This Weekend’s Pro-Immigrant Protests Showed That Human Beings Are an Unpredictable Mix of Fear and Altruism

Once the full scope of President Trump’s executive order became clear, thousands gathered at JFK International Airport to protest it. Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

The executive order President Trump signed on Friday, which temporarily banned residents of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S., quickly unleashed chaos. As a result of unclear wording and rushed implementation, the order not only excluded refugees — its main target — but also so-called lawful permanent residents, who by dint of their green cards are supposed to be allowed to come and go from the country as they please. On Friday and in the days that followed, a bunch of people got on airplanes to the U.S. under the very justified assumption they would be allowed into the country — after all, they’d played by the rules by filling out a bunch of paperwork at some point or another — only to be detained and in some cases sent back upon their arrival here. They had been effectively “illegalized” in transit.

It’s not an exaggeration to say this was an act borne out of fear and scaremongering, not a careful analysis of terrorism risks. Even commentators who don’t have a problem with the government taking aggressive national-security actions were outraged by Trump’s order, and in an interview with Jeanine Pirro, sometimes-Trump-adviser Rudy Giuliani straightforwardly described the EO as having originated with Trump’s desire, stated during the campaign, to institute an all-out ban on Muslims entering the U.S.

Therefore, it’s a useful worst-case example of what can happen when fear of scary, mysterious “others” gets out of control. And right on time, yesterday Vox published a piece by Brian Resnick running down “7 lessons from psychology that explain the irrational fear of outsiders.” It’s a really useful guide for anyone unfamiliar with this type of research, and perhaps the most important point it makes is that opinions and feelings about “out-group” members are more likely to be freighted with strong, visceral emotions that have the effect of shutting down rational thought. Statistics about how unlikely Muslim refugees are to commit terrorist attacks simply don’t pack the same emotional punch as stories about attacks that have occurred.

But what’s been so interesting about the last few days has been the fact that, while millions of Americans surely support the ban, there’s also been a massive outpouring of spontaneous altruism in support of the refugees and green-card holders who have been affected, or who could be affected. All weekend, protesters filled both airports and the streets to register their disgust at the new policy — there were endless videos of them cheering people who got released from detention, and celebrating the ACLU court challenge that led to a temporary stay on part of the EO.

This, too, is a well-established aspect of human nature. Whatever our flaws and tendency toward fear of outsiders, humans also have a sometimes astounding capacity for compassion and altruism. Many of us really do rush toward disasters hoping to help victims, and in those moments we don’t care a whit about what those victims look like or where they came from, nor do we have any expectation the victims will be able to “return the favor.” It’s a fascinating part of what Homo sapiens is as a species; there’s a reason searching for “altruism” on Google Scholar returns so many results.

There’s no easy way to square these two sides of humanity — the side that would applaud the EO and the side that would fill the streets with people demanding its rescission. But a few paragraphs from Resnick’s piece do stand out:

Our brains are built to be vigilant. We’re constantly on the lookout for threats. That’s why stories about immigrants committing crimes, stories about neighbors losing jobs to immigrants, and assertions that immigrants aren’t loyal to their adopted countries, are all extremely powerful (regardless if they are true).

“Once you can get that one story out there, it’s enough to start the cycle of people thinking this way and changing how people think about these out-groups,” Cikara says. “People are very sensitive to anecdotes, more than they are to abstract representations of data.”

Our minds have evolved to think in mental shortcuts — heuristics — but in the modern age they can lead us astray.

This weekend, as a result of the massive outcry that shook the country, news outlets produced an endless series of stories of people who had been cut off from, or treated like an enemy by, a country they’d made their homes — Ph.D. students and taxi drivers and dads and moms and refugees. Some of the accompanying videos are inspiring: It’s hard not to watch this one of crowds cheering reunited families at Dulles International Airport, for example, without feeling, at least for a moment, proud to be a human being.

Resnick’s right — stories matter more than numbers. And positive stories matter, too. As does the fact that so many people spontaneously decided to head to airports to protest the treatment of people they had never met and probably never would meet. People are complicated, and it isn’t all bad news.

The Airport Protests Showed a Hopeful Side of Human Nature