Language is never neutral—but we have to tryby Jessica Abrahams / January 29, 2016 / Leave a comment
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Around a million migrants are believed to have crossed into Europe during 2015 without the correct documents, three or four times as many as the year before. Those migrants come from various backgrounds and have various reasons for moving, but many were fleeing conflict and violence, with about half arriving from Syria.
The west has struggled to find the right words to talk about this. The row over David Cameron’s description of those waiting in Calais as “a bunch of migrants” is the latest example, but the problem is pervasive. Fingers are often pointed at the media for not thinking sufficiently hard about the language we use. This is something of which we are all guilty, from politicians in Westminster to everyday conversations among friends, and it all plays a role in how the debate develops. But those with loud voices, including the media, do have more influence over which words are used and how.
One of the earliest debates was about whether news reports should refer to the “crisis” arriving on Europe’s shores as one of “migrants” or “refugees.” The word migrant was favoured to begin with, being broader in its application, but many writers and editors later turned to the word refugee as a way of recognising the horrors that many of these families were fleeing. The media’s approach to this is still mixed, and some publications are inconsistent within their own coverage. As I have written previously, there has been much less debate about the choice of the word “crisis,” although this also needs attention. Part of the problem is that once a word such as this has entered our vocabulary we replicate it without thinking, eventually forgetting that it’s a choice at all and that there are alternative ways to describe the situation.
Interestingly, the earliest descriptions of this as a “crisis” that I can find come from US publications—the Wall Street Journal in May 2012, followed by the first use I have seen of the phrase “migrant crisis” in a New Yorker article a few months later. Both were focused on Greece and its lack of capacity to identify and process arrivals given its economic situation. But the phrase became widespread during the course of October 2013 when several boat sinkings off the coast of Italy led to hundreds of deaths, finally waking the rest of Europe up to what had been happening for years (almost 20,000 people had already died by that point attempting to cross the Mediterranean, over two decades.) Originally about Europe’s failure to prevent the deaths of migrants and refugees in its waters, the phrase has now become as much about its policy paralysis and failure to “protect” its borders.
Of course, the use of terms such as “cockroaches” to describe migrants, and the militarised language of “invasion,” need no further discussion. But even those publications that are trying to be more balanced in their coverage of the situation might struggle to get the language right. The Times and the Telegraph, for example, describe the arrival of refugees as a “flood,” the New York Times calls it a “tidal wave,” and a writer for Forbes a “tsunami” – words that feed into the notion that Europe is being “swamped” and are not far off more obviously problematic words such as “swarm.” Other terms regularly found in press coverage of the issue include “engulf,” “burden” and “worsening.” At a conference on migration held this week at the United Nations University Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility, Director Parvati Nair argued that even words such as “influx,” “surge” and “wave,” which are in common usage by almost all publications from the Daily Mail to the Financial Times, imply a situation that is overwhelming and uncontainable—perhaps unwittingly pushing our perception of it in one direction rather than another.
One problem for journalists is that linguistic nuances are not the only thing they have to think about—articles also need to be engaging and interesting to read, and it’s difficult to achieve that if descriptive, image-laden words (often the problematic ones) are stripped out. Perhaps the most insurmountable problem is that what looks like a neutral word to me might not look like one to you—it all depends on where we’re starting from.
And there is a further complication. Just as the words we use can colour the debate, the debate can colour our words. “Migrant,” which is ostensibly value-free—“a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions,” according to Oxford Dictionaries—has morphed into something negative through a process of perjoration. Hence why Brits who have moved abroad to work are usually referred to as “ex-pats,” though they are really migrant workers. The word migrant was itself adopted as a more palatable replacement for the now unsalvagable “immigrant.”
At this week’s UN University conference, which was open to the public, some attendees argued that changing our language “isn’t going to solve the problem.” It’s true, of course, that it won’t stop people attempting to make the journey to Europe, or address their reasons for doing so. But the words we use do have the power to shape the debate and to influence the extent to which we see the arrival of refugees as a “problem.” Our choice of words can help to change attitudes towards migrants—for better or worse—and to that extent it can have a real impact.