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The Power of Labelling and the Terrible Simplifiers

Bruce Springsteen’s song “The Line” provides, from the perspective of a US border patrol agent, a remarkably powerful description of the drama faced by migrants:

“They risk death in the deserts and mountains 

Pay all they got to the smugglers rings 

We send ’em home and they come right back again 

Carl hunger is a powerful thing.”

Hunger, as well as violence and war, are indeed powerful motivators forcing people to flee their countries. Equally powerful are, on our side, the instruments we use to “keep ‘em from crossing the line”. Among these instruments one should not overlook the power of labelling. We had a poignant illustration of this when David Cameron described the migrants trying to reach Britain as “a swarm”. Other labels prove, however, even more potent and pervasive. The expression “migrant crisis” is clearly one of those.

For one thing, there appears to be a terrible logic behind this labelling. By highlighting the struggle to manage the influx of migrants, the word detracts attention from the drama they live – of which we do not seem to care much until their deaths get newspaper headlines – and subtly put the spotlight on the problem they represent for us. It builds on the assumption that migrants are the cause of the crisis.

There also appears to be a near-sighted convenience to refer to this apparently increased level of migration as a crisis. By definition, a crisis allows – indeed dictates – extraordinary measures. Since we live a crisis, we are not only entitled to question our duty to help, or at least to make it subject to a phony conditionality; we are also entitled to question some of the very underpinnings of the European project. Whether the multiculturalist integration ideal, the well-affirmed principle of non-refoulement and the prohibition of collective expulsions, or the Schengen provisions and the broader intra-European solidarity, all the inconvenient features of our societal fabric can now be put in question. It should be unimaginable that some hundreds of thousands of human beings seeking asylum in a continent of over five hundred million can put in jeopardy 70 years of European integration. But this is the logic we have decided to apply.

Since one should never let a good crisis go to waste, rationality advises to make at least money out it. Humanitarian rhetoric has in no time been turned into a highly profitable business, as Investigate Europe recently reported in its articles. But it means ready money not only for the well-established industries providing services for border control and working towards “Fortress Europe”. It has become a lucrative business also for allegedly charitable entrepreneurs and organizations that in several European countries have set up reception facilities for migrants using the extra funds that governments allocate in order to deal with the crisis.

Masked by an appearance of altruism, this is arguably a very selfish way of assisting asylum-seekers. But perhaps there would be nothing aberrant, were these matters treated with the required pragmatism and intellectual honesty; after all, it’s still the economy, stupid! Instead, these initiatives have become instruments of mean political propaganda that invariably fuels clichés – like for instance that migrants have access to services, amenities and jobs at the expense of ill-served citizens. This, in turn, generates a diffuse sense of disquiet or even fear.

All these rampant misconceptions and their narratives are ably used by the “terribles simplificateurs”, the unrelenting demagogues that historian Jacob Buckhardt imagined would one day descend upon Europe riding the waves of mass politics and employing the logic of generalisation to deal with the most complex societal issues. Expulsions and erection of walls are the simple recipes the terrible simplifiers of today advocate to defend Europe (and more broadly “the West”) from the material and cultural threats posed by the “swarm of migrants”. But in fact such measures only contribute to sharpening the divisions of our societies. And, quite ironically, the terrible simplifiers propose themselves as the champions of national sovereignty and as the strongest custodians of our superior identity and values – readily forgetting that we have a special responsibility towards Europe’s old colonies.

The logic of the simplifiers is not simply a refusal of diversity, but the refusal of human equality. The migrant, as the Other, becomes the perfect scapegoat for all the illnesses of our society and, as such, The Other must be kept outside, both physically and from our minds.

If there is any connection between the migrants and the sense of crisis permeating our lives, it is that the migrants in their role as the Other inevitably question our identity: Who are we? That we do not seem to know any longer. Yet we should remind ourselves that we are both the heirs of the brightest liberal and cosmopolitan traditions and of the most brutal forms of discrimination and violence history has ever produced. We are at a juncture; once again we can go both ways. Who do we want to be? The very way we will decide to face the refugee drama might give us the first answer!

Marco Aliberti, Political Scientist