Are we losing our humanity? | Cher Laurenti Engerer

Recent controversies surrounding immigration seem to have brought out an ugly side to the Maltese character. But psychologist CHER LAURENTI ENGERER warns against being too liberal with the ‘racist’ label: arguing that prejudice can also be triggered by genuine underlying concerns 

Cher Laurenti Engerer
Cher Laurenti Engerer

It is often said that children are not born racist, but that they acquire their perceptions about ethnic diversity from their social surroundings. In your experience as a psychologist, how true is that of Malta today? 

Racism is such a prominent feature of so many human societies, that it might be tempting to think of it as somehow ‘natural’ or ‘innate’. But racism is a social construct, and therefore people cannot be born racist. 

Babies are, however, born with a certain disposition. Some babies are more curious and open to difference, whilst other children are primordially afraid of anything that is different to them. This is an evolutionary defence mechanism facilitating our survival – which serves to protect us from danger; likewise, it’s the same reason most children fear eating anything green, or why a baby would not walk over a glass table in fear of the height. 

This is our autonomic threat response, which keeps us away from anything which poses a danger to us when we are very young and impressionable. Sometimes, anything different to what we know can seem scary, so we become averse to it. 

However, as humans we are then given the opportunity to grow, mature, learn and develop; and this is where education comes in. This is where parenting, learning and modelling become important. It is our job as parents, adults, teachers, leaders, and care-givers to teach children that people who are different from us should not be feared simply for that difference. 

We need to educate young children that skin colour, race, ethnicity, etc., make no difference to the character and essence of a person; just like we need to educate children that green veggies are not in actual fact poisonous, but actually good for us. 

It appears, however, that the opposite is happening. The Maltese branch of the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health recently issued a statement saying (inter alia) that: […] by propagating a discourse which is stereotypical, xenophobic and demeaning […], we are inadvertently influencing our younger generations perspectives towards cultural diversity. In your line of work, do you encounter any indications that racism is a growing phenomenon among young people? 

I haven’t researched this, so I don’t have any statistics; but as a general impression, no, I don’t think that racism is a growing phenomenon amidst the younger generation. 

Younger people are in fact more open to diversity, more tolerant of difference, more curious about what makes us each unique and interesting as human beings. The younger generation also challenge the status quo in many ways – they tend to refuse to pigeon-hole people, or to categorise people by race, colour, gender, sex or religion. 

Everything has become more fluid, which is both beautiful, as well as it complex.  

I do, however, agree that racial antipathy, or the propagation of discourse with xenophobic sentiment in public, or even at the dinner table, can inadvertently influence our children. Some children learn behaviours and attitudes through ‘modelling’: which is an implicit and often unconscious form of learning by which we pick up on, adopt and integrate our elders values, opinions, attitudes, without in fact digesting them and making them our own… the same way we learn how to peel potatoes, without being directly taught.  

However, we also have a strong population of youngsters who rebel against their elders and who choose not to conform. They choose to contradict the social undercurrents, and dare to be different.   

Meanwhile, the advent of social media has provided an instant platform for communication, without little in the way of restraints or safeguards. Would you agree that this has contributed to the normalisation of racist discourse in Malta? 

I don’t think racist discourse can ever be ‘normalised’ – well, at least it certainly shouldn’t be. To the majority, such discourse will always stand out as painful and unjust. I also believe that the recent public outcry about asylum seekers is far more complex than the ‘racist’ rhetoric.  

Recognisably prejudiced talk may sometimes be used to intimidate, claim the spot-light, to shock or display ‘balls’ or solidarity – and the freedom of expression presented through social media greatly complicates any attempts to challenge it, which makes it seem ‘normal’. 

I genuinely believe, however, that some people are seriously concerned about the safety of their family and of their people. I think they honestly believe that welcoming asylum seekers into our country will somehow cause damage, discomfort or danger to themselves, and this causes people to act out in the name of ‘their country’ and in the name of their families and communities.    

In fact, evolutionary psychologists would postulate that it was actually beneficial for early human beings to deprive other groups of resources, because we were all in competition and fighting for the fittest to survive. It would have done our ancestors no good to be compassionate, generous, altruistic – and to allow outsiders to share their resources, which may have decreased their own chances of survival…  

But surely, even if there are psychological and/or evolutionary explanations to account for it, the phenomenon you just described – e.g., hostility or hatred towards ethnic outsiders – still qualifies as racism…? 

I think it would be a mistake to reduce the issue simply to racism. It is far more complex than that. 

A true and pure racist is someone who would discriminate based solely on ethnicity, race or colour. In this case, I think it is so much more. We have elements of patriotism, territorialism, a perceived ’fight for resources’, and a strong element of fear. 

I think we need to ask ourselves if people would have reacted as strongly to the intention of an American cruise-liner needing to dock in Maltese waters. In fact, research has shown that when people are given reminders of their own mortality – as is the case with this COVID-19 pandemic – they feel a sense of anxiety and insecurity, which they in turn respond to by becoming more prone to prejudice and aggression.  

They are then more likely to conform to culturally accepted attitudes and to identify with their national or ethnic groups, whilst feeling a compulsion to exclude and reject anything which poses a threat to their perceived sense of safety – and ultimately in their attempt to protect themselves and their families from the perceived threat of mortality. 

The power one group has over another transforms prejudice into racism, and links individual prejudice with broader social practices. 

Accusations of racism are indeed often countered by pragmatic arguments… e.g., it isnracist to object to more immigrant arrivals, given the limitations of Maltas resources, the COVID-19pandemic, etc. How does one draw a line, therefore, between acceptable concerns, and outright racism? 

Ultimately, these concerns are motivated by fear. People’s sense of insecurity can lead them to develop a stronger sense of ‘patriotism’ – an ‘us versus them’ mentality ensues, because  in order to further strengthen their sense of identity, members of a group may develop hostile feelings toward other groups and the group becomes more cohesive and defined by having a common ‘enemy’. 

This in turn causes the ‘in-group’ to cultivate more empathy and compassion towards its own people, whilst developing harsh, uncaring, even ugly sentiments and attitudes towards the ‘out-group’… as is surely the case when people are left to drown, and these deaths are somehow ‘excused’ and ‘justified’ with arguments of needing to look after their own people first and foremost’ . 

This also explains the dissonance between the Christian values clashing with the atrocities that happened on Easter Sunday. In those moments, people fail to see the ‘out-group’ as individuals with their own struggles: as a young man named Idris, a pregnant woman named Fatima, a young girl named Amira – and causes a phenomenon by which they are wrongly perceived as ‘a group of outsiders posing a threat’. 

This is the point at which we lose our humanity... 

The Chamber of Psychologists has in fact argued that the COVID-19 pandemic was no excuse for losing our humanity. Do you share the implicit concern that the COVID-19 pandemic is being exploited to justify measures – e.g., closing ports to migrant vessels – that run counter to our legal and moral responsibilities? 

To be honest: I don’t know. I’d hate to think this to be true. I’d rather believe it isn’t. But my general opinion is that the authorities did not do enough. They were too passive. Those people should not have drowned. Full-stop. 

But again, this is where education comes in. The reality is that asylum seekers are no more a danger to us than French tourists; but scare-mongering has festered and cultivated a culture of people who feel under siege or threat by asylum seekers, who are ultimately themselves fleeing from terror and danger. 

It is a tragic situation, when we are forced to choose between our own ‘perceived safety’ and another people’s safety, and humankind should never be posed with that dilemma. 

So our leaders need to step up as models in these moments, for the preservation of human rights, to calm the people, to pacify fears and to educate.  

Lastly, racism is often figuratively described in terms of a disease or pathology. From a psychological perspective, is there any truth to that metaphor? 

Racism is a pernicious, pervasive and persistent social problem. However, ultimately racism is also a symptom of psychological immaturity. It is a sign of poor psychological integration, a lack of inner security and a lack of personal power.  

Psychologically, healthy people with a stable sense of self and strong inner security are not racist, because they have no need to demean others or to deny others their rights, in order to build up their own sense of self through group identity. 

They have no need to develop an ‘us vs them’ ‘black vs white’ approach to life, or to see things in simplistic dichotomies… because they have more refined coping mechanisms which allow them to stay healthy without jeopardizing the health and safety of others.  

It is therefore possible to move beyond reductionist categorisations to inclusive and representative forms of social identity. If anything, COVID-19 has taught us fundamentally, that there are no races — just one human race, equally as vulnerable, equally as beautiful.  

Cher Laurenti Engerer is a managing Psychologist and the founder of Polaris Consultancy; an interdisciplinary wellbeing service