The politics of language and the language of politics
Language is an essential part of communication, the words we choose not only convey a verbal message but they are signifiers of the person we are and the person we wish to be perceived as.
MPAD became acutely aware of the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis nearly three years ago, whilst we were working with Shelterbox.
Whilst most of us in the UK were tucking in to our Christmas turkey and opening presents men, women and children were fleeing war, oppression, torture, and rape.
We know this because Mark [Picken] was on the phone to international embassies desperately trying to get authorization for press releases about the situation.
Everyone we spoke to on the ground was saying ‘This problem is huge, and it’s only going to get worse.’
Shelterbox had stopped sending their famous white tents to the region, over fears that they had become easy bombing targets due to their colour being so visible. Instead they sent boxes of blankets, cooking equipment and even colouring books and crayons for the kids.
Kids like Alan Kurdi. *see below.
Not The Summer of Love
This summer has seen one of the most vitriolic and un-compassionate attacks on these refugees – and it hasn’t been by soldiers. It has been by our own media and politicians, with language being the weapon of choice.
David Cameron described ‘Swarms of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.’
This signified that they were only travelling across the Mediterranean to get to the UK because they wanted our way of life. He implied that we were to block their access here and ‘protect our borders’.
Well, if by ‘our way of life’ he meant the ability to live without fear of being tortured, raped and bombed then I guess he was right. ‘Protect our borders’ is a very strong phrase, it infers that by allowing people into the UK we are, in some way, in danger, else why is ‘protection’ needed. It also implies some kind of ‘force’ possibly even military.
It would appear his message was constructed as an attempt to re-enforce his position as a ‘strong leader’ and to try to win back some of the voters that shifted to UKIP in the last election.
Katie Hopkins, writing in The Sun said she would use ‘Gunships to stop migrants.’ Stop and think about that. Katie Hopkins, writing in a national newspaper, said that she would SHOOT kids fleeing war zones.
She also previously described them as ‘Cockroaches’; Rhetoric and clearly chosen to de-humanise people.
The recent media has been flooded with stories about ‘immigrants’ in Calais, stating that we were going to be ‘over-run.’ It was a return to the ‘murdered in our beds’ stories that in the past have been a common feature of tabloids.
Was this language used to prey upon insecurity and fear, designed to stir xenophobia and hatred? Many commentators compared it to speeches by Hitler and Enoch Powell.
Anyone standing up in defense of the so-called ‘swarms’ was painted as ‘loony left’ or a ‘bleeding heart liberal.’
Bravery in the face of sadness
On Wednesday of this week a Turkish news agency took the brave step of releasing a single picture of a lifeless child’s body washed up on a beach. The body that we now know to be Alan Kurdi.
The picture circulated like wildfire.
Even writing this blog I can’t escape the gut wrenching heartache that overcomes me every time I look at this image; I have cried again and again.
We know that Alan was a little boy. A three-year-old Kurdish Syrian whose family had fled Kobane when the area became a war zone.
I’m sure I am not alone in thinking ‘He looks like my own little boy did at that age.’
Alan, his five year old brother, Ghalib, his mum Rehanna and dad Abdullah were in a small boat with other refugees trying to cross the 4km to safety in Kos when the overloaded boat got into difficulty and sunk.
Alan, along with Ghalib and mum Rehanna tragically drowned. (An estimated 2,500 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean this year alone.)
As the story went round social media, the reality hit home for millions of people in the UK who have suddenly joined the mass of existing people saying ‘This has got to stop, these are human beings.’
Groups were being set up to support the movement. Ordinary families were saying ‘We don’t mind if a family want to stay with us. We have room. How can we help.’ Countless petitions to government were established on sites like Change.org and 38Degrees.
Suddenly, overnight, the language changed.
This morning, the BBC started referring to ‘refugees.’
Former Conservative MP Sir Malcolm Rifkind used the language of ‘humanitarian crisis’ and ‘refugee’ and this morning David Cameron (him of the swarms of migrants fame) has agreed to take in thousands (reported by the UN as being up to 4,000) of REFUGEES from Syria. **
Writing in The Mail Online, Piers Morgan said ‘Don’t shut your eyes, WE did this and now we have to make it right.’
In this he is apportioning blame to us as a nation, the language of guilt is very powerful language.
UKIP were still tweeting hideous and vile racist views, calling Alan’s family ‘greedy’ and referring to the fact that Alan was clothed and well fed. This not only shows the highest level of ignorance that exists in some people, but also how they haven’t even got the power of rational thought.
Not all humanitarian disasters have been famine, not even in the bible.
In short, this weeks tragic events have demonstrated that language is important, nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, they all paint a picture. They paint a portrait of who you are and how you want to be seen by the outside world.
Words have the ability to shape opinion, to change perceptions and to present an identity.
Choose your words carefully, but remember that irrespective of the language used, there is always a truth behind every story.
*His name has been spelt ‘Aylan’ by much of the media, including the BBC, but his aunt Tima told the BBC on Friday 4th Sept that this was a Turkish version of the name given by Turkish officials – his Kurdish name was Alan.
**On Monday 7th September David Cameron announced that the UK would take in 20,000 refugees fleeing Syria.
(This blog post has been written with compassion and in remembrance of the thousands that have tragically lost their lives fleeing violence and oppression and the many more thousands that live with the constant threat every day.)