Rebirth of a Legend V - The Dehumanising of the Swan Eating Polish

I'm reading another great book at the moment. 'The Lucifer Effect' by Philip Zimbardo looks over his involvement running the now infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. One interesting thing the author mentions is another psychological experiment into how easily good people can be made to do bad things, similar to the Milgram experiment.

In this one, three groups of three college students were told they were taking part in an experiment to improve the teamwork of three students from another college. The students from the other college would carry out tasks in another room, and when they made mistakes, the students in the experiment would have to administer electric shocks to them, and decide how severe the shock would be.

One group of students were sent into the room and over ten trials ended up administering shocks at around 5 on the scale. But the other two groups were treated differently. One was allowed to "accidentally" overhear an assistant describe the students from the other college as "nice guys", and the other was allowed to overhear the assistant refer to them as being "like animals". The ones who heard the "nice guy" script shocked the other students at a level of about three. The ones who heard the "like animals" script went up "toward the high level 8".

Zimbardo says:
Think carefully for a moment about the psychological processes that a simple label has tripped off in [the students'] mind. [They] overheard a person, whom [they did] not know personally, tell some authority, whom [they had] never seen, that other college students like [them] seem like "animals." That single descriptive term changes [the sudents'] mental construction of these others.
This leads me, in a roundabout fashion, back to the 'Polish people ate our swans' urban myth.

The Mail followed up its earlier coverage with this bag of rubbish 'Immigrant caught cooking swan surrounded by the bodies of slaughtered birds'.

I don't need to go through the thing again, but the evidence we're given that shows an immigrant was caught cooking swan is this:
Mr Gibson did not need to look in the pot to know what it contained: the piles of feathers and stripped carcasses were evidence enough.

By the time he had alerted the authorities, the man - believed to be an East European immigrant - had packed up his tent and fled.

"I just saw a Colombian drug dealer with drugs in his pockets around the corner. I don't need to look in his pockets to know what they contain. Heroin, cocaine and Clarky caps! Arrest any Colombian you find in the area!" You see the problem.

Here's a very brief rundown of what's supposed to have happened - this man stripped several swans for meat, leaving the skeleton intact with the head and neck attached, even plucking and picking the neck and face. Even though he stripped the meat from the bones of the swan, he bothered to remove all its internal organs. In doing all this, he managed to leave several feathers attached to the corpse. He did this instead of just cutting the swans into smaller pieces. He cooked the stripped swans in a pot not much bigger in diameter than his shoe.

The pot's at the bottom right, in case you missed it

And then he was meticulous enough to remove all the swan carcasses, gather up the thousands of feathers that were allegedly fluttering around and dispose of them out of sight in an open plot of land before running off, leaving one swan corpse behind. We're not told why he's believed to be eastern European - or an immigrant at all.

It's the flimsiest of flimsy evidence, taken from a single eyewitness. But the paper treats it as if it's absolutely accurate, and even exaggerates it with the headline's definite claims (although the headline does hedge its bets a bit, using the word 'birds' instead of 'swans'). It does this with no scepticism even though an earlier story on a similar theme turned out to be nonsense.

So why do the papers come back to this particular story? As Anton Vowl points out, in the case of the Mail it doesn't seem to be a deep concern for swans, since there are other, worse stories of swan mistreatment the paper ignores. It's something else that attracts the Mail.

Stories about immigrants eating taboo animals are familiar from other urban legends and from fiction. We all know about the Chinese restaurants that serve cat and dog. From that Snopes article:
Also in North America, the Vietnamese are tarred with a variation of the Chinese restaurant rumor - according to this slander, when a Vietnamese family moves into the neighborhood, all the stray cats disappear. That the Vietnamese don't eat cat doesn't impact this rumor one whit.

Sam Sevlon's 'The Lonely Londoners' includes a comic passage involving a West Indian immigrant attempting to catch and eat a pigeon as a woman looks on in horror and cries out for help.

After the original 'Swan Bake' story appeared in the Sun, the Daily Star followed it up by claiming that Somalian asylum seekers were stealing and eating Donkeys from a donkey sanctuary, and that donkey is a delicacy in Somalia. Somalia is a Muslim country. Donkey is considered Makruh (undesirable) to Muslims.

The swan eating variant is a perfect metaphor for immigration for the Daily Mail. If David Gibson had seen a man cooking his dinner somewhere near a duck carcass, it's unlikely that he would have assumed the man had stripped the duck carcass for food, given the state of the body, or that he would have assumed the man was eastern European. I don't think the Sun or Mail would have covered the story either - but both papers are desperate for proof of this particular myth. Because this one doesn't just show foreigners to be stupid people who have weird customs but don't understand ours, it shows them to be stealing from the Queen. Oh noes!

The Mail has covered stories about swans being eaten by eastern Europeans a number of times. This incident itself has been covered twice and attracted over 60 comments. The only incident of anyone actually being convicted of killing a swan for food wasn't eastern European, but a Bengali Muslim. That story was covered once by the Mail, and attracted a total of four comments, mostly lighthearted. But there haven't been any rumours with all but non-existent evidence about Muslims eating swans that the paper has covered since then, and there hasn't been an urban myth constructed around the idea. There's something particularly attractive about the idea of Eastern Europeans eating swans (and stealing from the Queen) that makes the paper return to the theme whenever any story about the subject emerges, however flimsy the evidence.

This is where the experiment on the college students is relevant.

The students who were 'shocked' (they were actually acting) with the highest voltage were the ones that the experiment's subjects had heard were "like animals". The Mail, and the other tabloids, tell their readers different things about different groups of scapegoats and set up different ones for each. The Polish, according to the Mail, are scrounging dishonest criminal cheats who want to take our jobs and benefits and drain all our resources while diluting our traditions by speaking Polish, opening Polish shops and pubs and being dirty, uncouth, living in our toilets, sexually assaulting our women and spitting everywhere (handily, this story includes vagrancy - something else the paper is keen to associate with eastern Europeans). The paper sees Muslims in a different way, as fanatical, violent terrorists who unfairly demand concessions from the majority while trying to take over with their strange foreign customs - which include not liking to eat animals we consider normal, to the point of wanting to ban pictures of them. Having them actually wanting to eat extra things rather than demand that we don't eat things they don't want to isn't part of the script. Especially if the demand doesn't come in a (misrepresented) report from the MCB.

So the sort of spurious stories that appear in the papers about Muslims involve food like hot cross buns being banned so as not to offend them (when in fact they've never been served, or someone forgot to order them), or banks banning promotions involving piggy banks (when in fact one bank in the story had never used piggy banks and the other just had one promotion period come to an end, and would use piggy banks again in the future). This encourages people to wrongly think similar things are happening for similar reasons to the ones they've read about, so when little Johnny comes home from school around Easter and he hasn't had hot cross buns, his parents assume they must have been banned so as not to offend Muslims. When Mrs Johnson sees no piggy banks in any adverts in her bank, she assumes it's because they've been banned so as not to offend Muslims.

And when Mr Gibson sees a man eating his dinner near a dead swan, he assumes he must be eastern European and eating the swan.

The Mail pushes stories that often turn out to be untrue or exaggerated that make us think harshly of immigrants in order to push its anti-immigration stance. It does that because it assumes its readers are already anti-immigration and want to hear negative stories about it. Paul Dacre thinks that's fine, and the paper's job is to reflect what 'the public' thinks.

But the experiment I talked about at the beginning shows that people are more likely to treat people badly if they've been dehumanised. The students in the experiment had only been labelled as being 'like animals' by one assistant in an experiment who they'd heard once. How many extra sentiments have we been subjected to about the Polish, Muslims and black people (who, as Nick Davies covered in 'Flat Earth News' are likely to have stories in the paper about them dropped as soon as the paper finds out what colour they are)? Is this likely to merely encourage an anti-immigration stance, or something more sinister?


eric the fish said...

I'd not come across the book on Stanfordbefore so one to look out for! Would recommend the German film Das Experiment based on the same concept.

The programme last night on Polish workers found that people blamed them for all litter and dumped rubbish as it confirmed a general perception.

Here on Merseyside (Bill Bryson referred to Liverpool having a Festival of Litter)complaints about the same problem tend to rise once someone makes a comment about seeing a travellers' camp visit town. Similarly with theft of paving slabs.

Five Chinese Crackers said...

I sould have included a link to The Lucifer Effect

Excellent stuff.

I hadn't seen the BBC documentary, but I'll get round to it.

septicisle said...

Great post as usual. As Nick Davies also points out though, before Eastern European immigrants were welcomed with open arms when the evil Soviet Union was still alive and kicking. Same reason why so much fuss was kicked up by papers which otherwise couldn't have cared less when asylum seekers were being sent back to Zimbabwe. The people change, but the story remains the same.