The reappropriation of international demography in ideological narratives
The recent weeks have been marked by the recurrence of demographic issues. Notably, a series of bills approved by the Hungarian Parliament at the beginning of the month aimed at thwarting the ageing process of the country’s population. Alongside this vote, the French Minister of Solidarity and Health, Agnès Buzyn, put forward a draft bill to cope with similar demographic picture (1). Coupled with that, a famous American researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Daron Acemoglu, published in March his latest work entitled “Demographics and Automation”. Eventually, the Christchurch shootings rocked the boat after the perpetrator of the attack, Brenton Tarrant, published a 73-page manifesto on the internet nine minutes before the shootings, named after a theory based on demographics, called the “Great Replacement”.
This predicament sparked fresh thoughts about the way scientific demographics are coarsely and perilously popularised through ideological extremist narratives. This manifesto blew the whistle on the way demographics are sometimes portrayed, professing civilisation-level problems when it only veils political, economic and social challenges that require answers of the same kind.
When science meets ignorance, it becomes a pretext to kill
The title chosen by Brenton Tarrant follows on from a conspiracy theory, first coined by the far-right French writer Jean Renaud Gabriel Camus in his book The Great Replacement (“Le Grand Replacement” in French) in 2012. This theory argues that demographic global trends are meant to result in a replacement of white people by non-white people. The manifesto begins like this: “It’s the birth rates. It’s the birth rates. It’s the birth rates”. This quote hints at the main argument of the theory, namely, the “falling” birthrates among women in predominantly white countries are doomed to lead to a progressive but relentless downfall of white population. Whereas the birthrates of most African countries would continue to skyrocket, bringing about a danger of “invasion” through “inevitable” mass migrations. This conspiracy theory takes its roots into demographics which demonstrated that most of European countries, but also the United States and Japan, entered an ageing phase during the last decades. Whereas on the other side, it showed that most of African and Asian countries are still meant to experience a population growth, the young part of the population still representing a breeding ground.
When people heard about Tarrant’s manifesto, the Google search for the “Great replacement” theory spiked, flawed however by data void. That is to say there was paucity of counterarguments that could have denounced the lack of science of his assumptions. The scarcity of such resources can easily be explained by the fact that “Great Replacement” is a quite recent term which replaced an older one, namely, the “White Genocide”, which, on its side, has its share of well-read foes on the network. For that matter, it may have been considered that it was a conscious strategic move from Tarrant, to better win over its audience.
Unsurprisingly but sadly enough, the main goal of his attack was to provoke an escalation of anti-Muslim — and anti-immigrant — sentiments across white majority nations, in order to fight the growing numbers of so-called “invaders” and spark an eventual “race war”. This attack is far from being an individual case and Tarrant’s narrative does nothing but reflect the way white nationalists imagine themselves, to wit: standing tall against a global force aiming at wiping out a so-called “white identity”. Tarrant’s dreadful acts remind us of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist, to whom he pays tribute in his manifesto. Tarrant said that he recognised Breivik’s prior attacks and even asserted that he made contact with him and that Breivik gave him his consent for his terrorist project. Breivik had killed 77 people in 2011, in Utøya, Norway. Most of them were teenage members of the ruling Labour Party. According to what he wrote in his own manifesto, the political party was facilitating an Islamic “conquest” and “colonisation” of Norway and the rest of Europe. As a matter of fact, Breivik brings forward these motives under the name of Eurabia — another conspiracy theory — as the main incentive for his massacre. Hence, it appears that both of the men had the same agenda, that is to say, crushing Muslim immigration. On the one hand, Tarrant wanted to “deport those invaders already living on our soil”. On the other, Breivik suggested that every Muslim should be given the opportunity to convert to Christianity and take a Christian name, whereas those who did not obey should be deported or executed. He also propounded that pieces of Islamic art should be destroyed, including all mosques, and that languages like Arabic, Persian and Somali should be banned.
Furthermore, both the Australian and the Norwegian barely mention their own homelands and focus on Europe and the United States. Tarrant sees the white population of Australia and New Zealand as Europeans, indicating that he strongly lacks scientific rigour. This corroborates the idea that they are both spreading myths and conspiracies dressed up as facts. By putting scientific elements out of their context, they associated demographic data with the current migratory and social crisis in Europe, hence making up catastrophic scenarios. Worryingly, this kind of stance has been repeatedly expressed during Charlottesville demonstrations in 2017, or, the same year, during the mosque attack in Quebec City (2). In Pittsburgh last year, the shooter of the synagogue of Squirrel Hill said he believed a Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was bringing in “invaders that kill our people” (3).
Demystification: from conspiracy to demographic facts
The discrepancies between countries regarding their age-sex pyramid can be apprehended thanks to the model of demographic transition. The demographic transition is a generic pattern quite convenient to ponder global demographic trends, but as all general models, it has specificities depending on the country the focus is put on — for instance, the variations can rely on the states’ internal policies that impact on demography. This transition characterises the switch from a young country to an ageing and/or old country. In other words, it designates a shift from a situation characterised by high birthrates and high mortality rates to a situation characterised by low birthrates and low mortality rates, as a result of an overall social and medical progress. From this observation, demographers often infer that further migrations are still to be expected from younger countries to older ones. Indeed, one of the likeliest scenarios is that young countries might have a hard time providing its future massive share of youth with education and full employment; whereas old countries might experience a lack of working-force. After all, it seems that this situation could end up in a cooperative exchange that benefits to each stakeholders…
In addition to this, migrations coming from Africa and Asia might be even more enhanced as the countries of these two continents are meant to economically and socially develop. The correlation between states’ development and emigrations was first expounded by the American geographer Wilbur Zelinsky, who, in 1971, came to shatter the “neoclassic” scientific existing order. This “neoclassic” theory affirmed that a narrowing development gap between departure countries and that of arrival countries would systematically lead to reduce the migration flows. It appeared that it was the other way around.
If in the European Union, as in the US, whites are surely meant to become a smaller share, it is however unclear how much smaller — as demography is an imprecise science and future is uncertain, this is still a wide-open question. For example, we must exercise caution when using the “sub-replacement fertility” indicator, which refers to the total fertility rate of less than about 2.1 children per woman, the number needed for each generation to “replace” the previous numerically. This indicator is convenient but has its limits. Firstly, it fluctuates from year to year based on whether women are delaying parenthood. Secondly, the size of the reproductive age population can change the relationship between the total fertility rate and the rate of population growth, so that a number below 2.1 does not always indicate a shrinking population.
As a matter of fact, the debate could gain relevance if it focused on the right issue, namely how ageing countries are going to deal with the social and economic outcomes of demographic decline, rather than on how to rescue frail and endangered “white species”. For instance, the ageing process raises questions such as how to sustain the funding of pensions, healthcare systems and the overall structures able to take in charge the elderly. Whereas the younger countries would devote efforts to financing education and employment integration. It also leads to question the lowering of the share of the working age population, that can mechanically result in economic slowdowns.
The states generally face three main “long-term” options to offset the lack of labour force: they resort to labour immigration; they can delay the age of retirement; or they can build robots. In addition, there are also instruments to impact on internal birthrates, such as family policies, aiming at inciting procreation. France chose the immigration solution: in 2015 the French population increase, amounting to 0.3%, was only due to net immigration. Japan, on the contrary, opted for robotics, showing that, in a way, ageing population is also a way for technologies to move forward. Hungary went for family policies. In 2015, it was one of the thirteen countries that faced a population loss — of 0.4% — within the European Union. On the 2nd of April 2019, the Hungarian Parliament voted a series of bills implementing family policies. For instance, it sets up a preferential loan to families with at least one newborn, with part of the loan written off at the birth of the second child, and entirely pardoned at the birth of the third child. Finally, mothers with four or more children will be exempt from income tax. It is interesting to see the way the government-controlled media outlet — About Hungary (4) — presented the information, by talking about the possibility to “reverse Hungary’s declining demographic trend”. The effects seem to be willingly embellished in order to suggest family policies are a preferable alternative to immigration. Saying that there actually are alternatives to labour immigration might be a way to insinuate that the path followed by western countries, such as France or Germany, will not be re-followed by the nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Indeed, he is known for his hard stance on migrations towards Europe.
What about the way we talk about demography?
Eventually, the problem may be the mistaken ideas spread by persons who have legitimacy to talk in public space. As mentioned above, Tarrant’s “brilliant” idea appeared to be coming from the French writer Renaud Camus. In his book The Great Replacement (2012), he portrayed the white European population stating: “A population was there, stable, occupying the same territory since 15 or 20 centuries. And suddenly, very quickly, in only one or two generations, one or several other populations came to replace it. It was replaced, it is not it anymore”. It may be argued that Mr Camus simplifies everything: the approximation between “15 or 20 centuries” that encompasses 500 years difference; the occupation of one “same territory”, neglecting more than one century of history of colonisation; or the description of a top-speed phenomenon that yet seems to still have decades ahead of him.
As a matter of fact, Camus reacted to Christchurch attacks, carelessly affirming that he didn’t see why Tarrant: “would be more inspired by me than by the attacks which directly resemble the one he committed”, referring to the Islamist terrorist attacks in France in 2015. He eventually said: “If he wrote a pamphlet titled ‘The Great Replacement’, it’s blatant plagiarism (…) of a phrase that doesn’t belong to him and he doesn’t understand”.
The caution that must be exercised when it comes to communicating about demography also concerns public figures, from politicians and media personalities to academics. It may be asserted that exaggerations or fabrications around the supposed threat migration poses to society can quickly become fuel for nativist sentiment, and eventually can legitimise it and become an incentive for people to commit violent actions. The stance of European and American politicians sticking to far-right ideologies may be pointed out. Donald Trump or political parties such as the Alternative for Deutschland, the Austrian Freedom Party, or the French Rassemblement National, often portray immigrants as invading hordes. For instance, Viktor Orbán said that immigrants must be considered as “muslim invaders”, that “multiculturalism is only an illusion” and that “There are currently two sides within Europe. Macron is heading the political forces supporting immigration. On the other side, there are us, who want to stop illegal immigration”. Again, by connecting latent racism and Islamophobia to resentment over austerity, the far-right also contributes to deforming the nature of demographic data.
Den Crenshaw, a Republican congressman from Texas, tweeted on March 15th, 2019: “If you find yourself using the tragedy in New Zealand to take backhanded swipes at conservatives in America — many of my colleagues already have — then you really have no shame and you are part of the problem,”. Indicating that there might be a tendency to deny the role played by public conservative rhetoric on the matter. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to separate white power activity from Trump’s warnings of foreign “invaders” or from the regular anti-Muslim all over the world.
Regrettably, it sometimes comes from contemporary demographers themselves. The first issue that may be brought to light is the flashy imageries such as: fertility “crash,” “plummeting” birthrates or “demographic cliff”. These showy expressions tend to make of international demography an existential problem when it only masks economic and social problematics. Even though the birthrates until here indicated a long-term downward tendency, they remain quite stable and the population sizes are far from posing a threat to human existence. The second problem boils down to the “majority-minority” narrative, that uses a segregated version of whiteness which singles out white non-Hispanic people against everyone else. Using this frame implicitly contributes to think that the numeric domination of whites over people of colour is normal or desirable.
Thereby, it may be argued that both eternal demographic decline as eternal growth would be problematic, but luckily, the unpredictability of human demography allows us to contemplate happier scenarios. The combat here may be to break through the isolation that leads people to have inaccurate thoughts on how they might be put at risk by strangers living on the other side of the ocean. The real danger is that, in rural and remote areas, opinions are, sometimes, shaped more by tendentious news on media than by personal experience.
- 6 worshippers were killed and 19 injured on January 29th, 2017 in a mosque in Quebec City
Channel News Asia, “French ‘Great Replacement’ writer denounces ‘appalling’ Christchurch attack”, Source AFP, 16th of March 2019 https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/world/french-great-replacement-writer-denounces-appalling-christchurch-11350166
About Hungary, “Parliament approves new demographic package”, 2nd April 2019 http://abouthungary.hu/news-in-brief/parliament-approves-new-demographic-package/
The Wall Street Journal, “Demography Is Destiny When It Comes to Automation”, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, 4th of March 2019 https://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2019/03/22/demography-is-destiny-when-it-comes-to-automation/
Le Monde Diplomatique, “Immigration, a biased debate — The myth of the rush towards Europe”, Benoît Bréville, November 2018 https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2018/11/BREVILLE/59238
Washington Post, “Racist terrorists are obsessed with demographics. Let’s not give them talking points”, Leslie Root, 18th of March 2019 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/03/18/racist-terrorists-are-obsessed-with-demographics-lets-not-give-them-talking-points/?utm_term=.99ee6f61581d
The Independent, “How to defeat ‘Great Replacement’ theory at the heart of the Christchurch mosque attack”, Shane Burley, Alexander Reid Ross, 18th of March 2019 https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/christchurch-attack-new-zealand-shooting-brenton-tarrant-great-replacement-a8827966.html