Solidarity as a virtue: on the refugee crisis polemic

By Dr David Bates

Response to Harry Bell’s article: ‘Lecturer’s polemic was sincere and passionate but flawed’. Kentish Gazette. Thursday October 29th, 2015.

I was delighted to read Harry Bell’s response to my talk ‘Do we have a duty to help refugees?’ Indeed, I would like to thank the Kentish Gazette for being willing to devote a full page in a local newspaper to a discussion of what is essentially an academic talk.

With his complements out of the way, Bell turns to a detailed critique of my article – it is to this critique that I now turn.

Bell quotes me as follows: ‘Let’s not refer to “migrants”. Let’s not refer to bogus “asylum seekers”… Let’s start by referring to people; people with families, hopes and (quashed) aspirations.’ Orwell – as Bell notes – used the term ‘Newspeak’ to denote the way in which totalitarian states control language, and in so doing are able to control (almost) completely the thought of their subjects.  Bell then goes on to state that what I am arguing for in my talk is

‘not so much to eliminate these words [migrant, bogus asylum seeker etc.] from the English language, but rather to jettison the concepts they define’.

I am not sure what Bell thinks is at stake with this distinction. Moreover, I do not really want to get involved in a detailed philosophical discussion pertaining to the relationship between language and thought. My argument as I understood it was about the following:

First, the deliberate misuse of terms such as ‘migrant, bogus asylum seeker etc.’, by the ‘right wing’ press in order to promote at best moral indifference, and at worst fear and loathing. As an example of the promotion of indifference, the Daily Mail journalist Peter Hitchens has insisted that, whilst it is the case that when Syrians leave their homeland they are ‘refugees’, they no longer should be regarded as having this status when they arrive on Europe’s shores. Hitchens makes no reference to the physical state of these ‘migrants’; are they alive or dead? Are they adults or children? Are they Christian or Muslim? Indeed, he does not seem to care (though Hitchens’ preference for white Christians is on record). In setting aside Hitchens’ point, we need only quote the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which defines a refugee as someone who:

‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable, or owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.’

As an example of the promotion of fear and loathing, we have to situate the comments by the Daily Mail in the context of its wider discourse on migration, which is problematic to say the least. Comments such as: ‘4,000 foreign murderers and rapists we can’t throw out – and yes we can blame human rights again’ or ‘we are experiencing an unprecedented upheaval in the make-up of a country once united by ties of language, history, creed and patriotism’ are particularly odious.

Second, I want to suggest that when, in our public discourse, we discuss the refugee crisis – a humanitarian crisis – we would do well to operate at a quite different level of abstraction than is usually the case. I do not want to ‘jettison’ any concepts. Concepts such as ‘migrant’, ‘asylum seeker’ and indeed ‘bogus asylum seeker’ do have their uses when properly deployed. But these concepts are not used by the popular press as descriptive or empirical concepts; rather they have come to be operationalised primarily as terms of moral derision (with the term ‘bogus’ coming to be the norm of use). The refugee crisis is a moral crisis; therefore, moral language is appropriate to it. But I suggest that our moral discourse should operate at the appropriate level of abstraction. Bell’s critique relies somewhat on selective quotation.  The full passage is as follows:

‘Let’s make a firm commitment to the humanisation of public discourse. Let’s not refer to ‘migrants’. Let’s not refer to “bogus asylum seekers”. Let’s not even refer to ‘the numbers’. Let’s start by referring to people; people with families, hopes and (quashed) aspirations.’

What I am suggesting is that ‘by referring to people; people with families, hopes and (quashed) aspirations’, we adopt a less alienating mode of moral discourse, a discourse oriented not towards indifference and antagonism, but towards human solidarity. In using the term solidarity in this context, I follow the definition provided by Laurence Wilde. Wilde writes of:

‘a normative definition of solidarity as a feeling of sympathy shared by subjects within and between groups, impelling supportive action and pursuing social inclusion.’ (Wilde, 2013: p. 1)

Bell also insists that there is a (performative) contradiction in my argument. For, on the one hand I criticise the press for using a pejorative discourse, but then fall back on a pejorative form of language myself when I characterise the press with which I disagree as ‘right wing’. But Bell’s argument is again flawed. I don’t think my critique is pejorative in the strong sense. But I do make moral judgements. The descriptive and the moral must exist in a form of internal unity.

Following this – Bell may be surprised by this – I agree that the ‘3.8 million UKIP voters at the last election’ should be considered as ‘people with their own families, hopes and aspirations’; I would have to be a pretty dreadful person not to think of them in this way. I respect their aspirations and interests. Indeed, I think my stress on the use of the language of moral solidarity is better positioned to support such respect than the media discourse which I am concerned to criticise. So often, ‘right wing’ parties such as UKIP use the ‘charity begins at home’ argument to refuse any meaningful form of solidarity, solidarity which would benefit those which they claim to represent. Professor Norman Geras (who I invoked in detail in my original talk) suggests the following minimal principle of aid. This would be a good starting point, a starting point with which Bell I am sure would concur:

‘First, second, third and again, oneself and then all the others. Not to harm and, if at all possible, to save. These two principles might equally be written thus. First, second, third and again, oneself, but then all the others. Not to harm but also, if at all possible to save.’ (Geras, 1998: p. 70)

Bell goes on to argue that I adopt an ‘uncomfortably dim view of humanity’ in which public opinion is manipulated by a ‘shadowy media’. Bell notes that the Daily Mail (‘the bête noire of the progressive left’) is only read by 3% of the population, with public perception being more typically shaped by television and the internet. Bell is up to a point correct. The shaping of public opinion is a complex phenomenon. It would be idiotic for a ‘progressive leftist’ such as myself to blame the Daily Mail for all our political woes. People are indeed capable of making up their own minds! Yet the Daily Mail is more than simply one media outlet among many. And Bell – unintentionally – points to a key critical question here: why is it that a newspaper read by only 3% of the population is taken so seriously by our political classes? Why do political parties of all colours run scared of its condemnation? How is it able to assert such a pernicious impact on the political debate? And regarding my ‘uncomfortably dim view of humanity’ – far from it! People deserve mature politicians with integrity, politicians who encourage a free and open debate on important issues such as migration. And this is as true of our local as our national politicians! Politicians are opinion shapers. But they allow their opinions to be shaped not by the common good, but by unelected media outlets with often rather unclear interests and motivations.

One final point in relation to press freedom. I do read the Guardian. I also read many other newspapers. I watch the television, and surf the internet. I do not want to restrict press freedom. Rather, I want to see a more effective mobilisation of different opinion. I want to see a free and open debate in which press bullies cannot get away with it. This is what I meant when I said:

‘An indifferent culture, an indifferent social and political system, can only function by demonising and alienating forms of language. ‘Let’s resist this language and those who speak it!’

Bell insists that my invocation of the ‘feminist argument that the personal is political’ is representative of an approach ‘increasingly popular in British universities’. He states:

‘It is that politics and thought should not be practiced through cool detachment – rather it should be done through the prism of oneself, to explore subjects in terms of how they make someone feel as an individual, to emote.’

Now, I know of no context where politics has been ‘practiced through cool detachment’. This would be an argument for a type of technocracy which would hardly be desirable. Politics is about ‘who gets what, where and how’. How can such a concern with distribution not involve emotions, including feelings of annoyance, and of injustice? This is especially the case if you are on the wrong end of this process!        But a concern with the personal impact of injustice is not to descend into a selfish egocentric emotivism. Rather, an emotional response to injustice is a necessary – though by no means sufficient – condition for establishing the forms of solidarity at the heart of collective action.

Bell himself falls back on the personalisation which he finds so objectionable in my argument. For he seems to assume that Rod Liddle’s ‘working class’ (Kentish son of a rail worker) position regarding migration is somehow truer than Simon Schama’s ‘metropolitan elite’ view. And Bell associates my own position with this upper class one. I must say this was something of a novelty for me. I was brought up in a working class community in the North of England – Huddersfield to be precise. This is a community I continue to have a close connection with. I don’t really want to appear as ‘prolier than thou’, but I am very well aware of the impact of migration on such communities. However, I am also aware of the impact of neoliberal policies of deindustrialisation, policies far more detrimental to community interests and well-being than the actions of those seeking asylum. Such policies have impacted negatively on the capacity for the generation of solidarity. It is often the case that those in the most disadvantaged position are expected to bear the responsibilities of aid. But then the solution is clear. Those in the strongest position should do the most. The indifference of the wealthy is more morally troubling than the helplessness and frustration of the poor.

Bell states ‘Like Schama, Dr Bates falls short of providing a detailed plan or set of solutions to the migrant crisis’. He insists that my approach is simply to ‘attack those with whom we disagree rather than draw up coherent plans or policies’. At the ‘Crisis on Europe’s Shores’ event, I had a 10 minute slot. This translates to just over 1,000 words. My brief was to provide a moral critique, not to set out policy solutions. Yet Bell raises some important practical questions pertaining to how the duties which I identify could possibly be delivered. Resources are finite. Large scale migration does present significant security challenges. I would be a fool to set out a detailed policy response here, though I am currently involved in collaborative research which attempts to do precisely this. However, I will venture the following:

First, we need the instigation of a stronger system of redistributive taxation than is currently the case, so that those in a stronger position to pay do so. Currently the wealthy are taxed to low. They should pay more – but of course they rarely volunteer to do so!

Second, we need to tighten up the laws on corporate tax evasion. (I am not arguing for ‘crippling tax increases’, but a move from the perverse and regressive forms of taxation currently at the heart of government policy, to an extensive system of welfare best situated to support the forms of solidarity necessary for a better and just society. Please note Mr Bell, I am not arguing for the merits of the Soviet Union!)

Third, we should promote effective and open partnerships with other European nations – on this issue at least taking a lead from Angela Merkel, rather than Theresa May. Germany has received almost half of all Syrian refugees –and it is estimated that over the 5 year cycle, it is likely to receive approximately 1 million people. The British government is way behind in the delivery of its target of 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next 5 years, and indeed seems to be rather dishonest with the figures. 44,000 Syrians applied for asylum in the second quarter of 2015. The top 5 first destination countries were as follows:

  1. Germany (16, 300)
  2. Hungary (8,400)
  3. Austria (5,300)
  4. Sweden (3,900)
  5. Bulgaria (1,930)

Britain is included within the ‘other’ category, its figure so low as not to warrant separate inclusion.

Indeed, the British government is also out of tune with the public on this issue. As Yvette Cooper, the chair of Labour’s refugee taskforce, noted:

‘Millions of people signed petitions urging the government to act to help resolve the refugee crisis, thousands have donated clothes and other material and almost 5,000 have offered space in their own home. It was this outpouring of support that forced David Cameron into action in the first place.’ (See:  )

Bell is perhaps rather contemptuous of public opinion, regarding such pledges as ‘virtue signalling’. It was not just celebrities like Simon Schama and Benedict Cumberbatch who made their stance clear, but millions of British subjects, and citizens across Europe. Decent people think that it is morally repugnant for relatively wealthy states to allow Children to drown, rather than affording them gain safe passage. And decent people think that when refugees seek asylum in the UK, they should be treated with dignity and respect.

Fourth, we should support effective partnerships and capacity building, working with nations outside of the EU. Bell writes that ‘it is not clear why non-Western, undemocratic or illiberal states are to be absolved of this responsibility.’ Indeed it is not. But is Bell suggesting that those fleeing torture and oppression should seek aid from the nearest local tyrant? Or is he suggesting a policy of regime change so that such states take on their responsibilities? It is also worth noting that by September 2015 – according to the UN’s refugee agency – just short of 1.8 million refugees had gone to Turkey, and 1 million to Lebanon, which only has a population of 4 million.

One final point: My philosophical argument is based on broadly Kantian principles particularly as pertaining to how we can best understand our duties towards others. Bell invokes Friedrich Nietzsche to support his case. But Nietzsche was a philosopher who considered liberal rights discourse to be an example of ‘slave’ morality. I consider the focus on dignity and respect which the culture of rights embodies to be one of the most important advances of modern times. Such advances were hard won, but they can be easily lost. Let’s not allow our political classes to take them away.


Friedrich Nietzsche ([1887]2008) On the Genealogy of Morals, Oxford: Oxford World Classics.

Norman Geras (1998) The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy After the Holocaust, London, Verso.

Lawrence Wilde (2013) Global Solidarity, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.


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