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When talking about Syrian refugees, be better than you-know-who. [Commentary]

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“Apparently they are scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America. At first they were too scared of the press being too tough on them in the debates. Now they are scared of three year old orphans. That doesn’t seem so tough to me.”

Before you google who uttered the above quote (which might not be that hard to guess), let’s discuss some of the terms mentioned: the “they” in it refers to 2016 Republican presidential candidates, and the “widows” and “orphans” are the nouns he used to describe the 4 million refugees from Syria (most of whom seem to be able-bodied young men, not ‘widows and orphans’), fleeing the current terrorist chaos there on the other side of the globe, inflamed by the terrorist group ISIS. At least 10,000 of these refugees would like to re-locate to the United States as soon as possible.

The statement was made in the context of a very important debate we are having in our country about the first steps we should be taking in response to the Paris terrorist attacks of last week. On one side, you have those (like myself) who believe that we should be doing everything we can to immediately shore up our own borders and defenses, to make sure we’re protected against anyone who’d like to do something similar here in the U.S. We’re not “anti-refuge” or “anti-Muslim.” We are “anti-what-happened-in-Paris-happening-here-so-let’s-take-reasonable–immediate-steps-to-ensure-our-safety.” There have already been dozens of cases of terrorists who have faked being refugees — to other countries AND the U.S. —  and all it takes is one fake refugee who is actually a terrorist to inflict mayhem and damage of countless magnitudes. On the other side, you have people who do not want to change anything about our current refugee policy, and believe that changing anything about it – even putting a pause on refugees coming in to the U.S. – is not something we should do. These Syrians are fleeing terrorists and seeking refuge from their war-torn land, and the compassionate thing to do is let them into our country. Now, I would like to think that we ALL agree that we additionally need to respond in kind to the terrorists who perpetrated these attacks on our friends in France, but how exactly we should do that is a bit more complicated and not the point of this post. This is more about the tone of the debate on this more immediate issue: to pause or not pause our Syrian refugee policy. So back to this “widows and orphans” quote.

This of course is a text-book definition of the “straw man” technique when you’re trying to make an argument about something, but I would argue it’s the least-worst thing you can do (we’ll get to things that are worse in a second). You first say something insanely ridiculous (“My opponents are afraid of widows and orphans”) which by comparison makes your own argument look sane and valid. It’s a debating trick as old as language itself, and we’re all probably guilty of it on occasion (“YOU want to watch some sappy, stupid, unrealistic and predictable rom-com, but I want to watch something science-based and educational, like Star Wars.”) The person who said the “widows and orphans” quote though does it so frequently that it’s to the point now of becoming a tic. Worse than the straw man technique is when people couch what they say in terms like “this goes against our values” and “this is not who we are,” which suggests that not only are your opponents’ arguments stupid and fearful, but that they are unethical and go against the founding principles of our great country. And finally, the worst rhetorical trick…I’d almost call it sinister…is try to make biblical comparisons to make your argument. I’ve seen more than a couple of “Jesus was a refugee” memes sprinkled throughout social media in the last week or so…no, Jesus was not a refugee, and the story of the birth of Jesus is NOT a parable about hospitality, let alone a story about international refugee policies, and to intentionally misinterpret the Bible in such a way to make a political point like this I think is downright egregious. When you use this last technique, you’re suggesting, in essence, that your opponents have no soul.

Let me suggest a different approach. A friend of mine in Rochelle, Jay Burlison, posted the following on Facebook the other day:

“I hope that sometime in the very near future, we all come to the understanding that, while we may stand on differing sides of certain issues, everyone’s heart is in the right place. Those who want to open our doors to the refugees of Syria see America as a place that offers protection from the chaos that groups like ISIS represent. That’s not to say they don’t care about current citizens, they just want some compassion for those seeking refuge. Many who don’t want to let the refugees in say that we have plenty of our own citizens that we need to care for first and that admitting these refugees in may pose a safety risk for current citizens. That doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care about foreigners fleeing danger, they just want some compassion for the people that are already here. Neither side is wrong… To disagree on things is a part of life but before we let things get to the point of open hostility in the social media world, try to understand where someone’s heart is placed in their argument. More often than not you’ll find that while it may not be in the place as yours, it is there, it is full and in the end, it wants the same basic things that your heart wants. Peace. Joy. Unity. Compassion.”

Hear, hear, Jay. That’s how you do it. Not like the first guy.

So who said the “widows” and “orphans” quote? Well, it wasn’t some anonymous snarker online in the comments under a youtube video, it wasn’t a radio host or blogger, it wasn’t Michael Moore, and it wasn’t even a current presidential candidate. It was the current President of the United States himself, Barack Obama, and he said it this past Tuesday while the Philippines.

So I ask you, when you engage in this very important and necessary debate in the coming days and weeks, and you call your congressman and our two U.S. Senators, and you express your opinion to them, be like my friend Jay. Assume the best in your opponent’s heart.

Don’t be like the guy who said the first quote, Barack Obama…Be better than that.

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