The petition against Donald Trump’s ‘state visit’ to the United Kingdom has gathered over 1.8 million signatories. (I am one of them). Of particular concern to many of these signatories has been Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’, and its perceived infringement of international human rights law. But there is a curiosity, one that has been seized upon by those more positively disposed to Trump. Trump’s actions to date are surely less objectionable, from a human rights perspective, than the historical actions of Saudi Arabia and China, and the leaders of both of those countries have enjoyed recent state visits to the United Kingdom with (relative to Trump) little outcry. Can these differing scales of public reaction be justified? I suspect not; only explained.
One reason for the difference may be a variation on the idea of ‘availability bias’, where the latter refers to an overestimation of the statistical likelihood of certain events due to ease of cognitive recall. Part of the reason the public reaction to Trump is so strong must surely be because we are confronted far more frequently with Trump’s actions (and American politics more generally) than with, say, Saudi Arabian politics. However, availability bias is a cognitive error: we are led by it to react more strongly to situations that are objectively less bad than others simply because those others are less easily ‘available’ to us. Availability bias helps explain the UK reaction to Trump relative to leaders from China or Saudi Arabia, but does not justify it.
What might work as a justification? One possible answer is that it is worse for a liberal democracy to institute illiberal policies than for an illiberal state not to become more liberal. But why is it worse? It’s possible that there is another cognitive bias at work here: ‘loss aversion’. When we’re loss averse, we are more concerned about losing what we already have than gaining what we don’t have, even where the expected value of the gain is greater than the loss. But this is irrational. Any argument for the UK reaction to Trump that took this sort of line (supposing that we ought to react more strongly to the loss of American respect for human rights than to the equivalent or greater increase in respect in a country like China) would be similarly irrational.
Perhaps, though, there is a sense of greater national responsibility on our part for events occurring in the US than in Saudi Arabia or China, on account of our ‘special relationship’. But I’m not sure any such sense could be vindicated. Saudi Arabia is the UK’s biggest arms customer, and those arms have surely been used in the service of severe human rights violations. If the question is one of national responsibility, one might think we’ve got things backwards.
Maybe, instead, the thought is that we can have greater positive influence on the human rights record of the US President than other leaders. Not only is that somewhat questionable given Trump’s unpredictable temperament, but such cool instrumentalism is at odds with the tenor of the disquiet Trump’s state visit has elicited: the public has surely not calmly alighted upon the Trump state visit as the most efficient means to make a positive difference in the world. Rather, we are reacting first, and offering rationales later.
What about identity? Is the fact that we may identify more closely with the US a good reason to react more strongly to human rights infringements there than elsewhere? Given the universalism inherent in the idea of human rights, I’m not sure how it could be. Similarly, any appeal to ‘cultural difference’ that may be made in relation to the muted response to state visits from Saudi Arabia and China also cannot fly: either we believe human rights are universal, or we don’t believe in human rights. If identity is playing a role in differing UK reactions, it must again be as explanation, not justification.
There is a final sting in the tail. Analysis of the data behind the Trump petition demonstrates a strong correlation between its signatories and opposition to Brexit. Correlation is not causation. But a 91 per cent correlation suggests strongly that there are political commitments and emotions at play in the British reaction to Trump that extend beyond the discrete assessment of his human rights record, and indeed beyond anything much to do with him at all.
Jesper L Pedersen
Hi Luke, thanks for a thought-provoking post – but certainly not one that’ll stop me joining the protests if Trump’s visit gets moved to Birmingham where I currently live.
I wonder if you’re not a little quick to dismiss identity as a justification for protests? The idea that everyone has an equal right to something doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone has an equal obligation to be the guardian of that right. For instance, we all (hopefully) agree that children have the right to grow up in a safe environment, but that doesn’t necessarily entail a duty to provide that for anyone other than your own children. While we have a duty to alert the authorities to cases of serious abuse of other children, the line’s less clear with minor infractions. We might simultaneously think we should intervene if family members fail to take good care of their kids, and that we shouldn’t when strangers do so – not because we don’t care about them, but because we recognise that we’re too far removed to have the moral authority to act, and might end up making things worse as a result.
For better or for worse, we are closer with the US than with Saudi Arabia. We share a language and, if not a culture, then at least a ton of cultural reference points. We pay (lip) service to the same ideas of freedom, individualism and democracy, and we hold ourselves up to the same high moral standards publically, even as we both regularly fail to meet them. So while protesting Trump but not King Salman might suggest we care more about one than the other, that doesn’t necessarily equate to us giving it a greater moral worth. It’s just closer to us.
Hi Jesper, thanks for the comment!
What I’ve written won’t stop me from protesting either. That’s really my point: I consider my own reaction essentially irrational, but that doesn’t stop it being my reaction. I am not rational in my political behaviour; nor is anyone else, I don’t think.
I’m always suspicious about analogies involving familial relationships. They’re often used in the political theory of nationalism and I find them out of place, because I don’t accept that families are anything like nations. Similarly, I don’t see that Britain’s relationship to the US is anything like a parent’s relationship to their child, so I don’t see the force of that analogy.
It’s true that we’re ‘closer’, identity wise, to the US than Saudi Arabia, and considered in abstraction, that might give us a reason to pay more attention to human rights in the first case (although I’m not sure). But, as I say, the UK has a responsibility for human rights abuses carried out by Saudi Arabia, and if we pay proper attention to that, it’s difficult, in my opinion, to justify the different public reaction in the two cases.