“Language is never innocent.” - Roland Barthes
Roland Barthes was right. One would be a fool to believe that language is just a simple reflection of reality. In fact, language rather shapes reality. As cognitive scientists like George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling fortunately never tire to stress: it’s not just that the way we think about something determines the way we speak about something, but also the other way around, the way we speak about something influences the way we think about something. Language sets the frames that our mind refers to when addressing an issue. These frames matter, because they determine whether the connotations of a word or concept turn out to be positive or negative. Ultimately, they determine how we feel and then perhaps even act about it. Therefore, whoever dominates the narrative dominates the political arena. Currently, this is the far-right, especially when it comes to the topic of migration.
I argue in this post that they would be far less successful if it wasn’t for the political centre and even us progressives repeating the far-right’s narrative. This repetition does not just strengthen the narrative as such, but also and especially its underlying logic. Instead, we – progressives and even the political centre – should come up with new, bold ideas and advertise them in a language that fundamentally break with the far-right’s toxic narrative, as well, and especially, with its underlying logic.
Since the beginning of the far-right’s rise in Germany, the progressive side of politics has steadily lost ground, while the far-right to conquered ever more space in the debate. At first, progressives tried to ignore them, but it was only a matter of time until some got weak and tried to occupy the moral high-ground so obviously and luringly left vacant by the far-right. Just like a little crack in a dam unleashes the flood that eventually tears apart the dam itself, those initial confrontations and the far-right’s well-placed escalations ripped apart the cordon sanitaire, the sanitary curtain that has shielded Germany’s political debate from far-right ideas and individuals since, well, since things got ugly with the German far-right last time. From that name, the far-right was no longer just a largely ignored fringe phenomenon, but matured into a legitimate player in the political arena - legitimised by its very opponents, who failed to resist the temptation of running after some cheap political capital by engaging with it.
Since then, things got a lot worse. Now that the far-right was a part of the discussion, other political players started responding to their ideas. Whatever they threw out as bait, the centre and progressives picked it up. When they said there are too many people coming, the answer was “no”. When they claimed refugees are criminals, progressives responded that they aren’t. Rather than providing innovative and future-oriented ideas out of a status quo that is clearly falling apart, the most progressive answer was to conserve the status quo. It didn’t take long until these responses accepted the far-right’s basic logics. The notion that too many people come, the notion that not everybody who comes has the right o stay, the notions that migration causes fears, that refugees are a security risk, the notion that we have a law enforcement issue or should at least discuss whether our legal system can cope with the pressure that refugees put on it - oh! - of course also the very notion that refugees are putting pressure on anything in the first place - all these are assumptions underlying the far-right’s arguments. From a progressive perspective, all of these notions are questionable at least, if not outright false. But none of them have been critically discussed and assessed for their truth, before they were acknowledged and legitimised by being accepted as the common base for debates.
But does migration really just naturally cause fears? Everybody just seemed to accept that it would, when politicians - including progressives like the Greens - responded to the far-right with phrases like “Of course, we have to take the fears and preoccupations of the people seriously, but …”. Why assume that migration sparks fears , when there are plenty of other places who receive large numbers of refugees without it escalating into a “migration crisis”. Even in Germany, there was no evidence that people were afraid when they at first enthusiastically received the refugees coming on trains from Hungary with flowers and open hearts. The far-right didn’t have and still doesn’t have a very big audience by themselves. The only way they could manage to make the infamous “fears and preoccupations” regarding migration to become an actual thing, was because the political establishment with their much bigger audience made them a thing by uncritically accepting the far-right’s narrative.
The fact that the progressive and centrist parties tried to dispense those fears becomes a side-show, given that the basic idea of far-right origin (that migration causes fear) is reaffirmed over and over again. Similar processes can be identified in most, if not all, the dominant narratives around migration that we see today. It’s always the same pattern: the far-right makes a claim, the establishment (including its progressive side) - even while fighting the claim on the face of it - accepts the underlying logic in debates the establishment engages in simply in order to profile itself. Rather than breaking entirely with the frames set by the far-right, they end up repeating and reinforcing them. This is how the far-right - unconsciously helped by those who pretend to oppose it - came to dominate only the narrative and shape reality.
Elaborating on all of the narratives in the broad debate on migration would certainly blow this text out of proportion. So, below, I curated some examples and cases in posts dedicated to each of the dominant narratives around migration which I find problematic. Have a look, before reading on about why I think that this repetition is a big issue.
Examples & cases
To understand how effective, important and detrimental the constant repetition of far-right frames is, let’s have a brief detour through the biological set-up of the human mind.
Without our brain adapting to our lived reality every single moment of our lives, we would at least be dumb, but more likely dead. Whatever we see, feel, sense or - in this case most importantly - hear, alters the physiological set-up of our brain through a process called neuroplasticity: the fluid connection and reconnection of the nerve cells in the brain. These connections code for our conscience. Essentially they are links that connect all our different experiences. For example: the information “hot oven” and “touch” with the sensation of pain. Babies or anyone else who learns a new language, essentially manage to connect the region in the brain that codes for the concept of a chair to the word “chair”. Learning a new language, one initially connects, let’s say: the English word “chair” with the Portuguese word “cadeira”. But, as most of you will know, this is not a very effective way to speak another language and simply results in weird literal translations. One only becomes fluent by connecting the concept of a chair directly with the word “cadeira” by repeatedly invoking this connecting until it is literally hard-wired into our brain’s physiology. When this is done, the word-concept-connection is strong enough to pop up as a natural link whenever the concept of chair is activated, for example by looking at one or the other way around: the concept in our mind that makes us understand what a chair is, is invoked by hearing somebody say the word “chair”, “cadeira” or “Stuhl”.
Repetition is key to hardwire the connections between concepts into our brain until they come in naturally, without effort. Once these connections are forged in our brains, it is very hard to change them. If you have a friend whose mother tongue is not the one you two use to converse in, you will probably know some ticks and errors that this person usually commits. Using the wrong article or ending in always the same way even and especially after years of speaking a foreign language is an expression of the repeated reinforcement of false mental links. Of course, this person could learn the correct form, but after months or even years of strengthening, of cultivating that wrong connection, this won’t occur just naturally. What does occur naturally though, is that the mental links hardwired into our brains, produce what psychology calls “cognitive biases” – a bias created by falling back to already established links as per default, hence having a dramatic effect on our day to day actions, including the way we speak. Cancelling out this effect and eventually re-wiring requires a tremendous and conscious effort.
The tricky thing is: simple negation won’t work. The brain cannot “not think” of something. George Lakoff titled his book “Do not think of an elephant” and this simple sentence shows the problem. Certainly, you just thought of an elephant. If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t not have understood the word “elephant” while reading it. Negation is effectively a two-step process: first, your brain invokes a concept, and only then, in a second step, your brain denies it. So even the statement “Refugees are not criminals”, as repeated so often by progressives with the best intentions, simply adds countless more repetition to the far-right’s fundamental link between refugees and crime.
To move beyond the issue of words, think about how hard it was and still is for the feminist movement to reshape people’s thoughts about what is or isn’t “typically female”. This example shows not only that it is very hard to make people rethink their prejudices, but also on a more positive note it shows that change is actually possible. Sure, things remain challenging. But nobody can deny that it is already way less weird to people to see women being soldiers or mechanics today, than it has been a few years or decades ago. And of course this is only the most recent step. One hundred years ago, it was difficult for many people to imagine women voting. Back then, two concepts that no sane person would see as conflicting today, for many people were two things that would just not go together. Despite all issues that still remain, the same applies to Black people, LGBT and other marginalised groups.
Things are changing when two conditions are met: first, the problem must be recognised, and second, an active effort is to be made to break with the status-quo of comfortable truths. This was and is true for all movements that have the empowerment of certain groups at its core - be it the anti-racist, anti-colonialist, LGBT or the feminist movement. They are all essentially about reconnecting the concepts of a particular group of people to positive attributes. For example connecting the concept of a woman to the idea that she can do specific things not previously accepted as accessible for non-males, or that she can indeed do anything she wants. Without recognising that the majority of people have been thinking and correspondingly speaking in a way that oppresses women, there couldn’t have been change. And the empowerment of women wouldn’t have been possible if it hadn’t been for a complete rupture with the comfortable –and oppressive – truths held before. Unfortunately, the same is also true for all oppressive movements from Hitler’s Nazis, through Rwanda’s Hutu extremists and the churches anti-LGBT campaigns, to today’s far-right parties inciting hatred against refugees by connecting the concept of refugees in people’s brain to negative and frightening attributes, such as crime and violence.
Just like people pick up and actually learn languages by being repeatedly and constantly exposed to them, unless there is a recognition of the problem that enables the active rejection of information, people learn the connection of certain concepts by being exposed to them repeatedly. Today, people in Europe are constantly exposed to the connection of certain concepts the far-right places on the agenda. Refugees and crime, Arabs and clans, migrants and rape, etc. These ideas fall very well with racial prejudices that are already and have already been well established in Europe for centuries. Can you think of anything else than poverty, civil war and disease when you think about Africa? With this supposed “knowledge” of Africa’s supposed “reality”, why wouldn’t you see Africa as little more than a big reservoir for wannabe-refugees – an idea that is holding much sway nowadays.
The reason for the far-right’s success is not so much their own reach. Yes, they are quite good with social media and yes, they do handle modern campaigning and communications a lot better than other political players. But this still doesn’t explain their actual reach, which is way bigger than social media alone could explain. The reason why they are so successful and so powerful is us, the political centre and even progressives. It’s us who, by engaging with the far right in the way we do, are helping them to amplify their message dramatically, enabling them to reach millions more than they would be able to on their own. We, the political centre and progressives with our careless language, are the amplification devices, the echo chambers, the far-right needs to cultivate their narrative, to spread, repeat and ultimately establish their ideas.
Step I: Silencing the echo chamber
Now, there are two ways out of this situation and they must go together. First, we have to stop acting as echo chambers for far-right concepts. The entire political arena has become little more than an amplification device for the kind of connections the far right establishes. The central connections the far right makes - refugees and crime, Arab men and rape, etc - are reflected in everything that is bouncing up and down the news, social media, political speeches and heated debates over coffee and cake when visiting your parents for a supposedly peaceful Sunday afternoon. As already explained above, it doesn’t matter if one is pro or contra in that debate. What matters are repetitions of certain connections. Rejecting the words and narratives as such is not enough, we need to reject their underlying logic just as fervently. It’s not enough to prefer development programs instead of walls to keep people out of Europe. Instead, we have to ask ourselves – based on reality!, not on racist stereotypes or illusions about who we and others really are – if stopping people from coming is a priority or even necessity in the first place. Or, Annalena Baerbock, for example, the Co-Chair of the German Green Party, could refrain from giving interviews on how to improve deportations in cases when refugees commit crimes and instead invest the time and energy in campaigning on real issues that actually have an empirical base (which neither the notion of the criminal refugee, nor the effectiveness of deportations has).
Of course, such a step requires bravery. Going against the established thinking of what seems to be a majority is not only a scary thing to do, it’s also politically, since you can easily lose your audience in the process. But, after all, isn’t this exactly what worked so well for the far right? And isn’t “bravery” exactly what the nowadays biggest party of the progressive side in German politics made their slogan?
Collectively refraining from repeating the far-right narratives and concepts would essentially silence this echo chamber. The step is similar to the feminist idea of refraining from gendered language. Without addressing groups in the male form, groups are no longer automatically considered to be male. Without talking about certain professions in a gendered form, they cease to be seen as all one or another gender. Without constantly discussion refugees and crime in the same context, refugees will cease to be naturally understood as criminals.
That’s a great first step, but it won’t be efficient, unless accompanied by a second one.
Step II: Refilling the echo chamber
The second step that has to accompany the silencing of the echo chamber, is to refill the vacant space. This is where things might get tricky. It requires an answer to the question: what do we actually have to say? This might seem straight forward. But political parties - both established ones and new ones - have to agree on where they actually want to go and most importantly base this agreement on the reality that is so often hidden behind a thick smoke screen of century-old colonialism and racism that inspire a distorted perception of how and why people move. By no means is there any agreement whatsoever about issues fundamental to migration, such as global justice, inequality, Europe’s true and imagined role in the world or even the situation it is in, about the neoliberal world order and its role in shaping inequality or migration – or not shaping them. But since coming to these agreements is not mine, but the task of those people actually in positions of power in the parties, for the sake of this text let’s assume parties can actually resolve these internal issues and stop letting their preconceptions and illusions thwart the search for the utopias we need to move forward.
Feminism’s silencing of the macho echo chamber that upheld the patriarchy for so long, would not have been successful if it hadn’t been for a simultaneous reinjection of those values feminists are fighting for. Without actively campaigning for connecting the concept of a woman with concepts previously unthinkable in combination with them - like soldiers, surgeons, mechanics, CEOs - the echo chamber would either have remained vacant for anyone to fill with whatever crap they might have come up with, or - most likely - it would have simply been refilled with the comfortable old truths that people have already held for so long and that would mean: no change, after all.
Even if parties agreed on a radically new line of thought that breaks with old stereotypes, it won’t be easy to refill the echo chamber. Doing so is essentially about finding a way to stand out as a real alternative by running campaigns that have emancipated themselves from the dominant mode of thinking and correspondingly from the predominant narrative. In the last years, the far right was more successful than anyone else in this regard. Despite the fact that much of their programme was actually about maintaining and intensifying the status quo, they managed to make their most high-profile demands about breaking with the status-quo and marked this with a language that smartly framed their ideas accordingly.
Social media can help, yes, and so can great campaigns. But at its core its really about getting into people’s heads by doing things differently and marking these differences with the appropriate language. The only real alternative to the current predominant “fortress Europe” narrative, would not be talking about more “hidden” borders or “softer” deterrence, but to argue for actual open borders. Even though nobody seems to see this argument as worth pursuing, it does have its values exploring this idea, as I will do elsewhere soon.
So, what will the future of the conversation about refugees be? Will we be brave enough to start talking about refugees inalienable rights? About how they contribute to our society, from inspiring creative solutions to our problems sparked by cross-fertilization of ideas across differences to filling the vacancies in the health system that Germany’s ageing society needs? Or will we fill the echo chamber with other, more pressing issues: how to built a fair world? Obviously, without linking to or reasoning with migration, but I hope after staying with me all the way until down here, you already got this, right?)? How to tackle climate change and build a sustainable future? How do we organise our digital, highly-techonolgised societies in the future? The possibilities are endless.
We just have to pick one and get cracking.