Redefining the refugee

Fairfax media reports that Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has sent a list of appropriate terminology for referring to refugee boat arrivals, including referring to the people as ‘illegal arrivals’ and ‘detainees’. How does changing terminology change how we think about something?

The extent to which our language affects our thinking is a somewhat complicated issue. That said, it is not unreasonable to say that continued reference to a group with a bad name can make people without strong opinions lean towards thinking of that group as bad. If you always hear of Muslims associated with terrorism, or gay men associated with sinfulness and depravity, you are more likely to think of them that way. It won’t change a strong opinion, but if you’re not sure, that can be the thing that sways you towards thinking of them with other, similar words. In the same way, this article suggests that using medical terminology (associated with sickness) rather than more common words makes people think of it as more serious.

By repeatedly associating refugee boat arrivals with the word ‘illegal’, it is a constant reminder that the government considers these people to be illegal (contrary to the UN Declaration of Human Rights), and people who do illegal things are bad, right? If this group of people are always referred to as detainees, they must have done something bad. Why else would they have been detained?

The same use of language can change opinion to think well of a group, too. Think of the good associations we have with the word ‘digger’ – teamwork, sacrifice, bravery, and so on. However, words like ‘refugee’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘boat people’ are already associated with negative emotions, according to an article currently under review by our own Lochlan Morrissey. Adding further negative associations to the words can only further damage people’s opinions of them.

By encouraging the association of refugee boat arrivals with words like ‘illegal’ and ‘detainee’, the government is walking a fine line. On the one hand, it may have the effect of turning some people’s opinion away from supporting them. On the other hand, the clear use of such a linguistic association risks associating the government with Orwellian linguistic mind-control, even if Orwell’s NewSpeak takes the concept so much further.

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