The language of the jungle has no place in the refugee crisis

Written by Simon Lancaster on 4 March 2016 in Opinion

We should face up to the reality of what is going on in Calais – and stop the widespread use of a term that dehumanises migrants.

Google the words ‘Calais’ and ‘croissant’, and you get 500,000 results. Google the words ‘Calais’ and ‘jungle’, and you get a whopping 70 million results.

The image is now set. In our collective consciousness, Calais is no longer the happy place of amorous school trips, pain au chocolat and cheap wine. Rather, it is now a large forbidding place of wild animals, unpredictable threats, danger at every turn…

Katy Hopkins was rightly slammed when she wrote an article for the Daily Mail characterising migrants as ‘cockroaches’. David Cameron was also criticised for talking about a ‘swarm’ of migrants at Calais. How can the term ‘jungle’ that propagates exactly the same imagery - migrants as animals - be used so widely and yet with complete impunity?

For thousands of years, ethnic groups have been diminished and dehumanised through animal metaphors.  In Ancient Rome, slaves were described as oxen. Hitler characterised the Jews repeatedly as snakes. In the Rwandan genocide, those infamous radio broadcasts called for the Hutu to stamp out the Tutsi, depicted them as cockroaches.

These are hate metaphors. They are metaphors of domination. They elevate the speaker whilst diminishing and dehumanising the target. You might think, ‘Who cares? They are just figures of speech!' But they are not.  Language, cognition and behaviour are all interconnected. Metaphors affect the way we think, feel and act.

People use hate metaphors to legitimise illegitimate behaviours. They enable reasonable people to rationalise unreasonable acts. They enable otherwise decent human beings to commit acts of gross inhumanity.

Recent studies have shown that the German people largely knew what was going on in the concentration camps during the 30s and 40s, they just didn’t care because Hitler had done such an effective job of dehumanising the people who were sent there. They were depicted literally as criminals, sex pests and social misfits; the metaphorical descriptions were as snakes, foxes or tapeworms.

Obviously, it is unacceptable to kill a human being. All of us, regardless of race, religion or background would subscribe to that. But when faced with a snake, a rat or a cockroach – well, extermination is the only option.

Whenever you see someone doing something which goes against their deepest values, they invariably try to justify their actions through metaphor. Through metaphors we create images in our minds which make us feel better about ourselves. Even mafia hitmen do it when they characterise informers as ‘rats’. But these images are always lies.

The Israeli military talks about attacks on the Gaza strip as ‘mowing the lawn’, reducing human flesh to grass and murder to Sunday afternoon gardening. The US military talks of every drone killing as a ‘bug splat’, not a life lost but a minor irritant removed on a car windscreen. ISIS soldiers return the compliment: a transcript of a recent execution showed the ISIS soldier spitting on the corpse of his unarmed victim saying, ‘Be gone, filthy dog.’

And so back to the jungle. Just pause for a moment and consider the reality of what is happening in Calais. What we are really seeing is impoverished, sick families, desperately fleeing one conflict only to walk straight into another: homes burnt out, women attacked by armed police, young children tear-gassed. Yes. Young children tear-gassed - right here in Europe.

But do we see the press reports are metaphors. We read that the jungle has been razed to the ground. Oh. Ok. Fine. No biggie. It’s nothing worse than the big corporations have been doing in the Amazon and SE Asia for decades.

We should face up to the reality of what is going on in Calais, rather than retreating into metaphorical fiction. The language of the jungle has no place in mainstream reporting. It’s the language of genocide.



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PHOTO: PA - A man removes his belongings in the Calais migrant camp, known as the Jungle, as demolition of the camp continued in Calais, France.


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