Misperceptions of Reality

A photo of the rescue of migrants from the Sea-Watch on August 21, 2018 / Flickr

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe once said that, “a man sees in the world what he carries in his heart”. Perception and opinion of our environments are partially biased by our preconceptions: we tend to see in the world what we want to. This phenomenon occurs at different levels, ranging from simple prejudice to perilous mass hysteria. Embedding this consideration in a political discussion, it is possible to consider the case of migration towards Italy as the perfect exemplification of Goethe’s quote. Research carried out by the Cattaneo Institute in Bologna in 2018 suggested that, across the whole of Europe, Italians are the ones who most misread the true extent of the migratory phenomenon.

European citizens, broadly speaking, ignore the real numbers related to foreign migration and, furthermore, tend to overstate them. Indeed, over 31 percent of those interviewed were not able to answer when asked about the percentage of non-EU migrants living in the EU. Moreover, those who managed to address the question often departed from reality, suggesting an average perceived immigrant population of  16.7 percent across the whole of Europe, in plain contrast to the real 7.2 percent. This does not mean that migration itself is not a problem, but rather, it is also matched by public rhetoric which tends to  exaggerate the phenomenon, thus conveying a distorted image of reality. Approaching the specific topic of this article, the Italian respondents revealed the most consistent discrepancy between the actual number of immigrants residing in the Mediterranean Peninsula and their personal beliefs, resulting in a discrepancy more than 17 percent. What is the reason behind this form of collective blindness?

Over the last few years, the topic of immigration has been polarizing the opinions of the Italian public. The passage from Northern Africa to Europe via Italy is a particularly divisive issue. The main points of departure towards Italy are Algeria, Tunisia and, more than any other, Libya. Since the death of its former dictator Mu’ammar Gheddafi in 2011 – with whom the Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had stipulated specific agreements aimed at limiting immigration – Italy has experienced a dramatic increase in the numbers of arrivals, receiving more than 500,000 people in the triennium 2014-2016. Furthermore, the high percentage of mortality related to this phenomenon has drawn the attention and the concerns of national and international institutions. The unhcr has estimated that, since 2014, 14,768 migrants have died whilst attempting the crossing. Due to these aspects, migration is considered to be one of the most urgent issues that the Italian political agenda must grapple with.

The relevance of this problem justifies the huge echo that the topic has had – and continues to have – in mass politics, yet it does not explain why the Italian people misinterpret the real extent of migration so badly. Indeed, Italy is not the only European state facing this problem. Spain, Greece and, albeit on a smaller scale, Cyprus and Malta, are also affected. The peculiarity of the Italian migratory case is that it has lately been politicized and exploited by some right-wing populist movements like The League (Lega), spearheaded by Matteo Salvini, and Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia). One of the main distinctive features of any Populist movement is that it attempts to draw up a paramount dichotomy between ‘us’ – the people – and ‘them’ – the others – in order to build a common political identity and set of values through which the electorate can mirror itself. The ‘Other’ can be represented by anyone who, because of being different, can be considered as a threat to the common order.

The leader of The League, Matteo Salvini, delivering a speech to the European Parliament in 2015 / Flickr

Some of the key messages delivered by right-wing parties convey the concern of tougher competition in the labour market; the fear of losing cultural and religious heritage; and the fear of abandonment from the state. These sentiments seem to nurture a suspicion towards the ‘foreigner’ and subconsciously overstate the real scale of the issue. In this regard, the research conducted by the Cattaneo Institute offers empirical proof of the alleged relation between political endorsement and reality distortion. The respondents who explicitly declared their political orientation towards the right put the size of the migrant population in Italy at 32.4 percent, four times greater than what the real data tells us.

Further evidence of the misperceptions that the right-wing movements tend to convey can be seen through an analysis of political discourse. During an exclusive interview for Time magazine, Matteo Salvini established a straightforward relationship between the current economic recession in Italy and the migratory phenomenon: as long as the economy is in decline, Italy will not open its borders to migrants. The tight policies regarding immigration that have been adopted during Salvini’s one-year mandate as the Minister of Internal Affairs – which came to an end on the 5th of September 2019 – are justified, according to him, by the priority that the Italian State should give to national citizens, especially in terms of labour market competition. Portraying the image of a saturated labor market that can only be damaged by further immigration hits the mark. The research pointed out that the biggest gap between real data and opinion comes from people who do not have a high school diploma and, due to this, are the most precarious on the labour market. This is understood to be because they see the new immigrants as direct rivals in the competition for jobs.

Again, the problem is that reality contradicts these sentiments. Following a statement made by Tito Boeri, Director of the National Institute of Social Protection, Italy needs a steady migratory flow in order to combat its demographic decline. The danger of labour shortages, especially in occupations which are not considered particularly appealing by Italian nationals, is now more significant than ever. In this specific context, the contrast between perception and reality has led to a clash. This is why Salvini’s reply was harsh and direct: he accused Boeri of being politically and ideologically involved. He accused him of bias. Although the quarrel broke out in 2018, Italy can still see its aftermath in the open conflict between the “technical and bureaucratic elite”, as Salvini is keen to call experts, and the Populist leader himself, backed by a consistent 30 percent of the electorate.

Tito Boeri, the Director of the National Institute of Social Protection from 2014 to 2019 / Wikimedia Commons

Today, Salvini is no longer the Minister of Internal Affairs in Italy. After the distrust he showed towards  Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, the Five Stars Movement (Movimento 5 stelle) managed to replace their former political agreement with The League with a new one with the Democratic Party (PD). Salvini was brought back to opposition. The attitude that the new government takes towards migrants over the next few months will be crucial for the continuation of the government itself. In light of what has been argued, the new political path should both cope with the concrete and the rhetorical aspects of this problem. What must first change is the pattern of public speech which, nowadays, backs the political issue, in order to modify the bias citizens seem to display towards migrants. If the new government fails in this double-sided task, this will pave the way for the right-wing movements and their populist rhetoric. 

Lorenzo Lombardi

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