From as early as the 1880s doctors began to report a truly puzzling medical condition. Eventually named ‘Anton’s Syndrome’, medics noticed that some patients who had suffered a sudden loss of sight continued to deny their blindness, pretending that they could see, constructing ever more elaborate stories to justify their stumbles and collisions with furniture. This phenomenon provides us with an alternative lens to view not only Chris Grayling’s plans to cut legal aid to ‘immigrants and foreigners’, but the ethos underpinning the Government’s Immigration Bill, which has its second reading today. Because what we are witnessing unfolding before us is a syndrome that rather than being medical in origin is social – an acute form of social blindness.
So let’s call it, for want of a better word, Grayling Syndrome, and consider its characteristic symptoms.
What we typically find is the patient denying the reality of the immense damage to the social fabric (and furniture) he or she is causing. A chronic insensitivity to the harm inflicted on vulnerable others. The constructing of evermore delusional and hysterical stories to justify the patient’s loss of attachment to the real world and the suffering of the people in it.
Sociologists call this behaviour a ‘state of denial’. When faced with the appalling and the atrocious, we develop a kind of mind-blindness, a glazing over of the urgently human implications of what we are seeing and doing.
And this offers us a privileged insight into the Government’s breathtaking callousness towards migrants. Because we spy in HMG’s proposed stripping of legal rights, extensive use of biometrics and cultivation of a climate of fear, both its hard outer shell – its grotesque exoskeleton – and something deeper and more disturbing: the moral soul of a political machine designed not to care.
Two cogs drive this pernicious mechanism.
Firstly, the systematic dehumanisation of its target victims. And then secondly, a spreading of social blindness through the unspoken suggestion that their suffering can be passed over, ignored, disqualified – that it just doesn’t ‘count’.
A crucial part of this process is the ‘hostile environment’ that Teresa May is determined to create for anyone having the temerity step on our shores without a piece of stamped paper. However, her contrived siege mentality, her tiresome little islander bigotry, amounts to a denial of human history. For since our ancestors left Africa 1.8 million years ago, human history has been meaningfully shaped by a succession of waves of migration, from those that brought down the Roman Empire, to the colonisation of the New World, to the movement of peoples from former colonies to the West. Historically, of course, one of the principal drivers of these movements has been the search for life-sustaining resources.
In this, modern migrants are no different, seeking a better life for themselves and their families. But what the Government seeks to accomplish by these policies is to impose an increased cost on those seeking to share in our resources. The policy interventions are an act of deterrence – to deter migrants from coming at all or to make their stay unbearable by, for example, severely curtailing health and social welfare support. However, this strategy ignores two fundamental facts.
Firstly, it is trying to turn the tide of the world’s advancing globalisation. But secondly, and more critically, it palpably fails to understand that people in desperate situations do not rationally calculate a plan of action.
Think about the catastrophic deaths of 300 Somali and Eritrean migrants, whose fishing boat caught fire and sank off the coast of Sicily earlier this month.
While we might find it hard to imagine the horror those hopeful travellers endured in their last moments, it is also hard to conceive of the desperation that drives our fellow human beings to pack themselves and their children into what have been chillingly called ‘floating hearses’. The truth is they will continue to come, however hostile the environment, however unpromising the odds.
Therefore we are left with three things.
Firstly, the inevitability that migrants will still migrate. And thus all the Government will achieve is the infliction of further suffering upon them. Next, the Government will necessarily remain rigidly mind-blind to the deepening misery it causes its victims. And lastly, the policy, as we’ve already so vividly seen, will be accompanied by a deeply cynical propaganda campaign aimed at inducing in others the same kind of social blindness. All this is certain. So what can be done – what is the antidote to Grayling Syndrome?
I want to suggest that you and I have three obligations.
Firstly, we have a duty to challenge the invidious barbarities of this policy whenever we can. Find some form of protest today. Even just tell someone else about it today. Secondly, we must endeavour to publicise the plight of its victims wherever we are able.
But even in doing so, we must guard against the trap of speaking too broadly about an undifferentiated category of ‘immigrants and foreigners’, a discourse that in itself can dehumanise them.
And finally – what? The hardest thing of all: getting the wider public to care. I believe, however, that we can make a compelling case that an administration so thoroughly desensitised to the suffering of outsiders is well along the ravaged road to dismissing the suffering of those closer to home.
And that kind of government is a danger. To the entire social fabric. To the future. Armed with this argument we are in a position to remind the public and politicians of what we share with the victims of the Immigration Bill: a common ancestral history, and a precious thing called humanity. It is simple, and sublime.
Dexter is a barrister at Garden Court Chambers, a researcher at Harvard University and a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge