The way we use language can make for a fascinating study but we’re all a bit too familiar with the dastardly word play which seems to be an everyday part of our lives now. Where the disabled are described as ‘shirkers’ and those in receipt of benefits as ‘scroungers’. Recently, of course, the debate around immigration has led to a proliferation of these types of loaded terms designed to tell us how to think without us even having to engage. ‘Illegal immigrants’ ‘swarming’, ‘migrants’ (not so many ‘refugees’) these words come up all over the place. Eventually many of us stop noticing them and find ourselves adding them to our vocabulary too. But let’s be very careful because the ease with which we may use a word has the power to stop us from feeling and might give us permission to blank out the story of the people behind the term.
Here’s an example from The Guardian: ‘Dozens of migrants found dead in a parked lorry.’‘Migrants’ presents us with the image of a stereotype, not someone with a face like that of our friend or family member or work colleague. An ‘other’, an alien. The reality that they are women, men and even children, that they’re people like us, that is much harder to ignore. Migrants. Number. Dead. We can compartmentalise that pretty effectively and move on.
‘Found dead’ describes something dreadful but is in its own way a very tidy and relatively unemotional way of describing the situation in comparison to what actually happened to people in that truck. They suffocated, all 71 of them. Locked in a van. Full of terror. Women, children and men. If we allow ourselves we can easily imagine the agonies involved and what our minds conjure up is horrific. Yes, they were ‘found dead’ but the dying was excruciating. Their being dead is the result but how much more affecting if we think about it, is the focus on the process of that death.
They were refugees (though some insist on calling them migrants). But in a time not so long ago they had lives which were good. They had nice homes, they had jobs, they were surrounded by people they loved. They looked back fondly to the past and contemplated the future with hope. They were perfectly ordinary people in their perfectly ordinary towns with no wish to move elsewhere. But things went wrong. They were refugees as a result but the process of their becoming such is the human, affecting, real part.
There’s power to elicit empathy in the ‘process’ stories that’s why we hear so little of them and instead the focus is on the results only.
Essentially we need to be mindful of the words we choose to use in situations such as these or we run the risk of losing our humanity. Consider the people and their life stories and what led them to take the decisions they did. Be upset because you should be. I think at the very least, we owe these people and all like them the dignity of the appropriate human response.