Tag Archives: language

How Language Betrays Our Thoughts on Equality

I am having a nerdy week. So to kick it off, here’s a fascinating TED talk on how language betrays our thoughts on equality.

Language matters to me a great deal. I believe that one of the scariest things about this “post-truth, post-facts” age is that the language we use is slipping. It’s not the vintage racial slurs that are back in fashion; what’s sending my bat senses mad is the framing of issues around equality – be it racial, gender etc.

These are being framed as an “elite” concern and it’s not just the right, it’s liberals too, who are talking down “identity politics” like it’s a merry game we’ve all been playing in the last few years for our own amusement, and now it’s time to get back to the serious business of dealing with class and economics. (and Whiteness as the default. It’s not said, but the erasure of other groups is a whitewashing.)

It’s frightening though how that then informs what is “authentic” and worthy of political action. So, working class people of colour are erased in favour of dealing with white working class grievances. Which are just presented as neutral working class.  This authenticity dovetails into the discussion on nationalism which is only celebrated for its imperialism; any efforts to colour in the picture with the contributions of people of colour and indeed the effects of this imperialism on other people’s globally is seen as somehow inauthentic and invalid. Identity politics again.

Who we consider authentic has a bearing on citizenship. As we expand the hostile environment and move the endless border to encroach ever more on the lives of citizens – the rental market, at the doctor, where you are asked to perform citizenship again and again it throws into stark relief who is more likely to be considered “foreign” and therefore singled out. Every time you’re singled out it’s a reminder that you don’t belong, regardless of what your papers may say.

So, language matters. Framing matters too, because it shapes how we discuss the matters at hand. The right’s biggest victory has been in reframing the discussion on immigration, citizenship, belonging, Europe etc and liberalism’s failure is in trying to win on that turf.

We need to mind our words. They betray what we’re really thinking.

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What’s in a name

Migrant.

Refugee.

Immigrant.

Expat.

Alongside the usual froth over immigration figures blasting through the government’s nonsensical immigration target – to the extent that immigration figures are at their highest since 2005 – there’s a debate about what to call the people knocking at Europe’s door seeking sanctuary and a new life. Migrants or refugees? People?

First things first.

Britain’s immigration figures are high because the economy is recovering well (or at least better than our neighbours with the exception of perhaps Germany) and even if inequality is still a major problem – it’s a big draw for people. But immigrants are also part of the reason that Britain has this recovery.

We (migrants). Built. This.

“It is not a message that you will hear from many, if any, mainstream politicians but, as the government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has pointed out, mass migration has been a key factor fuelling Britain’s economic recovery.” – The Guardian, 27 August 2015.

And despite the government’s best efforts to foster a hostile environment for migrants, the world continues to turn, even if community relations are somewhat the poorer for the divisive rhetoric and measures. Even business says that the immigration cap is damaging for the economy. Nevertheless, this year will see yet another immigration bill tabled, hot on the heels of last year’s. I am not looking forward to seeing what fresh nonsense is put on the table and I can only salute those like Migrant Rights Network, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and Migrant Voice are doing to lobby for change.

(Interestingly, it also shows that Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare vandalism is primarily ideological. The recovery* is not happening because of punitive welfare sanctions, the bedroom tax or harassing the sick and disabled.)

Moving on from that topic before I break something…

Language matters. Al Jazeera was lauded for its stance on using the word “migrant” to describe the people crossing the Mediterranean. After all, it reasoned, the vast majority are asylum seekers. UNHCR figures show  an estimated 293,035 people crossed the Mediterranean so far this year.

2,440 were lost at sea.

The top 5 country nationalities were Syrian (43%), Afghan (12%), Eritrea (10%), Nigeria (5%), Somalia (3%) and other (27%).

Al Jazeera correctly identified that the word “migrant” is tainted:

“The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative.”

Their decision prompted a lot of soul searching at the Independent, Channel 4 News and others news outlets. However, campaigning organisations, like the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London (RAMFEL), Migrant Voice and Migrant Rights Network say that we should reclaim the word.

“By rejecting the term and using ‘refugee’ instead as a means of arousing the empathy and compassion we should be feeling towards these people, Al Jazeera gives credence to the illiberal voices telling us that migrants are not worthy of our compassion.” – Judith Vonberg, Migrant Rights Network.

I have been thinking about this. Language is not fixed and words are not confined to their dictionary definitions. We act upon language, conferring upon it depth and meaning. There is no doubt that migrant, perhaps as it’s so close to the word immigrant, is seen as a dirty word. Interestingly, it’s a word we use for Black and Brown people, not White people, who are tourists or expats. Let’s not pretend that has nothing to do with why this word, like the people it describes, is considered so problematic.

Migrants don’t just move countries. I have friends in London from Scotland, Wales, Leeds, Ireland. They’re migrants. Just like my friends from Uganda, Canada, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. If you move, you’re a migrant. And it’s a human enterprise to move in search of safety, or a better life. When it comes to the people crossing the Mediterranean, some are fleeing for their lives from war; others are fleeing poverty. The “economic migrant” is that second group that Vonberg identifies as the one we’re supposed to harden our hearts to. After all, poverty (in Iain Duncan Smith’s Britain and more broadly, in the neoliberal frame) is the fault of the poor. You’re not a winner. Your country may be dysfunctional but you should fix it. I’m not saying the solution to this is for everyone to up sticks and leave but I don’t have the right to sit as judge on jury on those that do. If it were my family, my life, what would I do?

I am an economic migrant. I came for study, I stayed to work. I changed categories. That’s life, we’re moving through categories. I also came on a plane, in comfort and safety because I had the choices available to me to do so. If you’ve had to take your life in your hands and put your body and perhaps your children’s bodies in a boat not knowing if you’re going to live or die — where’s the choice in that? Some people leave death behind them and don’t know if they’re going to make it to the other side of the water. That’s not a choice. That’s desperation. That’s a humanitarian crisis.

I agree with Al Jazeera, the word migrant has become reductive. And I agree with Vonberg, we shoud reclaim it. Media houses should try to be as accurate as possible when describing people – people.

I would like to see the end of the phrase “migrant crisis” though.  Migration is not a problem to be solved and yes, there is a crisis, but it’s a humanitarian one.

And perhaps one of compassion, too.

*such as it is. I mean, that’s another discussion.

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The N-Word Project

The Washington Post is doing a project looking at the evolution of the n-word and its contemporary use in America today. It features a lot of different people in conversation, and depending on your views you can see have some custom videos made for you… and add your own.

One of my favourite writers had this to say:

I don’t know what I think. I don’t like the word and I don’t use it myself – but a lot of comedians I like do. It definitely depends who is saying it and why. But it has a history. And language has power. I do think the people whose history is marked by it should decide how and when it’s used. But black people aren’t a monolith – there will always be many, many diverse views.

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The N-word and nursery rhymes

I am still busy trying to finish my degree, and currently nursing a cold, but here’s a piece I wrote for Independent Voices: “Yes, call out Clarkson for using the n-word, but it’s pointless stopping there” .

I must admit, Below The Line is a bruising place. I have to consciously steel myself, see if I have the emotional energy to take it on. This article has the most comments of any piece I’ve ever written. And as you will see, that’s not necessarily a good thing (!)

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