One useful method to try to deny the fact that someone possesses basic human dignity is to cultivate an “us vs. them” mindset. To do this we must ignore the individual in front of us and instead see only the class of people they represent to us. This helps us to forget that the other person possesses the same human dignity that we have, and allows us to place the other person in a category of “bad people” who are inferior to and opposed to us “good people.”
I made a friend several years back, a Syrian man who was in the States for some higher education. He used to tell me over lunch about the glories of Damascus, and he looked forward to going back there. After he finished his education he did return to Damascus, where he set up his own business. We maintained a regular e-mail correspondence.
Then the Syrian civil war broke out. I became worried for my friend and expressed as much to him, but he reassured me that he wasn’t in much danger. He was apolitical and kept a low profile. But one day he stopped answering my e-mails. I wrote several times with no response. I assumed the worst.
However, about a year and a half later, I heard from him again. He had been arrested for doing business with “the wrong kind of people,” and thrown into a jail. There he had been tortured, seen people killed in front of him, and experienced horrors that he refused to write to me about. Somehow he had gotten out, and he is now establishing a new life in Europe, learning a new language and finding new work.
My friend is a refugee, fleeing monstrous evil. There are some politicians and government leaders, even in this country, who would lump my friend in with his persecutors, placing him in the category of “doesn’t deserve our help.” In so doing they would categorically deny the human dignity that he inherently possesses. They would do this by relegating my friend and all other Syrian refugees to the “them bad guys” category — those people, who are fundamentally different from and pose a danger to “us.” Unlike someone with full human dignity status, they are not worthy of our help.
I don’t know much about public policy. There may be perfectly sound reasons to keep out Syrian refugees which don’t involve the outright denial of their full human dignity. If so, I haven’t heard any yet. And to practice this blatant denial of an individual’s human dignity harms not only those whom we would keep out; even more, it damages the character and soul of the people who practice it.