Building Bridges, Not Walls: Bauman’s Reflections on the Present-Day ‘Migration Panic’
Zygmunt Bauman’s (2016) book, Strangers at Our Door, provides a significant contribution to a growing discussion which counters the illusory panics of mass migration. Bauman explores the origins, contours and the impact of ‘moral panic’ seemingly spreading across Western, liberal democracies, and dissects the present-day ‘migration panic.’ Such migration panic, he contends, is witnessed within anxiety-driven and fear-suffused debates percolating within Western societies. While moral panic is not a new concept—one in which articulates that some malevolent force of ‘evil’ threatens a society’s well-being, coupled with the anxieties ostensibly overwhelming felt within such societies (c.f. Cohen, 1972)—what is new is the feeling of fear spreading among an ever-growing number of people within Western nations.
While the book is relatively short in length, such breadth does not reduce Bauman’s nuanced, complex and sophisticated analysis of the arguably (in)secure times within which Western nations find themselves. As Bauman rightly suggests, the stranger behind the door, and the perceived danger such stranger brings, has always impacted society’s understanding of order and control. How to interact with the stranger knocking on the doors of people’s homes—whether to welcome them in or to lock them out—has been a pervasive question since the beginning of time.
Indeed, our post-modern era is no exception to this. Even as you read these words, such migrants are attempting now to seek refuge from the violence of wars and the brutality of famished and/or impoverished lives. Per Bauman, today Western nations find themselves confronted with an extreme form of the “strangers in our midst” (Bauman, 2016, p. 9). Typically, the people with whom we associate, are used to and cohabitate with in our neighbourhoods, on our city streets and in our workplaces, are those we experience predictable and familiar interactions with within similar manners. Strangers, conversely, comprise the unknown; we know “much too little to be able to read properly their gambits and compose our fitting responses—to guess what their intentions might be and what they will do next” (Bauman, 2016, pp. 8-9). In effect, the anxiety of the unknown, coupled with Western citizens’ inability to deal with situations not of their own making or of their control, causes fear and anxiety which can be exploited by politicians to benefit the further ‘securitization’ of society. Such discussions of the West’s further securitization have been an going focal point of contention several other works argued by Bauman (c.f. Bauman 1993, 1995, 2006; Bauman & Donskis, 2013; Bauman & Lyon, 2013).
The underlying message in Bauman’s book is one of its greatest strengths: the fears and anxieties of the West will not be put to rest if we separate ourselves from those unlike ourselves. Bridges, not walls, must be built so that we may reach out and support those in need in these desperate and hostile times: “the sole way out of the present discomforts and future woes leads through rejecting the treacherous temptations of separation” (2016, p. 18). Indeed, the process of adiaphorization—namely, the ‘moral tranquilization’ of humans to refuse considerations of morally-driven social issues and to actively participate in illusory objective neutrality—has been the linchpin of Western, liberal democracies and the advent and continuation of late modernity as we know it (c.f. Bauman 1993, 1995, 2006; Bauman & Donskis, 2013; Bauman & Lyon, 2013). Such adiaphoric acts and discourses can entice Western citizens to advocate for separation based on extant suspicions, animosities or overarching indifference towards an-Other. Bauman insists we should not build metaphorical walls or close doors based on “dissimilarities or self-imposed estrangements,” but rather seek and take up the challenge of foreseeable occasions in the future where Western nations will (inevitably) be brought into a close and increasingly contact with ‘the strangers’ seeking refuge in our lands (Bauman, 2016, p. 18). Such radical considerations may not bring an instant relief to the West’s anxieties, and may trigger yet more fears and further exacerbate “self-alienation, aloofness, inattention, disregard and, all in all, indifference” (Bauman, 2016, p. 19). Nevertheless, the situation in which humanity finds itself in 2016 is worrisome. In order to tackle such crises of mass migration, global (in)security and fear-suffused (socio-political) debates, humanity from all walks of life must overcome the refusal of dialogue and the anxious and indifferent “mutual alienation” we have in place, and instead encourage acts of solidarity and ongoing cooperation with one another (Bauman, 2016, p. 19). While the waves of migrants progressing to the West is unlikely to come to a halt, Bauman contends that by initiating and developing dialogue which actively acknowledges humans as an interdependent species, we may begin to turn the tide and tackle the sea of troubles surrounding us.
Certainly, such a point is worth noting and should be stressed. Conversation and ongoing dialogue must continue between all citizens of the West, from debates between nation-states, to politicians, media outlets, academics, policymakers, and all the laypeople in between. As Bauman indicates, we should not resent the massive inflows of asylum seekers and refugees as these people are not ones we should blame (if the act of ‘blaming’ is even a fruitful endeavour from the outset); while these nomads may remind the West of its own vulnerability and precarity within post-modernity and Western citizens’ fragility against the social, political, and economical “faraway forces of globalization” and capitalism (Bauman, 2016, p. 17), to blame these “collateral victims” of a heartless fate—not of their own choosing, one might add—is to further exacerbate the migration panic. From a Baumanian perspective, to identify a migration problem is to (a) securitize a migration panic which aids and abets the intentions of actual terrorist organizations; (b) fuels and inflames anti-Islamic sentiments within public and political discourses; (c) reduces the chances of migrants to receive better life opportunities at the end of their harrowing and traumatic journeys; and (4) allows terrorists to capitalize on the dynamics of stigma implemented from (a) (b) and (c) (Bauman, 2016, pp. 38-46).
The anxieties and insecurities of our present-day reality is a difficult pill to swallow; yet the current crisis of mass migration must be faced. Bauman is essential in this point, as it is only through open doors and dialogues are we to ease the anxieties driven by hyper-illusory and ill-perceived fears of the stranger. While it is unclear whether we can ever fully eradicate anxieties knocking on our door, Strangers at Our Door provides the metaphorical key needed to keep doors (dialogical, physical, or otherwise) open for all walks of humanity wishing to step through the threshold. This book calls upon us to be mindful of the post-modern era in which we find ourselves, and to recognize and find new ways to live together in solidarity and cooperation, amidst strangers who may hold preferences and opinions different from our own.
Bauman, Z. (2016). Strangers at Our Door. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z. (2006). Liquid Fear. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z. (1995). Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodern Morality. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers Inc.
Bauman, Z. (1993). Postmodern Ethics. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers Inc.
Bauman, Z., & Donskis, L. (2013). Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z., & Lyon, D. (2013). Liquid Surveillance. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Cohen, S. (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The creation of the Mods and Rockers. London: Routledge.