Engaging critically with the world as we tertiary students are inclined to do, we all know that nothing anyone says is without some kind of bias or agenda, however neutral it claims to be. But how does this stuff show itself in language? A spot of critical discourse analysis suggests it can be sneakier than you might first expect.
We’ll start with an obvious one. With all the talk of offshore processing at the moment, let’s take the term queue jumper. The late Michael Clyne, a brilliant linguist, pointed out that the term assumes there’s actually a queue in the first place. Really? A queue at a refugee camp that’s basically a quarter of a million people stuck in the desert? And whose idea is it anyway that no one should jump queues? That there should be a queue at all? These are Western ways of thinking, and by using a term like this, it’s assumed on the part of the speaker/writer – and consequently the listener/reader – that everything the term entails is true.
Nothing illuminating there, you might think. Let’s talk about something a bit more under-the-surface then. Sticking with the immigration theme, two important words come to mind – refugee and asylum seeker. The word refugee would, to most ordinary folk, mean something like ‘someone fleeing a terrible situation’. I reckon most boat people fit that description. An asylum seeker, on the other hand, is someone asking another country for protection. So, the refugee flees his or her land, comes to a new place, asks for protection and becomes an asylum seeker. Simple enough.
But somehow things have become twisted, and what we get in media and political discourse is exactly the opposite: asylum seekers arrive in Australia and aren’t referred to as refugees until they’ve somehow proved themselves. The term offshore processing is also interesting. It is applications that are being processed, not people; paperwork, and not living, breathing humans.
Keeping all of this in mind, a ‘neutral’ news article that reports, “asylum seekers are being sent to Nauru for processing,” not only casts immediate doubt in the mind of the reader that these people had anything to flee in the first place (and denies them the chance to be seen by the public as what they are, refugees), but also dehumanises them, as they are to be processed, just like that Centrelink form you filled out last week.
We can all tell when someone has a strong opinion and uses language to support it. What we need to look at more carefully is discourse that seems ‘natural’ or ‘neutral’, and check below the surface to see what’s really there.