Refugees and risk: Can TOK encourage a more thoughtful approach?

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In the Theory of Knowledge classroom, we can’t solve the problems of climate change, war, and terrorism. However, what we CAN do is much needed in this historical moment in the west: we can give our students a calm space to stand back from the high emotion and knee-jerk opinionating that surrounds many of them. We can encourage them to apply a more thoughtful and critical approach to how knowledge claims are made and justified, and in the process develop their thinking further for the messy world they are about to inherit. The past week in the world has given far too many examples for TOK topics, but I’ll just suggest a few that stand out for me – and then I’ll link you to an article on refugees that you’re bound to find interesting.

1. How careful are we in classifying people – for instance, in the accuracy of observation, the consistency of criteria, and the relevance of the category to a discussion?

I’ve blogged before on aspects of this topic, and you may want to glance back at any of the following for threads of ideas carried throughout:

 “World Refugee Day: What do our categories leave out?” June 20, 2015

“Classification and implications: Who is black, or indigenous, or Jewish?” June 17, 2015

 “’Passing’ as black: classification and social implications”, June 14, 2015.

 This week it seems important, bizarrely, to sort out the category “refugees” for people fleeing violence from the category “terrorists” for people perpetrating violence of a particular form. When fear of others and anxieties about sharing the world with them – especially sharing our own countries with them – become acute, then different categories of anxiety-inducing people can blur together in a fearful mind. When fear is also accompanied by unfamiliarity and misinformation, then almost anything negative said about the “scary people” is often, in intuitive confirmation bias, accepted uncritically…and becomes difficult to refute.

In the classroom, I suggest asking students what categories of people they have encountered in recent media reports about refugees, compiling a list and working with students to sort out how the groups relate to one another (e.g. Syrians, Muslims, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, jihadists, Christians, immigrants, migrants, refugees, criminals, extremists, terrorists, victims) Useful TOK tools: using venn diagrams, recognizing logical fallacies (e.g. argument from fear, hasty generalization, false cause), recognizing cognitive biases (e.g. confirmation bias, availability heuristic), and analyzing intersecting ways of knowing and the relationship between concepts and language.

It’s worth knowing – only in case the misinformation comes up — that the terrorists who carried out the attacks in Paris have not been identified as refugees or Syrians, but so far as European nationals. An early news report claimed that a Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the terrorists but was later confirmed to be erroneous.

What and how we think carries implications for how we act. Arguments based on confused categories and fear have already undermined, in some regions, the humanitarian imperative to welcome desperate people seeking asylum.

2. How rational are most people in assessing risk?

If you’ve dealt already with the relationship between intuition as a way of knowing and reason as a way of knowing, then students are probably already well aware of the difference between the swift conclusions of intuition and the slower thinking of conscious reasoning. They will recall that people are demonstrably bad at assessing risk: many studies have shown that our intuitive reactions simply do not match rationally calculated statistical odds. Moreover, our cognitive biases (availability heuristic) incline us to seize on stories or incidents that come quickly to mind – such as an unusual and dramatic event – and to see them as representative. (See chapter 12, Theory of Knowledge Course Book.)

So how much more dangerous is the world today than it was a couple of weeks ago? What are the chances of being killed in a terrorist attack? Just for a sense of measure, I’d suggest two things.

First, share the following infographic with the class, and ask them where they think increased money and attention would best be directed in order to save lives.

Lauren Friedman, “The things most likely to kill you in one infographic”, infographic from the United Kingdom National Health Service.

screen shot 2015-02-12 at 1.19.20 pm

Second, raise for question the power of a tragic incident to change our sense of risk and fear. Has the world suddenly become more dangerous – and in a way that suddenly demands extreme reaction? Did the attacks on Paris “change everything”, in a moment akin to the US tragedy of 9/11? Or, to some extent, has the tragedy in Paris drawn western media attention, and flooded social media, largely because the people affected were western Europeans? It’s not comforting to suggest that the world has been terrible all along – and you may not want to develop this idea far with your students! Yet you might feel that they should at least be aware that, while the western media paid attention to Paris, they were much less emotional about the bombing of the Russian plane and largely ignored attacks in Beirut the day before Paris. Why, you might ask? What counts as newsworthy – and to whom? (Other parts of the world will have covered events with different centres of interest.)

Similarly, you might – or might not — want to put the attacks in Paris in context of statistics on all the terrorist attacks of the past years. Again, it’s not comforting to do so, since those statistics represent real people whose deaths you wouldn’t want to minimize. Framing a single tragedy with others can risk sounding heartless, and taking too great a distance can risk seeming not to take seriously a very real threat. However, stepping back for a statistical approach might at least give students a way of recognizing the emotional wave of grief, fear, anger, and patriotism that can wash away other, better proportioned justifications for decisions on what actions to take.  What’s emotional and immediate can loom disproportionately large!

3. In what ways can history use our past to give greater understanding of our present?

Below is the article I promised you at the beginning, and I hope you find it interesting. How would I use it in class? I’d ask students to pick out and quickly list the objections to refugees made in the article. If they’ve been following the news, that’s probably enough for comparisons to resonate. You’ll want to pose knowledge questions, of course, about patterns in history – and about the role of the historian in recognizing (or imposing) them. You’ll also want to ask about perspectives — compared across time. But I leave this to you! I’ve talked enough for one day!

Lee Fang, “Anti-Syrian Muslim Refugee Rhetoric Mirrors Calls to Reject Jews During Nazi Era”, The Intercept, November 18, 2015.

You might also find interesting this 2011 article on the Canadian response to refugees from Sri Lanka: “Tamil, tiger, terrorist? Anti-migrant hysteria and the criminalization of asylum seekers”


Whether we tackle particular issues in the real world and the media in our Theory of Knowledge classroom depends on how much time we have at a particular juncture, whether they are hot topics in our own part of the world, and whether students have learned the appropriate thinking skills by that point in the course. Yet, when we recognize that dominant social thinking is awash with faulty thinking and emotions that could damage political and personal decision-making, then we might feel compelled to seize, as much as we can, on the “teachable moments”.


Abigail Abrams,”Paris Attack 2015: Named Terrorists all European Nationals”, International Business Times. November 19, 2015. 

Anne Barnardnov, “Beirut, Also the Site of Deadly Attacks, Feels Forgotten”, The New York Times. November 15, 2015.

Fathima Cader, “Tamil, tiger, terrorist? Anti-migrant hysteria and the criminalization of asylum seekers”, Briarpatch Magazine. July 7, 2011.

Lee Fang, “Anti-Syrian Muslim Refugee Rhetoric Mirrors Calls to Reject Jews During Nazi Era”, The Intercept, November 18, 2015.

France says the name ‘ISIS’ is offensive, will call it ‘Daesh’ instead”, The Week. Sept 17, 2014.

Lauren Friedman, “The things most likely to kill you in one infographic”, Business Insider. Feb 12, 2015. infographic from the United Kingdom National Health Service.

Elahe Idazi, “Paris terror attack: The booming black market for fake Syrian passports”, The Independent, November 22 2015.

Amanda Terkel and Nick Wing, “Hating Refugees is Pretty Much as American As Apple Pie”, Huffington Post. November 18, 2015.

Ishaan Thanoor, “What Americans thought of Jewish refugees on the eve of World War II”, Washington Post. November 17, 2015.

Trevor Timm, “Paris is being used to justify agendas that had nothing to do with the attack”, The Guardian, November 20, 2015.

UNHCR. “Crossings of Mediterranean Sea exceed 300,000, including 200,000 to Greece”, News Stories, UNHCR. 28 August 2015.