By Robert S. Nix
My favorite commercial is the one where the spokesman tries to apologize over dinner in a posh restaurant to two cavemen whom he has inadvertently insulted while touting how easy it is to use his company’s website. Says the contrite spokesman, “seriously, we apologize – we had no idea you guys were still around.”
“Yeah, next time, maybe do a little research,” the first caveman snorts back sarcastically. The other caveman, sunglasses perched atop his head, wearing a white Miami Vice sports coat with white shirt, orders the roast duck with the mango salsa. But the first caveman hands his menu back to the waiter, adding curtly: “I don’t have much of an appetite, thank you.” He glares across the table at his host with an insolent smirk.
I love the GEICO cavemen; they portray perfectly the quintessential modern, civilized man-about-cave. But, then again, I can relate because I’m something of a modern caveman myself. We all are, actually. And, like it or not, we all possess some residual caveman mentality, too.
It’s the only thing that adequately explains the predictability of our gut level, xenophobic reaction –unsupported by meaningful economic or social data — to any notable wave of immigration into our midst. As a species, we’ve always been like that.
We originally developed the reaction as a survival mechanism back when we really were cavemen. Of course, we no longer need that instinct to survive, but it hasn’t completely evolved away yet either. Still residing somewhere deep in the most primitive part of the brain is this ancient instinct that helped our species survive.
You see, a million years ago, cavemen almost didn’t survive. Scientists say that primitive man nearly starved to extinction, basically because life was too hard – what with all the ice ages, and not yet having made it to the top of the food chain, and all.
No doubt, you’ve heard someone say before, “I can’t eat that – it’ll go straight to my thighs.” The cliché originates from another survival mechanism. Scientists say that the caveman’s metabolism specialized in converting almost anything it could eat into body fat, to efficiently stash away sustenance for lean times. Sadly, it seems we haven’t been able to lose that particular trait to evolution either.
The xenophobic instinct is a response to competition over scarce resources. In an already adverse environment of a million years ago, if different groups of primitive hominoids had found themselves competing with each other over the same food supply, it might have been disastrous. Reflexive xenophobia kept the groups far enough apart from each other for each group to have a better chance of survival. Evolving from hunter-gatherers to farmers who settled the land, we retained an instinctual fear of foreigners, creating nation-states and defending from outsiders the lands upon which we were dependent to survive.
That primordial distrust of foreigners still surfaces occasionally today as anti-immigrant sentiment in an interconnected world of nations, mega-corporations, and a global economy, where the scarce resources might be jobs, government services, or economic opportunity.
Right now, in this country, we’re experiencing a nativist backlash against a large immigrant wave of Hispanics, primarily from Mexico. Prior to that, in the early 1900’s, the same sentiments were directed against large immigrant waves of Poles and Italians. In the mid 1800’s, the same sentiment greeted the waves of Irish immigrants fleeing the great famine in their own country.
Thus the current highly emotional debate over immigration reform, giving rise to anti-Hispanic sentiment and English-only movements, is only the most recent manifestation of a behavior we’ve been exhibiting since we were cavemen.
But that doesn’t justify or excuse xenophobic behavior. If anything, it suggests that, perhaps, we haven’t evolved as much as we’d like to think. But at least if we can recognize our anti-immigrant sentiment for what it really is, a caveman reaction, then maybe we can begin to address immigration reform issues at a more evolved intellectual level rather than as a base primitive reflex.
In the meantime, before boasting that your website is “so easy, even a caveman can use it” – try doing a little research first – because you just may find that we’re all still around.
Robert S. Nix is a government relations consultant and lobbyist who can be reached in Philadelphia at robertnix(at)phoenixstrategiesllc(dot)com.