I never meant to take my journalism professor seriously when she advised reading Politics and the English Language by George Orwell once per year. But at least annually, there's a reason to dig up his essay.
It's a manual because of the maxims for clear, vivid writing. (My favourite is to avoid dying metaphors like iron resolution, Achilles' heel ... gravy train.) But it's timeless for the connection from bad language to politics. Each ready-made phrase, each vague metaphor, and each pretentious word, Orwell quipped, "anaesthetizes a portion of one's brain," so that the meaning behind words is not only unclear but, conveniently, unchallenged.
The decaying language used to talk about refugees in Canada proves Orwell perfectly current. Meaningless terms now lace political speech on refugees like punctuation, and each "abusing the system" and "self-selected refugee" perverts our understanding of major shifts in policy.
Canada's inland refugee system is designed for potential refugees already inside Canada to ask for asylum, and since 2012, the government has been changing it. Government ministers call the reforms "fast and fair." Critics use many alternatives but an important adjective is "unconstitutional" and those critics are now battling the government in Federal Court.
The constitutionality of the new system will be decided in court, but the clarity of the government's defence can be more humbly disassembled, word by word.
A standard line -- this from a January 2014 speech by Chris Alexander, minister of citizenship and immigration -- is "the need to curb abuse in order to clear the way for more legitimate refugees to benefit from the generosity of Canada." Forget for a moment that we don't know what "abuse" needs curbing. Presumably, curbing this abuse will allow more refugees into Canada. Who could disagree?
In the same speech, Alexander spoke about closing Canada's refugee system to "those who jump the queue, those who abuse our generosity, those who take money or generate money for organized crime, [and] those who refuse to leave when their claims are rejected." This all has the appearance of logic too. These all sound like bad habits that should not be rewarded with stay in Canada.
These ready-made phrases also have a pleasing ring to them. They are easy to repeat, until they're broken down:
Jumping the queue. A "queue" is a myth when applied to people who are running for their lives. The Minister is likely referring to people who opt not to stay in squalid, dangerous refugee camps, in other words, every asylum claimant in Canada. "Jumping the queue" is an irrelevant metaphor.
Abusing the system. The distinction between "abuse" and "use" of Canada's services has never been clarified. The two words have been conflated and the implication is that every claimant in Canada abuses the system. This is another irrelevant phrase.
Supporting organized crime. Organized crime is a big term that includes smugglers, a historical lifeline to escape: Hungarian villagers guided their countrymen to Austria in 1956; community-based smuggling rings filed out fellow Iranians after 1979; and the infamous polleros, or coyotes, guide Central Americans up through Mexico to the United States and Canada to this day. Using organized crime is a common way, sometimes the only way, to escape persecution.
Refusing to leave. The Minister is referring to failed claimants, some of whom become successful claimants upon appeal (while they are refusing to leave). A recent study found that being accepted as a refugee depends in part on the judge who decides the case, that there's an arbitrariness to who gets refugee protection. It is therefore an absolute error to treat failed claimants as a single group of delinquents. Among the liars and the simply misinformed are refugees whose case or decision was flawed.
Some of this language merely has the effect of stereotyping all claimants. But some phrases -- "supporting organized crime," "refusing to leave" -- once explained, expose a more closed system.
Alexander said Canada will help "more legitimate refugees" but the new policies actually restrict inland refugee protection to a smaller pool of people. This position can certainly be defended, but a clear defence is not likely to be a politically expedient one. And it would not fit the government's professed goal of a generous refugee system. That's why meaningless or misleading phrases are summoned instead.
Orwell knew "the great enemy of clear language is insincerity" so it's no surprise to find several muddy new terms in circulation. Terms like the "bogus refugee," the "illegitimate failed claimant," and a newer addition, the "self-selected refugee."
The "bogus refugee" is an oxymoron since a claimant, once legally a refugee, cannot not be a refugee. The "illegitimate failed claimant" hints that all failed claimants are liars. And all that's clear about the "self-selected refugee" is its pejorative tone. Beyond that, the meaning is anyone's guess. Were Jewish refugees on board the M.S. St. Louis, a ship that Canada refused to let harbour in 1939, self-selected refugees? Is everyone who gets to Canada a self-selected refugee?
As my journalism professor foresaw, the media has a major, unenviable role in wiping away this sort of verbal junk and revealing the gaps between rhetoric and reality. This is not a call for reporters to censor government ministers. It is a call to deliver factual instead of politicized news. Reporters can do this by marking rhetoric, for instance, by always quoting political terms like "bogus refugees," and even more useful, by demanding clarity (Minister, what's the difference between an inland claimant and a "self-selected refugee"?).
Above all, reporters need to use original language, not borrow and repeat imprecise slogans served by politicians. As Orwell warned, ready-made phrases "will construct your sentences for you -- even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent -- and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself."
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