We clawed, we chained our hearts in vain… Why you should use the phrase ‘illegal entrants’ #auspol #asylumseekers

Language is important.  Over at AusOpinion, I’ve argued that claims of ‘neutral’ and ‘apolitical’ language are dangerous lies.  There is, in fact, no way of describing something in completely neutral terms (whatever ‘neutral’ may mean).

As part of my set up to discuss something even more interesting than language — images — I made a quick mention of the asylum seeker debate.

The Government — perhaps inspired by Genesis 2:19 — has begun a process of renaming the policy issues formed of the air, land, and sea.  Under the ‘Call A Spade A Spade‘ policy, ‘asylum seekers’ (already a contentious term — are all people who arrive by boat seeking asylum?) will be called ‘illegal entrants’ (a term the minister assures us is analogous to ‘stolen goods’).  Shadow Immigration Minister, Richard Marles, complained about the terminology, stating that it was ‘language being used for a political purpose’ which ‘clouds the debate and it acts to work against trying to achieve bipartisanship in the area of immigration policy.’  He didn’t explain what he meant by implying that language could be used for a non-political purpose, or why bipartisanship was the most important goal of immigration policy. [Source]

One day, I’ll learn my lesson and be sufficiently wise to leave well enough alone.  That day’s not today.

Many people are — entirely understandably — outraged at the new terminology.  They believe — entirely incorrectly — that other words and phrases are more ‘neutral’ or more ‘correct’.  Blinded by outrage, they don’t see that the change in terminology provides an excellent opportunity for asylum seeker activists to change the course of the public discussion.

Is there ever a ‘correct’ language?  There is a meme spreading about the place that we are somehow obliged to use legally correct language.  The terms we are supposed to use are those terms — and only those terms — which appear in particular pieces of legislation.  Further, we are obliged to refrain from language which is legally incorrect.  ‘Illegal’ is the relevant word in this debate, with people falling over themselves to explain why ‘asylum seekers’ are not ‘illegal’ in a strictly legalistic sense.

This is a savage, uncivilised, barbarian approach to language which confuses the correct order of legal language.  Lawyers don’t sit down and generate language in a vacuum.  Instead, they derive their expressions from the wide variety of poetic, emotive, informal usages.  Prior to Donaghue v Stevenson, we had the word ‘negligence’.  It was common enough and referred to you being careless.  Following Donaghue v Stevenson and other caselaw, we refined a legal usage of the word.  We can now distinguish between when we are talking about somebody being negligent (in the careless, reckless sense) and when we are talking about somebody being negligent (in the legal, tort law sense).

‘But, Mark!’ I can hear you shout from the fictionalised future, ‘Your pedantry — though excellent and it goes well with your top hat and monocle — is tedious.  When it comes to people’s lives we should use the legally correct terminology.  We are discussing something legal!’

If you want to hold this position, you’ve conceded a vast amount of ground to the homophobic Christian lobby in the marriage equality debate.  By definition — they claim — marriage is between a man and a woman.  When somebody speaks of ‘gay marriage’, they have uttered an oxymoron (if we are using only legally correct language).

Arguing that there’s a ‘correct’ set of words to use in a discussion is violent.  It’s about marginalising other views by making them illegitimate.  Worse, it’s about marginalising other views by making them inexplicable.

The phrase ‘asylum seekers’ does not appear in the Refugees Convention, nor does it appear — as some people have confusingly claimed — in the Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime.  Are all smuggled persons seeking asylum? By ‘asylum’, do we mean something general and informal — like ‘I am fleeing a war’ or ‘Due to climate change, my farm is now under the sea’? Or do we mean something strict and legalistic?  Given that we apply the term ‘asylum seeker’ to the disparate group of people long before they’ve had the opportunity to state what they’re seeking, in what way is ‘asylum seeker’ an accurate term?

That sure is one inflammatory paragraph, but it’s strictly accurate.  Trolltastically accurate.

The Refugee Action Coalition is a noisy group of people with whom I usually disagree.  When they protest in favour of people who have not been successful in demonstrating a valid refugee claim, should I send them a letter politely asking them to change their name?  After all, aren’t we supposed to be using legally accurate terms?

As a society, we don’t cope well when people set the debate in terms that are unfavourable to us.  Is it pornography or is it art?  Is it affirmative action or is it racism?  Is it promotion on merit or is it quota-based social engineering?  Is it a foetus or is it a baby?  Is an asylum seeker an illegal entrant?

Although it’s important to have the conversation about the language that we use — particularly when it affects marginalised people — the conversation shouldn’t end there.  Indeed, in some cases it’s favourable to lose the language debate.  The asylum seeker — or should that be ‘illegal entrant’ — debate is one of those instances.

No matter what you do, there will always be a group of cantankerous arseholes who will demonise asylum seekers.  They use words like ‘illegal’ as a way of claiming a particular safe space within the conversation — the safe space to hold extremely ugly, anti-social views.  The language becomes a way of declaring their mental independence.  It’s an assertion that they are free of ideological influence from the political correct nanny state of Feminazis.

They use the language because they rely on the common intuitions about those words.  If irregular maritime arrivals are illegal immigrants, then it follows without argument that you’re entitled to treat them in whatever way you want.  ‘Yeah, but they’re illegal‘ is a stopgap argument.

So let’s adopt their language and start forcing them to explain their views in terms that suit them best.  Even if they’re illegal entrants, does that mean we should have mandatory detention, offshore processing, restricted access to the justice system, reduced access to legal advisers, &c., &c., &c.?  If the phrase ‘illegal entrant’ refers to the fact that people smuggling is a crime, doesn’t that mean we are talking about victims of crime?

Scott Morrison has given everybody in Australia licence to steal the bigots’ language away from them.

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11 thoughts on “We clawed, we chained our hearts in vain… Why you should use the phrase ‘illegal entrants’ #auspol #asylumseekers

  1. The manipulation of language by all sides (of pretty much any emotive issue) is really quite dissapointing. I suspect the main reason is because all arguments are broken down into bite sizes pieces that are easy to fit into a newspaper headline or a tweet. It forces any further discussion to become clipped and less informative. As you say, the need to take this discussion deeper is critical, but finding the mechanism to encourage people to pay attention long enough (beyond the quick slogans) might be the trick.

    I do wonder about using the term illegal in the true legal sense. If that is the case, then how can they be detained and continue to be “illegal” without any charges or a trial and conviction? If detention and deportation are decreed as valid “punishments” for whatever crime deems them to be illegal, then shouldn’t it be required for each case to be tried in a court? I will admit I am not across the whole legal position here, but as you say, if the term illegal is going to be used, then it does need to be fully explained in what sense it is being used and justified.

    Hard conversations are hard. Newspaper headlines are easier.

    • When he uses the term ‘illegal’, he’s playing funny buggers with the word. He’s not saying that the person is doing anything illegal. He’s saying that the people smuggling process is illegal.

      It’s like ‘stolen goods’. The adjective ‘stolen’ doesn’t tell you anything about the legality of the good.

  2. Oh, another thought. There is also the question of not just the words used, but *how* they are used. The intent when using a word like “illegal” is obviously to manipulate the emotional aspect of the discusion, but when cornered, a politician can revert to the denotation meaning to justify it, knowing full well people will continue to use the connotation.

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