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Saturday, August 4, 2018

August 4-5, 2018: Kathleen Morrissey’s Guest Post: The Bubbles and Borders that Limit Our Immigration Debates


[Formerly one of the shining stars of the Fitchburg State English Studies program, Kathleen Morrissey has moved into the next stages of her career very impressively: professing at multiple universities in Massachusetts, publishing on 18th century travel writing and fiction, and, as evidenced by this great Guest Post, entering into our public conversations about politics and social justice, veganism and animal rights, health and fitness, music and pop culture, and much more. I’m very excited to share the thoughts of this rapidly rising star in my latest Guest Post!]

The Bubbles and Borders that Limit Our Immigration Debates

I had a polite conversation in the kitchen at a child’s birthday party. The people in the room were trying to avoid the screaming match in the living room between some of the parents. The topic of discussion was the polemical question: what do we think about immigration?

I covered up the noise with small talk and chips. However, as a professor of composition and rhetoric, I detected a trend in their arguments anyway: they screamed about closing the borders, pointed to specific cases of MS-13 crime, and demanded sources other than “Fake News” CNN. The phrase, “Where are your sources?”, echoed throughout the house.   

The heated debate just called attention to an impossible border between the sides. The unsolicited argument was only effective at making the other party guests feel voiceless. Their respective media bubbles filtered out opposing views and fed narratives rather than facts, making discussion futile. It was as if the party was a microcosm of the country. Before we can even talk about the literal border that delineates the country, we need to address the rhetorical borders we uphold in our perspectives that prevent any meaningful communication. 

The evidentiary threshold for facts that challenge a person’s narrative is set impossibly high. 
People will only lower the bar for news that suits them. Fact checking is useless because “Fake News” is now an acceptable charge. Therefore, it is important to not debate about the facts; it is about what facts matter. You have to discern the rhetorical dishonesties instead.
For example, TIME magazine’s famous cover, “Welcome to America,” became a potent symbol for the ongoing immigration issue of family separation at the border. TIME recently clarified that the young girl on the cover was in fact not carried away from her mother by U.S. Border patrol agents, but stood by the message conveyed in the iconic image. On the other hand, conservative sites ran with this image as “Fake News.”

For TIME and those who agree, the particulars of the image are not as important as the larger idea it symbolizes. The photograph serves as a stand-in that succinctly captures the despair that many families have and will experience over something as nominal as documentation status. For conservatives, the fact that matters is that the photo is staged and therefore not literally true; the girl is a prop to convey something that she is not a part of. 

In a world of “Fake News,” the conversation cannot be a flurry of facts from each side. It needs to focus on the unspoken assumptions behind the use of the facts. While what conservative sites say may be factual, it is a disturbing method of diverting attention away from the message of the cover. The cover is only a topic of discussion because the particulars of family can be used to dismiss the entire issue. It isn’t enough that the photo was staged. Sites highlight that the mother left her other children, broke the law, and wasn’t fleeing crisis. She not only is a bad example of separation; she is emblematic of everything the right fears about immigrants. In this view, she is a criminal seeking a backdoor into a better lifestyle, willing to sacrifice her family. No individual will ever fit a perfect model of immigration, so the focus will always be on a person’s shortcomings to preserve the status quo. 

Returning to the debate, I listened to people zoom in on crimes of MS-13 to bloom out to opinions about thousands of immigrants. This is a typical composition/division fallacy; make a true claim about one part and characterize the whole. Right wing pundits say “undocumented immigrant” and “violent gang member” in the same breath, dangerously eliding the two. It is a limitation of empathy to extend focus on the victims of MS-13 and to strictly imagine all of the immigrants as criminals. 

Beneath the gestures to gang violence in defense of border control lies a cold calculation: the lives affected by MS-13 simply matter more than the countless lives affected by the stringent immigration policies. The obsession around the transgressions at an imaginary border is actually an egregious transgression in itself. Their selection of certain facts occludes the larger humanitarian crisis inflamed by the immigration policy. Thus, the way we approach arguments with people entrenched in different media bubbles should be focused on the rhetorical borders we construct. That way, we can productively talk about the assumptions that guide the narratives against the basic rights and humanity of undocumented immigrants. 

[Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. What do you think?]

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