Matthew Ford’s Infernal Blog

Politics, games, computers, philosophy, human nature, Australia, and general rabbiting on

Hurricane language

Some observations on Katrina sparked by Kanye West’s outraged speech at a fundraiser and the media coverage of “finding” versus “looting” food.  Interesting stuff, though it’s ill advised to make sweeping claims based on two cherry-picked photos out of thousands. Snopes did an admirable job of showing all sides of this.

I believe that overheated claims of racial bias ultimately help propagate true racial bias. I’d like to see people restrain themselves and stick to facts. There are plenty of indisputable facts which show racial bias in America; to fling around accusations without very good backup just makes the substantiated claims suspect. As promised, I’m all too willing to call out the foolishness of the Left as well. ;)

A related, interesting, and more substantial discussion is about the media’s use of the term “refugee” to describe the victims of the hurricane. According to Wikipedia: “In common usage, the word refers to a person seeking asylum in a foreign country in order to escape persecution”.

Ostensibly this misuse of the term is intended by some to show just how bad things are, and to liken this devastation to what Americans previously only saw in other countries. But linguistically minded, Orwell- and Chomsky-quoting bastards like me tend to see a more sinister implication, one that draws from Orwell’s basic premise that to control language is to control thought, which is itself a vital element of controlling a democracy.

The implication is that by using the term “refugee” and by highlighting the lawlessness of the “refugees”, it creates a comfortable emotional distance between those in power and those who are victimized. If it were your sister down there in the muck, you’d have no choice but to call her a victim of disaster, scraping for her survival by any means necessary. To instead cast people as refugees who are rampantly looting creates a sense of moral superiority and contempt, which makes the horror easier to bear, and therefore blunts the political backlash against the causes of the horror.

Is there a small minority of stupid people who are grabbing TVs out of greed? Sure. But how much airplay does that deserve, in what proportion to everything else that must be told about this disaster? And what does it imply if coverage of same is found to be out of proportion compared to the total number of victims who all have stories to broadcast?

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