Newspeak 2.0 – How political correctness hinders a critical debate about the refugee crisis

by Christina Ginthör

By the end of World War II, the power of propaganda as a political tool had been well established, although not always well understood by the wider public. So when George Orwell´s Nineteen Eighty-Four was first published in 1949, Orwell recast public discourse and perception about the inevitable and horrific growth of censorship. In a world of perpetual war and relentless government, Orwell showed how, through impoverished language, the public could be manipulated. He called this language “Newspeak,” a language full of euphemisms (bad was changed to “nongood,” for example), created in order to prevent rebellious thought. After all, thoughts about things for which there are no words cannot be formed.

In recent months, fiction has become reality. Respect for others in everyday language and behavior is without a doubt crucial for our societies. The concept of political correctness, however, is widely overused in seemingly irrelevant disputes and too obsessively applied by political leaders. People seem to be guided solely by vapid moral platitudes about “preferential mental attitudes,” which Orwell condemned sixty years ago. Public statements take the accepted line, which has substantially muddled the European Union’s response to a comprehensive solution for the refugee crisis.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines political correctness as “language or behaviour that deliberately tries to avoid offending particular groups of people.” It is therefore inherently a changing landscape based on perceptions which depend heavily upon culture, religion and country of origin. This very blurry understanding of what is politically correct subtly alters people’s ideas and behavior. What is politically correct in today’s Europe, for example, was very different fifty years ago. And what is politically correct in China has not the same meaning as in the United States.

Respect for others in everyday language and behavior is without a doubt crucial for our societies. The concept of political correctness, however, is widely overused in seemingly irrelevant disputes

In the case of the refugee crisis, Germany plays an essential role in this process of perception of what is acceptable in public discourse. Karin Kneissl, a well-known expert on the Middle East, has stated that “It used to be Euro-dictating Germany, now it is morale-dictating Germany.” Many are wondering what motivated Angela Merkel’s recent adoption of an Obama-like “Yes We Can” attitude, which has gained a great deal of traction at the supra-national level in the European Union. Kneissl argues that Merkel wants to remake Germany’s image and in turn, her own into a more sympathetic one. One can only wonder whether it is then fair to operate under the “refugees welcome” slogan without talking honestly about the challenges this poses for European societies.

Some quarrels about the usage of political correctness are just scratching the surface of the highly important debate about the challenges of the crisis. Certain NGOs, for instance, claim that one cannot use the wording “flow of refugees,” because refugees are individuals, not a so-called “flow.” These same individuals, however, describe refugees as a “resource.” The word “resource” connotes materialization, which, of course, undermines their humanity and commodifies the pain of individual suffering. This ping-pong match of words has lost its charm. Billy Batware, a former refugee from Rwanda, confirms this: “I do not see what difference it makes to the asylum seeker who … has arrived in Austria or elsewhere without access to proper sanitation, whether he or she is referred to as being part of the flow of refugees … or a source for labour.”

The issue of integration, another even more important element of the discussion, is also being hindered by the scourge of political correctness. Marie-Claire Sowinetz from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) maintains a positive outlook, averring that if all member countries of the European Union work together, it is not a substantial burden for society, but a chance for prosperity and economic growth. She emphasizes that the neighboring countries of Syria alone host approximately four million refugees, whereas only around 682,000 between April 2011 and October 2015 have applied for asylum in Europe.

© publik15,flickr

It may also happen that refugees are not willing to adapt to the rules of receiving European countries, forming parallel societies, ignoring to some degree the local set of values and the nation’s rule of law. Tania Kambouri, police officer and author of Deutschland im Blaulicht (“Germany in Blue Light”), states that many problems have arisen as the result of mass immigration. She points out that in Berlin, 80% of all youth violators come from Turkey or Arab countries. Her insight is deeply concerning, implying that integration of immigrants will be a huge challenge and will lead without a doubt to hurdles if not addressed in a critical manner.

Issues of security are of equal importance. The UNHCR argues that the majority of people fleeing to Europe are coming from war-prone countries. According to Sowinetz of UNCHR Austria, no one is fleeing merely for economic reasons. She clarified that if people’s motives for leaving are economic in origin, they are to be considered economic migrants, not refugees, and thus cannot be granted asylum under the Geneva Convention. Ian Drury from the Daily Mail writes, however, that many refugees claim to be Syrian when in fact they are not. The European Union recorded 213,000 arrivals in April, May and June of 2015, but only 44,000 of them were fleeing the Syrian Civil War.

According to the Guardian, granting asylum to Syrians has created a black market for false Syrian passports. Even for the authorities, it is a challenge to distinguish those who are Syrian from those who are not, but there is very little discussion of this in the media. Europe is therefore also constraining opportunities for true refugees. The United States, on the other hand, has stated that they will resettle 10,000 refugees. According to Republican presidential candidate and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, the United States “cannot put [its] people at risk because we’re trying to be politically correct.” Of course, Europe risks more but is ironically even more limited in its response because of prevailing attitudes toward migrants.

One of the reasons is most certainly that Europeans currently adhere too heavily to political extremes at both the right and left sides of the spectrum. Political correctness is often misused as a tool for reflecting ideas of either one or the other of these largely contradicting parties. No one wants to be considered indifferent to the plight of refugees or even worse, as a neo-fascist bent on closed borders, xenophobia and fostering islamo-paranoia. Karin Kneissl is also deeply concerned that nowadays it is very hard to talk critically about certain issues: “If you say that not all the refugees that are coming to Europe are fleeing from war, but are economic migrants, you are automatically a supporter of Victor Orbán, an enemy to human kind.”

Political correctness is the elephant in the room, a mildly embarrassing necessity. It is often forced to the top of our priorities while open discussion about the real challenges of the crisis are silenced. It subdues even the most moderate of efforts to find sustainable solutions. The process remains stalled and the consequences of blunt ignorance are unforeseeable. George Orwell might have termed this linguistic deterioration “superplusnongood.” His words are now more relevant than ever: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

 “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”
                                       -Ludwig Wittgenstein

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