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‘Invasion, swarm’: Words matter – when they’re being used like this, they’re being used as a weapon

The data speaks for itself: ‘Dehumanisation increases anger and disgust towards immigrants, which causes anti-immigrant sentiment’

Victoria Richards
Tuesday 01 November 2022 14:44 GMT
Suella Braverman says she 'foresaw' concerns at Manston asylum centre

“A swarm”. A “flood”. “Marauders”. An “invasion”. Words that are commonly used to describe disasters, acts of war, vermin. Except our politicians are using them to refer to people.

Seven years ago, the-then prime minister David Cameron said: “This is very testing, I accept that, because you have got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs, it’s got a growing economy, it’s an incredible place to live.”

Former foreign secretary Philip Hammond, in 2015, said Britain needed to protect itself from “marauding” migrants; insisting that African refugees arriving in Europe were undermining its “standard of living”. He said Britain’s “number one priority” was to find a way to send back would-be asylum seekers to wherever they came from.

And now we have Suella Braverman: the home secretary has claimed the south coast is facing an “invasion” by migrants, just a day after a firebomb attack at the Border Force immigration centre in Dover. She told MPs: “Let’s be clear about what is really going on here: the British people deserve to know which party is serious about stopping the invasion on our southern coast and which party is not.”

Refugee charities have described the home secretary’s comments as “heinous” and “dehumanising”, which Braverman could well have predicted. After all, we’ve been here before. We’ve seen this kind of language echoed from various seats of power: parliament, pundits, the press.

In 2016, former US president Donald Trump tweeted: “Crooked Hillary Clinton wants to flood our country with Syrian immigrants that we know little or nothing about. The danger is massive. NO!” In 2019, Fox News host Tucker Carlson also described the arrival of 500 African migrants at the US border in the space of a week as a “flood” that could become a “torrent”.

The right-wing media in Britain has deployed the same language – five years ago, the Daily Express carried this headline: “Flood of illegal migrants highlights border fiasco”. Ukip’s former leader, Nigel Farage, described being surrounded by “swarms of potential migrants” in 2015, and in 2020 also used the word “invasion”.

It doesn’t seem to matter that the desperation required to attempt the dangerous journey to the UK across the Channel – fleeing some of the worst humanitarian disasters in history – should make anyone with a shred of empathy flinch.

Nor does it seem to make a difference that intentionally dehumanising groups of people in this way – “othering” them – has long been condemned by groups such as Amnesty International and the Refugee Council. The latter called Cameron’s “irresponsible, dehumanising” language “extremely inflammatory”. Amnesty’s migrants chief Steve Symonds said Hammond’s use of “marauders” was “shameful”.

So, why do our politicians do it? Is there something darker and more insidious at play? If our leaders elect are aware of the horror such comments can ignite, why would they risk saying it? What’s really going on?

According to academics such as Stephen Utych, writing in the journal Political Research Quarterly in 2018, dehumanisation can actively influence attitudes towards migrants – and perhaps that’s exactly the point.

Utych writes: “Immigrants, as a group, are frequently described in ways, such as vermin or disease, that portray them as less than human. This type of dehumanising language leads to negative emotional responses and negative attitudes toward the dehumanised group.” In his paper, he implies that this might be their goal – that using this type of language can actively influence immigration policy. In other words: if you want people to adopt more hardline attitudes towards migration, use language that changes the way we think about them.

As Utych explains: “Political elites can employ numerous strategies to convince the public to agree with their policy positions. Perhaps one of the most powerful ways is to denigrate the out-group affected by the legislation.

“Dehumanisation leads to more negative immigration attitudes,” Utych continues. “Dehumanisation increases anger and disgust towards immigrants, which causes anti-immigrant sentiment.”

This is just one study, but there is a plethora of research on human behaviour that shows we largely give preferential treatment to the “in-group” and can display discriminatory bias towards the “out-group”. And there is an even bigger effect, social psychologists say, when we use what is called “animalistic dehumanisation”.

This, Utych explains, leads to harsher judgements of a group. “By using analogies to disasters, vermin or disease, political elites are able to deny dehumanised individuals some level of humanity, which makes it easier [...] to support harsh and punitive action against them.”

If we take Braverman as an example – the home secretary said last month (in her previous incarnation as... home secretary, before she resigned and was reinstated a week later) that it was her “dream” and “obsession” to see a flight take asylum seekers to Rwanda. “I would love to have a front page of The Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda, that’s my dream, it’s my obsession,” she said.

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If this is her goal, then it wouldn’t be any surprise to see her using intentionally dehumanising language as a means to inure us to the policy. To get us to actively support it. Or, at least, to turn a blind eye to it.

But if we do that, then we lose our humanity. We must not be fooled. Words matter. Our vocabulary around immigration matters. It shapes our thinking, our feelings and our responses. And we need to know when it’s being weaponised.

Let’s remind ourselves of the facts: There is no “swarm”, no “flood”, no “wave”. There are only people – men, women and children – fleeing persecution from humanitarian disaster and civil war.

Let’s also remind ourselves of our empathy – look at this poem by Warsan Shire, ‘Home’, with its standout line: “you have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land”.

Words have power. If you want to dismiss them as semantics, then tell me: what’s the collective noun for desperation?

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