Raj Persaud: The language of them and us can be lethal

Ethnic groups subjected to more "hate speech" were more likely to commit suicide
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The Independent Online

Amid the debate about whether we have too much immigration in Britain, no one seems to have given much thought to how such antagonism is affecting the immigrants themselves. Politicians, keen to crank up a climate of fear for political ends, should be made aware of a study recently published in the academic journal Psychosomatic Medicine. This found a direct link between the number of racially antagonistic slurs in our language, and the suicide rate in certain groups.

Amid the debate about whether we have too much immigration in Britain, no one seems to have given much thought to how such antagonism is affecting the immigrants themselves. Politicians, keen to crank up a climate of fear for political ends, should be made aware of a study recently published in the academic journal Psychosomatic Medicine. This found a direct link between the number of racially antagonistic slurs in our language, and the suicide rate in certain groups.

The study focused on 10 ethnic communities within the US and examined the presence of words commonly found in everyday language directed towards these communities. These include terms like "dumb Polack" for a Pole or "taffy" for a Welsh person. The most astonishing finding was that ethnic immigrant groups subjected to more "hate speech" were more likely than others to commit suicide. What the study reveals is the truly damaging power of words.

The number of negative words for an ethnic group in a language is no accident. It reflects the level of antagonism in a host culture, which might otherwise be difficult to observe or measure given how politically incorrect an open avowal of racism is.

While the Conservative leader Michael Howard might not be fully abreast of this latest research, it would be foolish for anyone to underestimate the depth of the psychology he is plumbing by putting immigration at the centre of British political debate.

Mr Howard seems to have studied at the feet of that underestimated psychologist George Bush, who has used similar tactics to exploit dark stirrings in the American mind. On both sides of the Atlantic the psychology of fear is being used like a weapon.

Soon after 11 September, it emerged that the terrorists, abetted by lax immigration control and liberal visa provisions for foreign students, had infiltrated American society with great ease. There were whispers that they had found safe havens in Muslim and Arab-American communities. Thus, immigration control from the outset became a cornerstone of Mr Bush's "war on terror" and was closely linked in the public mind to efforts to protect Americans from an array of shadowy threats. It is no accident that words with powerful emotive connotations like "home" are deployed by Bush strategists. Hence the "Department of Homeland Security".

Mr Howard's recent statements are just the early sounds of the ammunition being loaded. Get ready for many salvos using the terminology of "us" and "them", drawing on the politics of fear.

If our politicians were interested in stimulating anything other than the primitive parts of our brains, they would argue that human capital is the most important form of wealth for a modern nation. Our population is ageing and we increasingly need young, highly skilled workers to fill gaps in the labour force. Realistically, this need can be met only by sensible immigration.

Perhaps Howard has another reason to stoke up a fear of "them". It has a beneficial effect for a Conservative tax agenda. A study published in the Journal of Public Economics looked at levels of low-education immigration to 11 European countries, including the UK, from 1974 to 1992. It found that the higher this proportion, the more likely was the eventual election of governments that reduce tax rates and welfare spending. The theory is that voters become resentful of the perception that a larger portion of their taxes is going to support low-income immigrants, and so duly turn against taxation and welfare.

One thing is clear: more elections are being dominated by an agenda driven by "us" and "them". This makes it more difficult for "them" to bond with with the host society - leading to a reduced likelihood of immigration benefiting anyone.

Historically, the lack of cheap transport and communications technology has meant that immigrants had no choice but to set down roots in their adopted country. In contrast, contemporary immigrants easily retain links to their homelands. This naturally reduces their ties to a host society - particularly if the hosts are ungracious.

As a result, we could be witnessing a modern phenomenon - communities whose members claim political membership in more than one state, contribute to more than one economy, and, thanks to improved transport technologies, maintain a physical presence in more than one nation. If we are not careful, the antagonism to the "other" will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Dr Raj Persaud is Gresham Professor for public understanding of psychiatry

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