Tracing A Link Between Science And Xenophobia

The self/other theory of immunology rests on the xenophobic assumption that 'others' are always dangerous and need to be removed.

Xenophobia often borrows metaphors from immunology
Xenophobia often borrows metaphors from immunology
Charudatta Navare*

MUMBAI — While World War II raged, Peter Medawar and Thomas Gibson were trying to treat burns with skin transplants at the Glasgow Infirmary. They took the upper layer of some skin from a healthy person and grafted it onto burn wounds. The grafts worked miraculously some of the time but not at all in the rest.

Medawar studied why and came up with an explanation: he believed the body sometimes rejected a skin graft because the body's security system rejected "foreign" substances in the graft. He hypothesized that the immune system learns to tolerate substances recognized as the "self" and rejects those of "outsider" origin. In 1960, Medawar won a part of the medicine Nobel Prize for his idea of immunological tolerance.

The self/other theory remains widely accepted in scientific and popular circles. However, scientists have noted many examples that the theory's underlying principle can't explain. For one, the human body contains at least as many microbial cells as human cells. This human microbiome — the community of microbes that live in and on the human body — is crucial for our good health. And our relationship with the microbiome is far more complex than the one captured by the self/other distinction.

Scientists have found many ways in which the human immune system learns to "tolerate" these microbes. Margaret McFall-Ngai, a U.S. biologist, has even suggested that our immune system might have evolved for the "need to maintain a substantial resident microbiota." And the function of the immune system might be to figure out what should not be attacked.

Another observation the self/other theory fails to explain is pregnancy. A fetus is necessarily a foreign body. The question of how babies are born might elicit a slightly different answer from an immunologist. They can tell you all about the many ways in which a mother's immune system tolerates the fetus, and the disorders that result when this tolerance goes awry. The normal here, as with the human microbiome, is an acceptance of the foreign. We tolerate antigens in our food as well. When we don't, we think of that danger — and not the foreignness — as a problem, and call it an allergy.

The American immunologist Polly Matzinger formalized this view, of the dangerous/safe distinction. The danger model says that the immune system's primary role is the need to detect and protect against danger. In an old interview to a newspaper, Matzinger used the following analogy to explain her idea:

Imagine a community in which the police accept anyone they met during elementary school and kill any new migrant. That's the self/nonself model. In the danger model, tourists and immigrants are accepted until they start breaking windows. Only then do the police move to eliminate them. In fact, it doesn't matter if the window breaker is a foreigner or a member of the community. That kind of behavior is considered unacceptable, and the destructive individual is removed.

The self/other model of the immune system emerged against the backdrop of the World War II. Its development invites us to inspect how the larger political and social values of the time became a part of scientific theories.

Lisa Weasel and Emily Martin, both social scientists studying science, have noted how analogies and metaphors we use in science have social consequences. Just like values in the context of science enter scientific findings, science also serves to reinforce the same values in society. We often seek to "legitimize" our views and policies using scientific vocabulary.

So was Medawar's and Burnett's theory influenced by their circumstances? Perhaps. Has the self/other distinction become encoded in our explanations of the immune system? Definitely. We often use military metaphors — of soldiers battling enemies — to describe the immune system. In this discourse, the immune system becomes an army inside you. The white blood cells are foot soldiers trained to track down and eliminate invaders lurking within the body.

The self/other theory rests on the xenophobic assumption that "others' are always dangerous and need to be removed. Politicians have regularly exploited the figure of the outsider to divide and polarize voters. The rhetoric that "outsiders' are responsible for many of a country's or state's problems is pervasive.

The self/other theory is often used as a justification for xenophobia — Photo: chuttersnap

In Maharashtra, for example, the Shiv Sena has craftily used Shivaji as a symbol to fuel xenophobia and violence. In Assam, the state government published a draft citizenship registry that excludes millions of people, and has started detaining "foreigners." Rohingya refugees fleeing genocide in Myanmar face hostilities in India. Election manifestos for the impending Lok Sabha polls abound with promises to curb the "invaders problem."

Such xenophobia often borrows metaphors from immunology. Immigrants are dehumanized as infections. Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and popular science writer, recently compared Islam to cancer.

Perhaps most telling is this example from Australia. The Australian government has a terrible human rights record when it comes to refugees. In its so-called Pacific Solution, it has detained hundreds of refugees since 2001 and transported them to the islands of Manus and Nauru, where living conditions are abysmal.

This dirty work was subcontracted to a few security companies, and one of them is called BroadSpectrum — alluding to the broad-spectrum antibiotics that kill a wide range of bacteria.

In some ways, Matzinger's danger/safe distinction can be more fruitful when applied to social issues because it doesn't naturally equate "outsiders' to harmful. It doesn't imply that "others' are to be feared. But of course it can also help create justification for terrible policies. Activists like G.N. Saibaba and Sudha Bharadwaj were arrested because, the police reasoned, they are dangerous.

That brings us to the biggest lesson of all: that scientific theories can't tell us what is morally right or wrong. What happens in nature or what happens in the human body can't tell us what we should do in society. That is up to us.

*The author is a research scholar at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Mumbai.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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