One of the more tedious habits of the Left is the amount of energy it expends debating what words are supposed to mean.
There are a few reasons why this might be. Firstly, debating language requires little research. Anybody can do it without having to dig through dull stats and reports, consider intersecting variables and come to a reasoned conclusion. Instead, rely on your own feelings and experience to define what the word means to you, then proclaim that as the truth.
Another likely factor is that many in the media and politics studied English or another humanity and university, and thus lit crit is a topic they are well versed in. And whilst the Right tends to prefer language as a tradition, the Left has a streak of linguistic activism whereby they can justify tampering with a centuries-old tongue.
I mention this because of the recent furore over what we should call those risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean and journeying through the Balkans in a bid to reach the safety of Europe. This debate was sparked some weeks ago when Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera said it would no longer be using the term “migrant”:
“Migrant is a word that strips suffering people of voice. Substituting refugee for it is – in the smallest way – an attempt to give some back.”
“Migrant”, in the head of Al Jazeera’s online editor Barry Malone at least, implies that those drowning in the Mediterranean are chancers who’ve left their country for a slightly better paying job. Instead he believes that we should refer to them as “refugees”, and supplies the obligatory ironic mawkishness:
“It is not hundreds of people who drown when a boat goes down in the Mediterranean, nor even hundreds of refugees. It is hundreds of migrants. It is not a person – like you, filled with thoughts and history and hopes – who is on the tracks delaying a train. It is a migrant. A nuisance.”
The piece has been much commented on, with the New Statesman (sorry, Statesperson), recently publishing a piece from Jennifer Saul, head of philosophy at the University of Sheffield, in which she argued that we should also consider “human being” as a replacement – a sign she is unwilling or unable to acknowledge that the migrants residential status is rather pertinent to the stories they appear in.
I’ve a low opinion of some of my countrymen, but I think even among the three-quarters of Britons who want to reduce migration most are horrified by whoever left people to rot in the back of a lorry in Austria recently. For those that aren’t, I doubt their opinion will be much swayed by rebranding the victims as “refugees”, a term which to my ear is far more tainted than “migrant”.
But even aside from that, I object to the attempts of stuck-up academics or United Nations cronies to redefine the English language as if it were their property. A much quoted document from the UN defines “migrant” as follows:
“The term ‘migrant’ in article 1.1 (a) should be understood as covering all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of ‘personal convenience’ and without intervention of an external compelling factor.”
As it goes on its wordplay becomes more confused:
“From the above definition, it follows that ‘migrant’ does not refer to refugees, exiles or others forced or compelled to leave their homes. By contrast, the term ‘migration’ is descriptive of the process of the movement of persons, and thus includes the movement of refugees, displaced persons, uprooted people as well as economic migrants.”
This is all very high-minded, but doesn’t correlate to how people actual use the term “migrant”. As Oxford University’s Migration Observatory points out, the British public tends to be quite loose about what counts as a migrant, and the government is happy to fudge the definition for statistical advantage.
As such there is nothing incorrect about referring to those fleeing war and terror in the Middle East and North Africa as “migrants”, even if “refugees” is more precise. Media groups are welcome to avoid whatever words they like, but they should open a layman’s dictionary before spouting off.
Image Credit – Syrian Refugee, September 2014 by Bengin Ahmad