Framing Refugees’ Issues and How to Answer the Enemy

Eidomeni, March 2015. Photographer unknown.

What is a frame?

A frame is a set of terms and narratives used to represent events or people as its subjects that embodies emotionally and socially a particular structural arrangement of values.

Values in this theory are innate capacities for learning certain categories or dimensions of valuing or weighting different kinds of goods and harms in the social processes of moral judgement making, which are also culturally transmitted across societies and by social learning between generations.

People conflict over the cultural structures of values because those moral structures define the authority base on which we collectively control social conflicts. Authorities are social attributes attached to persons and institutions, although the latter tend to seek to alienate their authority from its social origins.

Negating a frame actually reinforces the framing.

George Lakoff in ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’ (2004) made the point that engaging a frame even to negate it effectively reinforces it. Politicians use this irrationality of human nature to manipulate social information usage and social moral judgement making. (It isn’t necessary to assume that politicians and citizens always or mostly do this manipulation consciously.)

I have seen friends who are intentionally pro-refugees, and even professional charity sector campaigners, I think still repeatedly falling into this mistake. Currently a few frames which I think actually serve the anti-refugees / pro-government side of this political conflict, are:

‘Humanitarian’ / ‘Compassionate’ / ‘vulnerable people’ framing

The problem here is that governments consistently push the framing that they have no obligations to people who have rights. To the extent they respond, they present it as only a compassionate or ‘humanitarian’ discretionary grant.

By engaging this frame, even by negating it — ‘governments are being inhumane’, ‘not compassionate enough’, should ‘grant’ more people resettlement, etc., even ‘choose love’, the problem is that we’re implicitly reinforcing their framing which establishes the values applying to the subject of refugees as being only about compassion, generousity and even our honour (our dignity as a nation), not about their rights and intrinsic dignity, not as a matter of justice and obligatory morality, but only a matter of voluntary morality and discretionary legalities.

I have become increasingly convinced by observing the political rhetoric and performative actions from EU governments over the past year, that whenever they refer to ‘humanitarian response’ to ‘vulnerable people’, what they are really saying, by means of this framing, is that they deny all obligations and responsibilities as such, and will performatively establish the new social norm that State authorities have no obligations to universal human rights as such. The State’s authority is thus implicitly conceived as intrinsic and absolute, versus human rights which are contingent and as a matter of discretionary law and voluntary morality, rights ‘granted’ but not ‘recognised’ by the State.

‘Sovereignty’ of the State thus replaces the centrality of inherent human dignity as it was framed in the human rights legislation agreed after WW2. By repeating the ‘compassionate’ ‘humanitarian’ ‘generous’ framing, which refers to ourselves, our nationhood, our territory and our State sovereignty, and refers to refugees (or the term ‘migrants,’ which has become a synonym for outlaw, or homo sacer (Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 1998)) as ‘specially vulnerable’ (‘women and children’, ‘unaccompanied children’) or as instrumentally useful to us (skilled qualified people, professionals, because of our falling birth rates and depopulated rural settlements), this framing consistently omits and thus effectively denies the intrinsic values of universal human rights and obligatory personal and collective responsibilities for others, that must be enacted by any truly representative State, objectively according to their objective needs and their co-inherent* human rights. The framing terms and narratives which embody the intrinsic values of human dignity, freedom and community, which are facts and values that really pre-exist all nation-state concepts and institutions, are consistently omitted from all government and pro-government representations of refugees’ issues now.

(*Co-inherence, perichoresis, see John Zizoulas, “The Meaning of Being Human”, 2007.)

‘Open Borders’ framing

I noticed this one from Electra Koutra’s post (09/03/2017). Electra pointed out that the popular activists’ slogan “open the borders” implicitly engages the frame “open / close the borders.” Both sides of that frame imply a radically different set of values and concepts about borders, nationality, sovereignty and humanity than the set of those embedded in international human rights law.

‘Open/ closed borders’ refers back to the material reality of late summer 2015 when EU governments, through a mixture of incompetence and malice, did not activate the Temporary Protection Directive, as they clearly legally should have done (it was acknowledged only too late as a ‘mass influx’ in the German-French proposal leaked by Statewatch), but instead semi-officially allowed a border crossing system which they nevertheless deemed “illegal” in which refugees mostly walked north out of Greece, through the West Balkans, and mostly to Germany and Sweden, with some getting stuck in the Netherlands on route to Sweden.

Without going into all the history and legal technicalities, Electra’s point was simply that the law as it was established post-WW2 requires neither absolutely open nor absolutely closed borders. The law does make it obligatory for States to admit people to their territories when they come seeking international protection. Electra also made the point that it is in the very nature of functionally democratic States that they must have porous borders with regular procedures for practically respecting non-citizens’ human rights. A representative democratic state cannot, by definition, withdraw or compromise non-citizens’ human rights, because a democratic State is founded on the recognition of universal human rights and is representative of the rights of self-determination of its particular citizens. State authority is contingent, human rights are absolute*.

  • (After some discussion with Electra, I thought it important to clarify that I meant ‘absolute’ referring to the ‘right to have rights’ as Hannah Arendt called it or ‘human rights as such’ as I keep on saying, but European law also uses the term ‘absolute’ to distinguish the particular rights which are legally considered ‘absolute’ vs. those rights which can legitimately have a proportionality check relative to other rights.)

It feels like the politicians in charge don’t actually understand or believe in the ethos behind the human rights laws they’ve inherited, so they see the human rights legal framework as just a structure of technical obstacles to get around. For a clear example of the trend of referring to “human rights” terms only in ways apparently designed to evacuate the terms of any practical effective meaning, see the recent French-German proposal.

Any deviation from this practical theory of the State having contingent authority and human beings universally having co-inherent rights should be regarded and treated as morally traitorous and the beginnings of the slide into tyranny and oppression, so the slightest deviation in practice or in declaration by any State should be punished by society and by other still genuinely democratic States with the utmost ferocity and strict intolerance.

I remember a year ago I found it strange how Electra would call what governments do “political aesthetics,” but now I get it. Greeks, like Spaniards, have a much more recent collective memory of how fascist regimes (Metaxism, Falangism / Francoism) function and how to recognise the early warning signs of processes tending in that direction.

We have argued before about whether people seeking international protection legally have a ‘right’ as such to enter territories: there is no legal provision explicitly saying so, but there are legal provisions stating very clearly that States have an obligation to admit to the territory people seeking asylum. In human rights legal theory, rights of persons are defined in terms of State obligations, because States represent their citizens’ personal responsibilities to other non-citizens’ personal rights, so I think the obligation to admit to the territory does legally imply a right to enter.

Nor was Germany’s ‘suspension’ of the Dublin rules something outside of the Dublin Regulations. Suspending the procedures for determining the country responsible for examining an asylum seeker’s substantive claim and giving them asylum according to their rights if found to need it as provided for in articles 7–11 was based on article 17, the humanitarian derogation clause within the Dublin III Regulation.

That was an inappropriate compromise because it framed the Greece through the West Balkans countries to Germany route as a “humanitarian derogation” from rules that northern States normally impose on asylum seekers to stop them coming. Angela Merkel declared that Germany would apply Article 17 of the Dublin III Regulation, the ‘Humanitarian Derogation clause’. She called it “doing our duty,” but doing it within the framing of a “humanitarian derogation” in the context of the Dublin III Regulation rules for determining which EU member state is responsible for an asylum seeker, and only doing our duty temporarily and contingently for as long as it was politically acceptable to the perceived German popular majority opinion and will. Thus in opposite words she framed that response as a matter of voluntary morality or “compassionate” “humanitarian” derogation or discretionary grant, not, as it was according to law, an obligation to respond to people’s rights when they clearly seriously need protection. It was relatively better for those who came that way then than it is for refugees stuck in Greece now, but it was still not right.

I’m going to pause here and restate something more clearly I said in the introductory lines: “pro-refugees / anti-government”. This isn’t an abstract, ideologically driven framing statement, it’s just an observation of the political pattern of facts, over the last year that I’ve been closely paying attention for. EU governments on the whole in the last few years have decisively become enemies of refugees and practically inimical to the culture of universal human rights as such. When we deal with governments, or with persons representing institutions dependent on governments who do not clearly accept the responsibilities of their own personhood, to think as a person and make their personal moral judgements on which elements of governments’ responses they are willing to pass on uncritically or follow orders on, then we should recognise that we are dealing with the enemy.

I just watched Hannah Arendt the film last night, which covers the four years of her life around when she reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. In the climax of the story, Hannah presents a public lecture which is a defence of her thesis in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). At the end of her lecture, she responds to a question from a young woman student in the audience who asks ‘Why did you call Eichmann’s crimes ‘crimes against humanity’ when they were crimes [mostly] against the Jewish people?’ — and Arendt replies simply but purposefully: ‘because Jews are humans’. Her further explanation makes clear that she recognised the problem which George Lakoff explained more later, that engaging a frame by negating it effectively reinforces it. The Nazis had dehumanised Jews, by means of genocidal propaganda and performative actions, in preparation for destroying them as a group, but a group that they partially constructed and projected for their own use onto their subjects, the “Jews” as the Nazis referred to them was not a group of persons presenting themselves as such a group*. So it was essential for Arendt to perform a responsible philosophical analysis and deconstruction of the Nazis’ framing and its genocidal intent to assert that the crimes against Jews were crimes against humanity.

(*I am grateful to Professor Caroline Fournet, who clarified this point for me that genocidaires always create and construct the group which they intend to destroy. Since hearing that I have noticed more and more how European nationalists talking about “Islam” and “Muslims” are really talking about a constructed group of their own projection, which they do not even intend to make match or fairly represent actual Islamic traditions nor actual Muslims.)

When EU governments performatively act as hostile to refugees and thus inimical to universal human rights as such, they have ipso facto chosen to become enemies of humanity, or in Latin legal convention, ‘hostis humani generis’ — enemies of the human race, a term normally reserved for pirates and terrorists. Governments which set themselves up as absolute authorities, alienated from their roots in humanity, and against universal human rights in principle are tyrannies and deserve to be destroyed. In paragraph 4 of the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 the post-war UN States recognised that the protection of universal human rights by rule of law should be legislated for and enacted in order that people should not become compelled to use our natural right to resist and rebel against tyranny and oppression by proportionate force when necessary.

The line which struck me from Arendt’s apologia at her public ‘trial’ (formally a public lecture, but she alluded to Socrates apologia, so I think she saw what she was doing in a similar way) for allegedly defending Eichmann, blaming the victims and betraying her own people, was that Eichmann “refused to be a person.” Arendt didn’t explicitly identify as a Personalist, as far as I know, but she was surely aware of the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, another great Jewish philosopher who survived the Holocaust, and this is certainly a Personalistic point. I can’t summarise briefly enough why this is so important (Levinas is profoundly hard to summarise), but it clearly was the essential point for Arendt about how Eichmann’s exemplary banality of evil originated, according to her detailed observations of him, analysis of his own speeches in his defence at his trial and meticulous review of the trial transcripts afterwards in the whole context of the Holocaust and aftermath.

The Eurasianists, the generic fascism of our phase of human cyclical forgetfulness of history, have also used the subject of refugees as a symbol to establish their values system by framing the events selected as ‘newsworthy’ and the people subjected to those events as a dehumanised and depersonalised projected group. EU governments and many of the kind of liberals who identify with ‘liberalism’ but actually do not act consistently as though they really believe in the principle of priority for others’ liberty and do not act as though they believe in universal human rights, have sought to find a political compromise with the Eurasianists on which they can remain in their powerful and comfortable positions, by participating in the Eurasianists’ framing tactics.

We are not at a historical point when it would be appropriate to write a definite conclusion. My conclusion therefore, before this gets too long, is that I wish it was a mandatory requirement before registering as a candidate for any public office that people must read at least a selected excerpts companion volume to Hannah Arendt’s philosophical analysis of European history, in particular the origins and development of authoritarian and depersonalising systems, and what those values and frames end up doing to people.

Denying the validity of frames rather than negating them

Buddhist logic contains a clear and important distinction between denial and negation. In the Acela Kassapa Sutta, a certainly pre-sectarian and almost certainly authentic record of the Buddha’s own words, being asked a series of metaphysical questions about the nature of the self and the world by a naked ascetic named Kassapa, the Buddha answers to all the questions implying a wrong framing: ‘Do not say so’, whereas to other questions, in other discourses, which were not framed wrongly, he straightforwardly answered, ‘It is not so’.

Propaganda (different from disinformation), according to Professor Harold Laswell who wrote the first book on the subject in 1927, is the ‘manipulation of representations.’ The way he defined the term it could mean either good or bad, but it has come to generally mean bad, misrepresentative framing.

Before reacting to any political statement, please try to notice how it is framed, not just what the subject is or what the news content is. Consider: What values are engaged in this frame?

To deny the framing of refugees’ issues which misrepresents them as though they had no inalienable human rights, and as though States had no inescapable obligations to them, does not mean to negate the values of compassion or humanitarianism or generosity or preserving the honourable reputation of our nation or ethnicity. Denial of the frame is not negation of its contents. Obligatory justice should be performed also with tenderness, but we cannot morally legitimately replace our obligation to respond according to others’ rights and objective needs with a selective, discretionary tenderness to some individuals, limited by their instrumental utility for us. Isaiah, Micah, Amos and Hosea would be furious, again.

We need more than just a re-balancing of emphasis on rights, and more than just more compassionate discretionary grants to particularly vulnerable people.

We need to accept responsibility, which requires recognising how we have in many ways in the past sought to escape from or to arbitrarily limit our ethical responsibilities by believing in objectively absurd framing terminologies and narratives. As Hannah Arendt judged Eichmann, we need to accept being persons, with all that personhood fully means. Humanity must stand before nationality. Humanity is naturally real, nationality is just a construct of the nation-state theory.

Inasmuch as they may be beneficial (tantum quantum) to humanity, the concepts of nationality, territoriality and citizenship can and should be used for the common good, but they should not be grasped as if they were ultimate goods in themselves, that is idolatry.

When you recognise the framing of refugees’ issues, or any other scapegoated group of people’s issues, is engaging a set of values which implies denying our responsibilities and our representative State’s obligations, please explicitly, clearly and angrily deny that framing’s validity, do not react to it according to its own terms and narrative or merely try to negate or counter it. As long as you are reacting to the enemy’s framing agenda and not denying its validity to stand as a framework for socially making moral judgements, we will carry on losing ground to our mortal, moral enemy, who are the Eurasianists, all their proxies and allies, and all their misguided, tactical appeasers and de facto collaborators among governments and bourgeois, social contractarian liberals, who prioritise their own comfort at the expense of others’ lives.

How to answer the enemy

Governments or their representors in the media typically say something actually amounting to: ‘we are doing compassionate humanitarian discretionary grants of protection and resettlement to tiny tokenistic numbers of people, through punitively slow and unpredictable procedures, as a political compromise to placate those within our own society demanding that we should do something for these people (usually framed with the derogatory prejudicial term ‘migrants’)’.

Do not react e.g. ‘Be more compassionate! Be more humanitarian! Give more resettlement places! Improve the camps!,’ because that implicitly acknowledges their framing as valid.

But rather: “We are naturally obliged as human beings to respond to other human beings’ when they are in need and according to their human rights as persons with inherent dignity. This is not a matter of voluntary morality or just a discretionary legal ‘grant’, it is absolutely obligatory, morally and legally, that we and hence our representative governments, shall allow and afford people who have equal and inalienable rights as human beings, regardless of their nationality or Stateless-ness, the protection, reception, fair and efficient procedures for assessing their objective needs, resettlement and integration support that they need and deserve, now.’

Our capacity and their utility to us are not valid reasons to set ethically arbitrary limits on our responsibilities; our capacity to respond can be finite while our responsibilities are infinite.

I would add the or-else statement: ‘If not, you will only succeed in undermining your own moral legitimacy and becoming a tyranny worthy of destruction,’ but you can consider your own position and whether it is politically tactful to threaten governments’ with overthrow by any means necessary if they continue to deny universal human rights as such either now or later.

But this is what we are really facing: Our governments, in seeking to compromise with nationalist populist-authoritarians (fascists), who are allied with a mixed Eurasianist and kleptocratic Russian regime, to conserve their own power and comfort, are systematically and consistently undermining the culture and legal practice of recognising and acting according to equal and inalienable human rights as such, using refugees as exemplary subjects of their framing representations and performative actions, in order to make and normalise a much more general and systematic message.

Such framing is not only a threat to refugees, it is really a threat to all of us, and not just to European citizens but a threat to humanity, because it implies and effectively systematises with every instance in which it succeeds by enacting it a totally different values system of State sovereignty as of absolute value in and of itself, that replaces the centrality of inherent human dignity, which has been the foundation of all our human rights laws since the last great apocalyptic revealing of human nature.