When Ideological Extremism is Rooted in the Very Words We Choose
Photo: By Bwag
We were all warned before we traveled to Europe as part of the Marshall Memorial Fellowship that the words used by some Europeans to discuss racial or immigration issues may sound harsh (or worse) to our American ears. And I have certainly been labelled with the intentionally unflattering moniker of being “politically correct” more than once in my life. But, for me, words matter, especially those words we chose to describe, and in so-doing, define people by race, ethnicity, national origin, immigration status, or other aspects of their identity.
The first time I stumbled mentally over the wording being used to talk about migration or identity during my experience as a Marshall Memorial Fellow was in Brussels, Belgium in the first week of our European journey. A speaker was providing us with helpful demographic information on the Belgian population, including what I thought was a striking fact that 20 percent of the Belgian population had some kind of “migration history,” primarily of Dutch, Italian, or French descent. The speaker then explained that only 6.5% of those with a migration history were from a “Muslim background,” though the public perception of this figure was much larger. I stumbled in my note-taking. I couldn’t make sense of this description. In one sentence a conversation describing the foreign-born composition of Belgium by country of origin had shifted to religion and I was no longer sure if what was being used to sort people was still national origin or now had morphed into religion, or some combination of the two based on either actual data or a presumption of religion due to national origin. This interchangeable use of the terms “Muslim” and “foreign-born” was by no means unique to this one meeting over the course of the Fellowship. Instead, in various settings, I heard European policymakers and scholars move between the two terms somewhat interchangeably—in a way that highlighted for me not only how interwoven the migration debate in many parts of Europe is with a debate over Islam and Islamophobia, but also as a reminder of why I think the words we select matter .
My other jarring reaction to terminology came in Hungary. When I arrived in Hungary, I had been prepared by the media accounts I had read to learn more about the “migrant crisis” facing the country. And, indeed, several Hungarians spoke poignantly about the media campaign waged by the Orban government against these “migrants” and were very critical of their government for stoking the flames of a non-existent fire given the low numbers of refugees that have resettled in Hungary. The so-called “crisis,” they said, was conveniently manufactured by the government to create fear of the other and divert attention away from the real problems facing Hungary: staggeringly low wages, a school system in crisis, and a woefully inadequate health care system where the expectation for any service is to “tip” doctors. And, here again, I learned that the selected language used to frame the national debate mattered. One Hungarian speaker told us that it is important to note that in this government-run media campaign, the media has opted not to use the term “refugee” but instead to select a non-Hungarian word, zsuzsa, actually a Latin term for “migrant,” to describe the new arrivals. The speaker described this word choice as intentionally alienating. And, the impact was clear: using a term that is not even in the native language sends an unconscious message that the refugees being talked about here are outside of Hungarian culture, and should remain so.
The Hungarian example struck a particular chord with me given that since at least 2014, the United States has been struggling with its own regional refugee influx—from the Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. And, in public discourse, we don’t refer to them as “refugees” either, or commonly at least, we do not even use the more technically accurate term “asylum seekers.” Instead, despite the large share of these women, children, and men fleeing widespread violence in Central America and who do seek asylum once they arrive in the United States, the media and policy makers refer to them as “undocumented immigrants” or even “illegal” immigrants.
Perhaps for both Hungary and the United States there is something deeper at work in our collective refusal to call these arriving migrants asylum seekers or refugees. If, in the defining term itself, we admit that this population is fleeing persecution and seeking refuge, it’s hard to buy into the policies of “deterrence” that both the United States and the Hungarian governments have been pushing to address these newly arriving migrants. The simple truth is that you can’t “deter” refugees with strongly worded government speak or even by building new walls. You can displace them, closing off one route with a new wall or via a new deal to close a border. Yet because that, alone, will not stem the arrival of refugees, the more likely result is that the flow of migration will find another route, potentially a more dangerous one.
If we acknowledge instead that the majority of migrants arriving in Europe from Syria or in the United States from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have fled not out of a choice, but because they risked persecution or death if they remained, then we will understand that the only deterrence policy that will be productive is one that ends the root cause of the violence itself.
Karen Tumlin, Legal Director of the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles, is a Spring 2016 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.