“Freedom, ‘I’dom, ‘Me’dom, where’s your ‘We’dom?” It’s an unequivocal call for compassion, sympathy and solidarity. Pop artist M.I.A.’s seemingly stoic but nonetheless fierce mien prefaces a stark shot of hundreds of people running in two straight lines behind her in her newest song, “Borders.” The scene of the self-directed music video is meant to emulate the reality of the refugee crisis today, hordes of people escaping their homes, climbing fences, packing into boats.
She poses the question, “What’s up with that?” to borders, politics and identities. However, her lyrics aren’t only politically charged, but also arguably emotionally charged, given her own experiences as a refugee. She and her family lived through civil war in Sri Lranka, in hiding due to their Tamil ethnicity, and eventually attained refugee status in London. However, there they had to adjust to a foreign society that was not amicable to refugees. She questions how society selectively and arbitrarily assigns values to lives — which lives do we save, which lives do we bar from entry, which lives do we deprive of equal basic liberties and rights?
M.I.A. highlights one important facet at the crux of this issue — Westerners’ temporal distance from conflict settings that impel people to flee. And even when refugees arrive at our own shores, this distance contributes to detachment from the plight of refugees, precluding any sort of empathy, let alone sympathy.
But it’s not solely a problem of distance. Much of today’s political rhetoric stigmatizes emotion in discourse around the refugee crisis. Right-wing media such as Fox News inextricably links emotion with bias, urging people not to get “carried away” with emotional arguments in the debate. This is understandable — reason is credible; emotions are not. The latter can overpower the former, but we have a harder time talking about the latter than the former.
It appears as though appeals to the equal dignity of all humans and criticism of people conflating immigrants with terrorists in light of recent events, based on race and religion, are indefensible. However, these are not simply tenuous arguments arising from mercurial emotions. Anyone who has been discriminated against or marginalized based on race, ethnicity or religion will inevitably feel empathy and frustration. Any immigrant will feel their pain. Anyone with a fundamental respect for human life will feel anger toward the refugee situation, toward their being shut out from numerous states within the United States and from other countries out of security concerns when they fled their own homes for the same reason.
Still, these emotions do not contribute blinding biases to the debate; they provide personal narratives and perspectives that point to the complementary nature of emotion and reason. As David Brooks argued in a column in The New York Times, “…emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason.” It turns out that our emotions assign value to human life, dignity, justice and egalitarianism.
In talking with one of my professors at a discussion on recent events, I reflected on how emotionally charged the student body — the entire community — has been and continues to be as a result of all the controversy and debate on campus and abroad. At the time, I argued that this emotion made rational discussion on these issues impractical and even impossible. My professor pointed to a speech by Eve Sedgwick, a renowned feminist, in the mid-1980s:
“You can cry and talk at the same time. And once you aren’t busy trying to make yourself stop crying, then your voice will be able to come out. You can finish the sentence… It’ll get said. The women around you and the men around you will learn to listen to somebody talking who’s crying at the same time.”
As far removed as many of us may be or feel from the refugee crisis, we need to talk more about this issue on campus, but let us not forget our basic humanity and in doing so, we cannot separate emotion from reason.
Sarah Sakha is a sophomore from Scottsdale, Ariz. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.