Mapping political arguments about the refugee crisis

I have spent time this summer helping refugees in Budapest and also got engaged in discussions with people about “what to do about the refugee problem”. In the press and on Facebook I came across many claims intended to support one view or another. I noticed that often the quality of argument is very poor.  People often expressed views which were shot from the hip but then they could not support them with knowledge or evidence.  Sometimes anecdote clashed with principle; sometimes reason battled with emotion. Sometimes quite intelligent and well-educated people said things a primary school kid could take to pieces. Other times people completely switched off their thinking brain and let the instinct brain babble away.  Little progress was made.

I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with stuff on both sides – although again I didn’t have much to go on to agree with or disagree with, because I also didn’t have many facts at my finger tips.  Like: do refugees really boost the economy?  It sounds nice, but where was that, when did it happen?  Or do refugees burden the economy?  Which ones?

And then, do I care what the economic impact of accepting refugees is – does that really matter when we are dealing with people who are fleeing from really shit places.  No-one is going to starve as a result of our GDP taking a hit because of the cost of being kind and letting in a million people.  So get real.  But that, too, is an unformed argument.  Perhaps someone might starve.  I don’t have any model or facts to support or counter that claim.

Do immigrants enrich our culture or undermine it?  And then what do I mean by “our culture”?  Is that the fact we play our football matches at 3pm on Saturday and have nice old churches?  Is that all so important compared to questions of life and death?  And what is this sudden interest in Christian culture?  The churches still seem pretty empty to me, so I think this Christian culture might not be so Christian really, after all.  And aren’t Christians supposed to love their neighbours and be good Samaritans (Luke 10: 25-37)?  So how does that work?  Is there like some limit to how Christian a good Christian should be in order to be a good Christian but not too good a Christian for his own good?

So I felt that the whole refugee question, being quite serious, deserves much, much more rigour.  Look at all the science which goes into climate change – the immense cumulative effort of the IPCC, the work of thousands of scientists.  Is as much rigour applied to making decisions about refugee policy?

I needed to start somewhere so I got a pencil and a piece of paper and started to list the claims made by each side.  I wanted to build a catalogue of the arguments and see how they interlink, support or rebut each other.  I wanted to see how each claim is supported by evidence and what is the source of that evidence.  Or if a claim is supported by an assumption, how reasonable is that assumption and what is it based on.

Then, if one claim leads to another claim, what is the logical connection between the two, and how reasonable or robust is that connection.

But then the scope got a bit more ambitious.  I also wanted to investigate the values which underpinned claims – when someone is worried about the impact on the Christian heritage of Europe, how Christian is that, and how does that work?  Or if someone is dogmatic about letting everyone – yes everyone – into our country, what are the values underlying that and are they being applied consistently?  And, what other claims do those values support?  Do the same values support any claims on the other side?

I wanted to chase arguments to ground, to see where they lead to, rather than seeing them peter out as the thread changed tack.

I wanted to strip out the emotional and rhetorical content from each claim and shine a bright light on it so see its factual and logical content.

I wanted sift through this logical construct of claim, values, implications and supporting evidence, in order to search for common ground.  If I could find claims on opposing sides which happen to have common ground, then there might be ways of developing policy proposals which can command broader support – providing they are communicated in the right way.

Well, all this became very ambitious, so I began to think about who might be interested in doing this, rather than thinking about how I can do it.  I realised I don’t have a “model of political argument” or associated technology needed to do a proper mapping of the claims and related arguments.  And I certainly don’t have the time to work on this.

So I conceived of a project which might be suitable for students of political science.

The project would list claims made on all sides of the debate (e.g. “Large influx of people will undermine our precious culture”) and map out all their features: assign to them the underlying value set they come from (e.g. settler, or Conservative); reference the supporting assumptions or evidence (e.g. such and such an academic study); cite the evidence which backs the assumptions; plot out the implications of the claim, i.e. generate new claims which are implied by each claim, and then subject the implied claims to the same analysis; link them to counter-claims – see how they match up; classify rhetorical attributes; evaluate any emotional but not reasonable attributes … thus create a complete map of the arguments.

The mapping would serve various uses:

(i) Analysing and evaluating political argument – how sound are the arguments; do they really stack up once you have stripped out the rhetoric; how right or consistent are they? Do they have any implications which don’t stack up?

(ii) Communicating clearly to the general public and interested users the validity of the argument and the conditions under which it is valid: it would be very useful to shine a bright and rigorous light onto the bullshit and scaremongering as well as onto the unquestioning hopefulness one can see in the debate.

(iii) Searching out potential for common ground: once you have stripped out the rhetoric and analysed rigorously each claim, you can see better the distance between claims on each side and possibly find common ground (simple example: one side says “they should go back to Syria”; another says “they should stay”: potential common ground is to say “they can stay until there have been two years of peace then they have to go back”)

(iv) Searching out for inconsistencies in positions

(iv) etc etc

Finally, I figured that if this kind of rigour could be applied to political argument generally, and communicated in a way that the general public can understand, we could bring about an improvement in political argument. We could also even move to properly working bullshit-meters or argument-o-meters which could be incorporated into FB pages, newspapers etc. Eventually woolly-thinking, bullshit and emotionally charged argument would be eliminated.

If you work in political science and think there is mileage in this, and it hasn’t been done, please run with it.

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One Response to Mapping political arguments about the refugee crisis

  1. James,

    I like your piece. It shows you think and that you have a conscience but that you’re no more directly empowered by information, influence, technology or anything else to either enact or even suggest a viable solution to the “migrant issue” than any other ordinary citizen. Your concept of reaching out to others for help in addressing makes more sense that rifling off half-baked ideas as many others feel free to do. I won’t try to follow the parameters you lay out in your piece, but I do have some thoughts to add. First, this *migrant issue* is hugely telling about Europe and the non-European world that surrounds it, and their relations to and with each other. Second, establishing a system to effectively address this issue in such manner that maximizes benefit for all parties concerned represents a stepping stone for the European Union both in terms of self-sustenance and in its role as a regional and global leader. Third, the need for this system represents a golden opportunity for those people and organizations that specialize in global civic improvement, both as a means to advance their own level of achievement, income, reputation and capability, but also to contribute to making the world a better place.

    Prior to formulating this system, the scope of the issue must be grasped. The flow of migrants into Europe has recently been increased in consequence to the civil war in Syria. But this flow precedes this war and has been on the rise for some time, which opens the story on item one in the paragraph above: Europe is perceived to be a better place to live by many who live in the non-European places that surround it. “If Europe does not come to Africa, then Africa will come to Europe.” Said the director of UNIDO at an Africa Day event I attended some years ago. While Europe has positively developed its post-war economies, its infrastructures, its *civil societies,* and general quality of life – recently absorbing much of formerly Communist Eastern Europe into its realm – it has done so at pace surpassing the countries of surrounding regions. Its failure to help these countries advance more effectively, runs the argument, precipitated the current migration influx.

    The way things are going, the gap in quality of life between Europe and surrounding non-Europe (SNE) isn’t closing any time soon. So the number of SNEers wanting to move to Europe won’t diminish, either. The better Europe is able to address this, the better off it will be. If Europe can sort out ways to welcome the best suited migrants to its soil from the larger number that say they want in, and simultaneously help find or establish adequate homes for those not let in, then progress will have been made. If Europe can go even further and help resolve those problems in SNE that drive the migrants toward Europe in the first place, then some Nobel peace prizes will truly have been earned.

    The golden opportunity the need for this solution presents is both challenging and rare. Several things need to be done, each in orders of urgency. The migrants already in Europe need to be vetted and settled, and this alone is a big one. A coordinated effort of forced migration experts, intelligence and security personnel from inside Europe and borrowed from SNE, social workers, government, industry and labor needs to be made. A task force must be assembled that is both competent and nimble and represents these factions and acknowledges the scope and peculiarities of the whole undertaking. Those migrants hoping to reach Europe who have not yet come must be addressed. Some of them could be selected over time to come settle, in accord with the needs of Europe and the capacities the migrants offer. But those kept out must be tended to in ways that give them at least a path to lives worth living. This could mean establishing new cities, not just camps, in the more hospitable parts of SNE where they could settle, work, educate themselves and their children and even prepare to meet the qualifications to migrate further, to Europe, Australasia or the Americas or elsewhere. Such places are currently being planned and even built. But much more needs to be done. Then, of course, the first step in the most important part of all this is for Europe to take the lead in assembling the great powers to sort out peace in Syria and wherever else violent conflict is forcing people to leave their homes. And this means a diplomatic solution enabled by identifying and communicating with all the relevant parties in each conflict – whether they be warring or just suffering – and negotiate a settlement, backed up by the prospect of decisive, coordinated military intervention but not led by it. The second (and likely third, fourth and so on) step is for Europe to meaningfully and effectively emerge as the leader in improving life opportunities across SNE so their denizens will want to stay home, or at least feel they have the option to do so. Volunteering on the ground level is one way to grab at this opportunity. Writing about it is another. But identifying oneself or one’s organization as having the right stuff to help craft this mother of all solutions and then finding those authoritative institutions that already find this task upon them – EU commissariats, national governments, the UN, etc., could take things to a higher level. Building a network, teams, writing proposals, getting budgets, setting timelines, assigning and managing tasks to achieve objectives to fulfill the larger mission. This can and needs to be done and is central to seizing this opportunity.

    How does this sound?

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