President Trump’s campaign hinged on extreme right-wing rhetoric. One of the most celebrated tenets of this rhetoric was his idea to build a border wall. Shouts of “Build the wall!” can still be heard from the mouths of Trump supporters, as has been evident in the recent shutdown. Trump is willing to go to great lengths to try and fulfill that campaign promise. He seems to want to prove his commitment to his voters that he will do whatever he can to protect them, or that is how he puts it publicly. In truth, it seems to stem from a racist fear of a “different” group. There is a lot to be said, however, for not building a wall, especially if the main goal of its construction is to allow people to feel safe in their own homes. Take a look at Northern Ireland, a country that is strewn with peace walls that were created to separate Protestant and Catholic communities from each other, partially due to a conflict that lasted 30 years called the Troubles. Those walls don’t allow cross-community interactions, which help to dehumanize the other group and increase fear of them. They stand as a strong enough example of the fear that a physical barrier between groups can foster over time, rather than work to diminish the fear. If President Trump really wants to provide a stronger sense of security and safety to the American people, he must find other solutions. A physical barrier will not reduce fear or racist ideologies, but rather inspire more dehumanization and fear.
In 1969, the Troubles — a period of about three decades of sectarian fighting between Protestants and Catholics — erupted in Northern Ireland. Prior to the Troubles, communities were already split in how their housing was set up, which ended up congregating the Catholics in deeply deprived housing areas. In the early 1970s, when violent fights between Irish paramilitaries, protestant unionist paramilitaries and British soldiers intensified, several peace walls were built to protect both communities. Though twenty years have passed since the official country-wide peace treaty, these walls still stand, and some have even grown. Residents on both sides cite fear of the “other” as the strongest reason for keeping them exactly where they are. While the Northern Irish “peace” walls were built by two separate groups of people within the same country, the border wall Trump is pushing for is between nations. The reasoning for the two different walls is very similar — to provide protection and make individuals feel safer. Yet physical barriers can only provide so much protection and may really make people feel less safe than before.
As I study in Derry, a small city in Northern Ireland, I am working in the Bogside, an Irish Catholic neighborhood. Although I have no direct connections to the conflict or the land, and was inserted as a foreigner, I interact with individuals who have lived near these walls for years and refuse to have them taken down. When I ask why, they speak of living in fear of the people who lie behind the wall, while saying that they have no interest in harming them. My work is very far from the actual wall, but since our organization is trying to take down the wall, we are all deeply influenced by it, and the work often feels like a desperate uphill battle that’s ultimately unwinnable.
A physical barrier between two groups of people delineates these groups as disparate and no longer allows for easy communication between them. It stops the groups from interacting daily, visibly reinforcing the attitude of ‘othering’.
‘Othering’ is the act of assigning labels to groups that you are not a part of and then excluding them from your own, and is often driven by politicians and the media. Over time, this process cuts off human contact to the other group, and this exclusion often leads to the dehumanization of the ‘other’.
Let’s take the border wall as a familiar example. The wall would separate Mexico and America. Along the campaign trail, Trump relied heavily on the tactics of fear-mongering. He spent about half of his time talking about illegal immigration and making false claims about how it negatively impacts US citizens. He used the same lines on repeat, claiming illegal immigrants were taking American jobs and murdering and assaulting Americans, with few examples to ground his arguments in reality.
Thus, Trump’s rhetoric of “othering” continued post-election, bleeding into the minds of millions of Americans, working as a constant reminder that immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, are dangerous and must be cut off in order to ensure safety. This discourse has created the sense of the other being less than human by reducing them down to criminals, and not discussing the complex people and culture immigrant groups are actually made up of. Instead of raising up the individuals who have made massive contributions to society, Trump instead highlighted the people who had broken laws, thereby creating a false picture of what immigrants are really like.
Excluding ourselves from groups we are unfamiliar with and buying into the process of othering is unhealthy. By only engaging with people who are similar to you, whoever you may be, you box yourself in and do not engage with people from different backgrounds, lives, or beliefs. By not doing engaging with others, you cannot hope to understand the realities of others, which makes taking away their humanity easier. We must learn to associate others with who they are beyond the label we may instinctively place on them. This is the only way to fully humanize and attempt to understand others. And in order to do this, we cannot build a wall and exacerbate the divisions already thriving among us.
Trump has expertly crafted a narrative about safety that works on Americans’ fear of “the other.” He does not have a plan for individuals to grow and better themselves, but rather one that allows them to retreat to what is most familiar. This is not what America should be. America should be a proud, inclusive land filled with individuals who are willing to push new boundaries and become better than they were yesterday. America should not be made up of walls, but rather mixed communities of people who may not all agree, but who are willing to engage and learn from others. And this is the America we must strive for, the one that we must return to, because an America fueled by fear will not prosper like one fueled by hope.