It’s Time to Change the Conversation
In their second year, journalism students in Australia are taught that using irrelevant or disparaging qualifiers in writing is sensationalist and therefore unethical. It seems, however, that not all practising journalists went to school. Examples of unscrupulous reporting are commonplace—rampant, even—in practically any publication chaired by Murdoch. It wasn’t a woman who was murdered, it was a shemale. It wasn’t a group of citizens who burned the Aussie flag, it was blacks. Zaky Mallah, who was found not guilty of terrorism, wasn’t on television when he appeared on Q&A earlier this year – he was on terror vision.
The discourse of human migration is one of the worst. Racism is no longer explicit – it’s discursive, and creates a hierarchy in which white people are superior and minorities are demonised and excluded. But while the more socially-conscious may be aware of the negative connotations attached to expressions like “boat people”, the rest of the lexicon is so subtly prejudiced it seems normal. Western, white people who live or work abroad are expats. Everyone else is a migrant or an immigrant.
Although by the dictionary they may seem neutral, phrases like “migrant” and “immigrant” are actually mechanisms for conceptualised scapegoating. They allow mainstream media outlets—which, in Australia, are predominately blunt tools of political influence—to add a negative dimension to already-marginalised populations without violating the basic principles of political correctness.
Late last week, Qatar-based news network Al Jazeera declared it would no longer be using the word “migrant” to refer to people attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. In a post on the media outlet’s website, online editor Barry Malone stated that “migrant” is now a largely inaccurate umbrella term for those fleeing Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. From now on, Al Jazeera will only use the words “people”, “families” and “refugees”.
Fancy that – an Arab medium being more sensitive and politically-correct than The Australian.
According to Malone, “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 … 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.”
Australia has a greater landmass and much smaller population density than Europe, but we too are suffering our own “refugee crisis” – just on a scale roughly 20 times smaller. While Germany commits to resettling 800 000 refugees in 2015, Australia is accepting 15 000 “migrants”, “boat people” or “illegals”, and not without a fight. And instead of making positive declarations of ethical progress like Al Jazeera, our Murdoch-run media publishes such bigoted tripe that human rights lawyers sue its staff for defamation.
Barry Malone and his team of journalists have addressed a problem so many news mediums in our philistine nation are decades from even diagnosing: when we reduce a person to a label, not only do we belittle that person’s experiences – we dehumanise them. All this serves to do is perpetuate the “I’m not racist but…” attitude that dominates society and legitimise any extremist, xenophobic measures taken by the government.
It may seem mere talk and text, but it is talk and text that controls the public discourse. Racism expressed linguistically is inculcative, and by framing the debate in terms of “us” and “them” we perpetuate unequal social relations and a cultural imbalance of power. As writers, as travellers—as migrants, even, as so many of us are—we have a responsibility to ensure the nomenclature we use to discuss migration is ethical, no matter the medium. Until we change the conversation, until we articulate resistance to discrimination, immigrants and asylum seekers will continue to be fabricated as enemies.
So much for giving everyone a fair go.
Cover by Daniel Etter for The New York Times