The rise of social media has given us access to more information than anyone can process in a lifetime. From anonymous interviews to haunting video footage, the constant stimulation of an average media consumer’s mind can make us take it for granted that with enough time and effort, anyone can become an expert on any social issue. And this can make us more complacent.
By unquestioningly believing the stories presented to us, we assimilate their authors’ prejudices and biases – subconscious, perhaps, but harmful nonetheless. On the other hand, ‘post-truth’ has been selected by Oxford Dictionaries as its word of the year in 2016. This demonstrates a growing trend in treating everything with suspicion, which is connected to the nature of the Internet as a platform.
For example, Aengus Bridgman et al have identified a link between social media use and believing misinformation about Covid-19. This is crucial for what I am about to discuss, because the pandemic is obviously something that has affected all of us. So if we cannot separate the truth from the lies with something familiar, how are we to do so when it comes to situations we have never experienced, and people we may never have met? How do those of us who have not been forced to flee our homes educate ourselves and move towards a world of kindness and understanding? How do we stop confining people to boxes? How do we shift our worldview from the oppressive binary of ‘us’ and ‘them’?
The impact of media language
Firstly, it is important to take a look at the language used by the media to talk about refugee experiences. I am not discussing here the more obviously discriminatory sources, typically with a right-wing bias, which portray refugees as a physical, social and economic threat based on poorly concealed prejudice and no sound arguments. Nor am I talking about reporting which leans too far the other way, and reduces refugee identities to suffering victims. Instead, what needs to be drawn attention to are the subtleties of language, which show how easy it is to start thinking in categories, problematic definitions and political mantras.
Daniel Trilling has unpacked the connotations of the seemingly innocuous word ‘migrant’. He points out that “without even an im- or an em- attached to it to indicate that the people it describes have histories or futures”, the term instead “implies an endless present”. By using the term ‘migrant’, therefore, journalists are contributing to limiting refugee identities to their experiences as displaced people.
The term ‘crisis’ is another example. This is a word which has been thrown around so much since 2015 that even beginning to question it is not something many would think to do. However, as Stephanie J. Nawyn points out, calling large-scale movements of people a ‘crisis’ is “a choice that is steeped in racial, gender and colonialist politics”. It is important to question what exactly is being labelled a crisis. Does it really express a concern for refugee welfare, or rather bigoted and disproven theories about how refugees steal people’s jobs and bring violence into the host country? It is not a stretch to say that what is really in crisis here, as Fatima El-Tayeb put it, is “the glaring whiteness underlying Europe’s self-image”.
The pressure to make private experience public
But what about the refugees themselves? It is true that increased reporting and social media have made it easier for their voices to be heard. However, with this also comes an increased pressure on refugees to talk about their experiences, and therefore frame their lives around an often traumatic past. In addition, this forces people to limit their identity so that it fits into the box of what society associates with the term ‘refugee’. The onus is on refugees to educate the public – a task which can feel particularly distressing and futile, as well as deeply unfair, in light of horrific discrimination which they face every day.
It can also be argued that these experiences can never truly be communicated to the rest of the world. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, for instance, questions whether the silenced ‘others’ can ever truly have a voice in a society dominated by white men and colonialist ideology. In her incredibly influential and fascinating essay, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, she concludes that the answer is no. Even though she amends her conclusion fifteen years later to a more hopeful one, this shows the extent to which concepts of familiarity and otherness have shaped Western language and thinking.
The importance of refugee stories
However, there is also a danger of getting so preoccupied with theoretical discourse that the reality of refugee lived experience is forgotten. The more refugee voices are heard, the better. They alone know what they have been through, and the least that the rest of the world can do is pay attention. Not everyone is in a position to help through volunteering or financial donations. However, consciously fighting binary media rhetoric which reduces individual refugees to case studies and statistics, is something which we all can and must do.
Perhaps the first step in changing our binary ways of thinking is by actively reminding ourselves that aside from commonly discussed refugee issues such as discrimination, unemployment and language barriers, who people were before they became refugees and how people respond to trauma differs widely. Just because two people have been through a similar situation, does not mean that their experiences are the same.
In April 2017, the Birmingham Centre for Urban and Regional Studies conducted a research project dealing with ways in which various aspects of the refugee experience impact mental health. While many of the issues raised are discussed in the media, the prevalence of personal voices in the report is stirring. It shines a harsh and glaring light on issues we as a society have largely become desensitised to. “People don’t take refugees as human being. I am ashamed to say that I am a refugee”, says a 22-year-old Rwandan man. Refugees are perceived as subhuman, evidenced by the actions and language directed at them.
The result of this is mental anguish and isolation, which only adds to the practical problems of dealing with the asylum process. Another person who was interviewed, a 19-year-old Afghani man, said: “Today I am very happy. Somebody (you) come to me and ask me my problems. That makes the pain go away”. This shows an alternative side to the problem of being forced to talk about one’s experience for the benefit of the public. Sometimes, people want to talk about what has happened to them, about what they’re going through, but there is no one there to listen.
Refugee experiences through poetry
What is left when the hysterical and prejudiced language of the media and the cold and conservative language of statistics all fail? The answer, perhaps, is poetry. Sheila Hayman, coordinator of the ‘Write for Life’ project, believes that poetry “may seduce readers who would run a mile from a rant or an op-ed, dissolving their defences into simple human empathy”.
‘Write for Life’ is the longest-running refugee writing group in Britain, specifically for survivors of torture. Members of the group have worked with institutions including The Roundhouse, the Tate Galleries and the British museum. The main aims of the project are to encourage healing through creativity, and help survivors make their voices heard. One such survivor is Jade, author of ‘My Lone Soldier’, who writes: “I didn’t want to open up about these bad experiences because of the torture I went through – my three children, husband, Dad and twin sister were all killed – but when I wrote this poem I felt more at peace”.
A poem which deeply struck me is ‘My Brain is an Immigrant’ by Senait Hagose. The full poem can be found on the ‘Freedom from Torture’ website, but I give you the first stanza here:
My mind can travel anywhere
Across the ocean, across dry land
Past, present and future
No traffic lights or mind the gap
No one can stop me moving.
The rise of social media has brought some great benefits, but also carries an immense
responsibility – a duty not only to ourselves but also to our fellow human beings. We must be more mindful than ever of the voices telling the stories we hear, but also pay attention to the silences. Thinking in binaries and separating ourselves from the people we hear about in the news has become almost natural, but it does not have to be this way. Through a process of continuous re-learning and re-evaluating, the systemic othering of refugees can and should be abolished.