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I am an immigrant – and I believe “migrant” is a far from neutral term

 A seemingly neutral term like "migrant" is so potentially pernicious because we don’t take the kind of care we should in assessing its effect on us.

I am an immigrant. I came to the UK 20 years ago from the US to teach philosophy at the University of Sheffield, where I am now a professor. My American accent remains very strong. I used to be surprised when, despite hearing me speak, people would express anti-immigration sentiments to me, with a clear expectation of agreement. I would tell them that I am an immigrant. “I don’t mean you”, they’d respond, surprised that I count myself as an immigrant.

This shows that seemingly neutral words – like "immigrant" – are not always used in a neutral way. The supposedly neutral word "migrant" is increasingly used by the media to describe the large numbers of desperate people travelling into and across Europe, fleeing war and persecution.

But this use has recently come under attack.

To some, this attack is baffling. A migrant is just a person who migrates, surely, and these people are migrating. What can be wrong with this truthful description? One thing that might be wrong with it, however, is that, according to the UN, that’s not what a migrant is:

The term 'migrant'… 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.

While maybe among the desperate risking their lives to escape places like Syria and Afghanistan, there is a person or two who has joined them for reasons of “convenience”, these people are surely vanishingly rare. According to the UN, then, it is simply factually wrong to call these people migrants.

But why, a more compelling objection goes, should we even care about language? People are dying and need help, and there goes the left again worrying about words. The reason to care about language is that the language we deliberate in shapes our deliberations. We’d see this without hesitation if racial slurs were being used to describe these people. And few people of good will would defend Katie Hopkins’ use of the term "cockroach". We know all too well how such clearly dehumanising words help put in place patterns of thought that make genocide possible. But "migrant"? "Migrant" is not a slur. 

Those who study the intersection of language and politics, however, have become increasingly aware that terms that seem innocent, like "migrant", can do some of the worst damage. This is because we are not aware of the ways that they are affecting our thought. Almost all of us, below our consciousness, are prone to ugly biases that we would reject if we were conscious of them. We see this in studies showing that people presented with the same CV judge it to be less attractive if the name at the top is a typically black one.

Apparently innocent words can come to function as dogwhistles, speaking to our unconscious in ways that our egalitarian conscious selves would reject if only we realised what was going on.

In America, the apparently race-neutral term "welfare" has come to be so strongly associated with black people that attitudes to any policy described using this term correlate with racial attitudes. Fascinatingly, adding an explicit reference to race removes this effect – if it’s too obvious, our conscious egalitarian selves step in. And this is why a seemingly neutral term like "migrant" is so potentially pernicious: it is not, as the UN recognises, actually a neutral term. But it seems like it is – which means we don’t take the kind of care we should in assessing its effect on us.

The suggested alternative terms are "refugee" – which calls attention to the fact that these people are fleeing intolerable conditions of violence; and the simple "human being" – which reminds us of our moral obligations. Either of these is an improvement on the inaccurate "migrant", which threatens to distort our discussions without our even realising it.

Professor Jennifer Saul is from the University of Sheffield's Department of Philosophy.

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Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear