refugees were subjected to a rigorous vetting process even before the Trump ban went into effect. At a time when we are facing a humanitarian crisis that is the greatest since the end of World War II, and in which America has played a significant part through military action, we need to come to grips with the mental filters we have in place and how they shape our view of others at home and abroad.