As the tabloids call for the army to be sent in and Cameron whips up hysteria talking of a ‘swarm’, we reflect on the language and coverage of Calais.
It was on Radio 4 that an interviewee called in saying he was a lorry driver and proceeded to describe the people trying to get on the lorries at Calais as “ants….they were everywhere”. He disgracefully went unchallenged by the presenter who continued the interview thanking the man for his ‘valued insight’. We know these words well. This is the language of the barbaric, the exterminator, the victor over the vanquished and certainly not that of the civilised nation we purport to be. But it has never been a new language; but part of a long history of the degradation and dehumanisation of fellow humans driven by desperation and circumstance.
Now as then the government has actively encouraged the use of propaganda to distort facts and heighten native fears. Along with a compliant media it has then robbed groups of their humanity for centuries. In this we can observe two elements, the first being the history of language and then the way in which it is used. In my view there can be no distinction between an ‘illegal’ or legal migrant, or even a single mother or the unemployed. All the lexicon used to describe these groups is about creating a culture of division and fear. The rhetoric of the enemy within where those who are fortunate or just barely subsisting are encouraged to despise or be afraid of their fellow humans.
When my grandparents settled down in North London they would often come across signs that said, ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’. These signs were in profuse existence for most of the 50s and 60s, even making the occasional comeback in remote areas in the 70s. Lets not forget the election slogan coined by the Conservatives during the late 50s, “If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour”.
That was horrible so was a leading politician describing Afro Caribbean immigrants and their children as picannies, an especially ripe term from the cupboard of 18th century racism. In the context of the United States, the pickaninny is characterised by three qualities: “the figure is always juvenile, always of colour, and always resistant if not immune to pain”. (Later used a poignant justification for brutality against blacks and indented Irish slaves). But the language used by the Prime Minister and members of the public has a distinct chill to it remnant of the ethnic nationalism we often heard is absent in Britain.
The term racism is often called out and without the full understanding of its historical bearing, structural power and linguistic subtleties. We can safely say that the Prime minister joined the ranks of continental nationalists by likening the migrants (most of whom are non-white) to insects. And colour of course is crucial here because it shapes the debate within the context of language and the idea of the alien. European immigrants maybe scorned at but due to the conditions of being in Europe and the superficial similarities it is significantly harder to reduce these groups to animal status. Only with migrants from Asia, Africa and the Maghreb can we be so glib about their bestial state. Their dark skins so far from the norm, their strange calls to prayer, the odd languages and hostile tongues that seem even further away than Continental languages.
We must go back into the past to see why it has been so easy for fellow humans to be denigrated and for so many of our fellow citizens to be susceptible to this conditioning. In the recently aired ‘Britain’s Lost Slave Owners‘ we saw how the professional classes and big plantation owners numbed themselves to the horrors that fed their profit. The cargo was never seen as human, just assets to be bought and sold. Think on how often traders to throw whole ‘batches’ of African slaves overboard when a percentage got sick for fear that they would lose their insurance at the docking port. I recall listening to letters read on the show of a lady from the Home Counties who was concerned about the death of a slave, but not in personal terms as a human but rather that he was a skilled man and as an asset would be a heavy loss economically.
The Jews from the Pale in Lithuania, Poland and the Ukrainian territories who started to come to Britain in the mid Victorian period were also subjected to abuse when they settled in the East end of many of our cities. They too were seen as an insect horde, killers of children come to pollute British streets and corrupt British christianity. Their anarchist tendencies were a particular concern but this was explicitly expressed in racial terms. Another potent example is that of the Irish who apart from being a perceived threat for jobs both skilled and unskilled were also seen as intrinsically non human. The ‘fenian threat’ posed these Catholic immigrants in the UK were presented in broadsheet newspapers as a threat to the very purity and soul of the nation. They were lacking in Anglo-Saxon purity and therefore were especially feared alongside Jews as a ‘corruption of the white race’ and thus as a danger to the higher echelons of human civilisation.
The reason why it is of concern to all of us is that this language of oppression is not only offensive but a physical threat to liberty and equality for all. We all are practiced upon by the language of British imperialism and class whether we are immigrants or asylum seekers, ethnic minorities in Britain, white working class from our poorest neighbourhoods. We have in the past forty years in this country seen a political rhetoric where the poorest and powerless have been systematically dispossessed and dehumanised by the language of the powerful and propertied. Those with disabilities, single mothers, women and even if we look through the context of the Union, the Scots and Welsh. The voices that can call fellow humans at Calais a swarm, that can deny any shred of human feeling and sense of responsibility are the same voices that oppress us all.
Calling human beings ‘picannies’, ‘lazy’, ‘locusts’, ‘scroungers’ legitimises their rights being further eroded and their persons to be acted upon violently. No-one is saying that our streets are paved with gold, but you do not need golden streets to act like civilised humans. Many in our respective countries across Europe have shown our hearts to be as cold and dead as the pieces of metal and gadgets we value over human life, solidarity or liberty. Our citizenship and plenty are only as valid and secure as we think if we are willing to share it with others. For truly with our history of language and power, can we call ourselves democratic or civilised?