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The Perils of Loaded Language

I think its good that were all a little racist.’

Im an Australian community pharmacist with Chinese heritage and thats what one of my regular patients said to me one day. A little taken aback, I asked, ‘Oh? Why do you say that?’ Referring to the recent census results, the patient said that half of Australias population were not born in Australia (this is not true), but ‘…I mean I think its good that we all look a bit different. I think its good that you look Chinese.’ To some of you, this probably seems like a very strange exchange. In community pharmacy, its not uncommon. Another exampleafter counselling an elderly patient on her blood pressure medications, the lady looked at me, patted my hand and said, smiling, ‘You speak English so well for an Asian.’

The language used by everyday people is not the same as the language used in the media. The media constitutes a profession that is generally highly educated (some would say, a part of theeliteclass). Journalists have to think about the language they use a lot more than the average person. Let me ask youwhich do you think is a more apt description, ‘illegal immigrantorasylum seeker’?

The Australian Press Council (APC) recommends journalists use the termasylum seekersin most circumstances. The Howard government liked to sayillegal maritime arrivals,’ while the subsequent Labor government preferredirregular maritime arrivals.’ Tony Abbott brought backboat people,’ a term coined in the 1970s that initially described refugees fleeing Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. Its a strikingly anachronistic term in the vein ofChink,’ ‘AboorWog,’ and shows how much weand our use of language (at least in public) – have progressed.

The truth is, the language that you use probably determines how you feel about an issue. The APC warns that the wordillegalmay unduly implycriminality or other serious behaviour,’ –emphasising that most people who come here without authorisation are seeking a legal right to stay in Australia as refugees. However, some think thatasylum seekerdeliberately avoids the fact that these people are entering Australian borders illegally. They are frustrated that the medias obsession with political correctness has made it impossible to call a spadea spade’.

Censoring language, however wellintentioned, can be subversive. The Rotherham child sex abuse scandal in the U.K., where at least 1400 children were abused between 1997 and 2013, ignited a firestorm over the problem of institutionalised political correctness. Most of the perpetrators were of Pakistani heritage, but police and officials were blasted for deliberately failing to acknowledge obvious ethnic and community ties for fears of being accused of racism.

The initial reluctance of the German media to cover a wave of sexual assaults during the 2015/2016 New Yearscelebration by men described as having North African or Arab appearance was blamed on the medias fear of stoking antimigrant sentiment during the refugee crisis. It reinforced the perception that the media (knowingly or unknowingly) tends to skew coverage a certain way.

In the U.S., Obama was constantly pilloried by the right for failing to say the wordsradical Islamic terrorist’ (he has used those words, just not in that exact order). In 2014, he said, ‘ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] is not Islamic.’ His intentions were goodhe wanted to make the distinction between ‘Islam’ and ‘Islamism’ (trust me when I say that nobody but journalists and politicians would know the difference). He was wrongISIS is very Islamic and it would be folly to ignore the fact.

To his supporters, Trump is the antithesis of political correctness. His diatribes are inarticulate, grossly offensive to grammarheads and crudely effective. Remember the time he said thatall Mexicans are rapists?’ He didnt say that. What Trump said was this:

The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody elses problemsWhen Mexico sends its people, theyre not sending their best. Theyre not sending you. Theyre not sending you. Theyre sending people that have lots of problems, and theyre bringing those problems with us. Theyre bringing drugs. Theyre bringing crime. Theyre rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.’

Trump was talking about illegal immigrants (or undocumented immigrants, depending on your political bent). His language is emotive, absolutist and appeals to baser instincts of fear and anger rather than reason or evidence. Its language that incites and exploits stereotypes, and its dangerous. At the same time, implicit within a statement likeMexicans are bringing drugs and crime to the U.S.’ is an acknowledgement of the opioid epidemic gripping many parts of the country as well as concerns about the impact of illegal immigrationin particular, the link between illegal immigration and crime. In the latter, there is surprisingly little evidence on either side of the debatealthough, immigration overall (legal and illegal) has not been shown to increase crime.

Some people voted for Trump because he spoke like them. But many voted for Trump because he spoke to them. If you can manage to look past the polemic, youll find embedded within an even more powerful message. To the culturally and economically stagnate, to those who could see no future for themselves or their families on the cusp of the new world of globalisation and technology, Trump said, ‘I hear you.’

The Atlantic sums Trump up best: ‘The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.’

Language is important. It can be used to incite, obscure, validate, expose. It has meaning, but meaning is in the eye of the beholder (as the incident in the pharmacy certainly affirms). Listening is important too. There is something to be gained by trying to understand another persons point of view. The judgement can come later.