Author: Kyra Dols
“Tens of thousands arrive exhausted in Sudan after days of walking” (Zwam 2020). “[The Netherlands] is willing to accept a share of refugees in 2021, and are busy devising appropriate strategies to redistribute them across our country” (Hart van Nederland 2020). “We managed to do business […]: the refugees were stopped in exchange for money” (Bakker 2020).
How do these statements make you feel? Helpless? Distant? Different from them?
Grouping and objectifying status holders through language manipulation is widespread across Dutch news media. When writing about refugees or Dutch status holders, we often direct the spotlight at the perceived masses that are fleeing from the global south to the north, thereby leaving only a tiny flashlight for individual lived experiences (Huisman 2016).
Once this whole has taken the center stage, the mass is presented as something that can be accepted or rejected, distributed, and exchanged for money: The status holder becomes a metaphor for an Object, translated into something inanimate that passively undergoes an action (Arcimaviciene and Baglama 2018). The consequences of this objectification are evident in the sentiments it evokes: a perceived social, ideological and political gap between the status holder and the reader (Krumer-Nevo and Benjamin 2010).
The Consequences of Distance
But how exactly is this constructed distance from the refugees dangerous?
As studies have shown, objectification through language creates an emotional and psychological barrier between the “I” who perceives the status holder and the status holders themselves. We come to suppress any positive emotions for “them” as sympathizing and empathizing with objects is not something we are taught (Krumer-Nevo and Benjamin 2010).
We thus create a clear distinction between “us” and “them”; a distinction that explicitly delegitimizes “them”, while at the same time implicitly legitimizing “us,” along with our actions and decisions towards “them.” This in turn reinforces pre-existing, stereotypical assumptions about the Other, further portraying the status holder as “something” that lacks “complexity, motivation, rationality and capabilities” (Krumer-Nevo and Benjamin 2010).
The type of media representation and language we (subconsciously) choose thus carry a lot of power. If we aren’t careful we may incite a never-ending, self-reinforcing cycle in which we negatively shape the public perception of status holders, only to further engrain this perception into society.
A Ray of Hope
But how does the following make you feel?
“Sabri (16) fled his home in Aleppo, Syria and is currently living in Paiania, Greece. Together with his family, he is granted permission to relocate to a German city. He shares: ‘We are hoping to start a new page in our lives. I wish I could make people love each other – that is my dream’” (Cleland 2018).
Connected? Compassionate? Motivated to help? All three?
A growing number of Dutch media outlets is trying to combat the socially constructed distance between “us” and “them” through translating the Other from an Object into a Subject (Bliss 1917). Giving status holders a voice by sharing their lived experiences and thus recognizing their individuality is a powerful tool for deconstructing the stigmatizing and marginalizing vicious cycle trapping the status holders (Krumer-Nevo and Benjamin 2010). It allows the Dutch public to understand the status holders’ struggle, identify their needs and help them work towards their goals.
A Way Forward
The logical question that follows is: Where should we start?
While recognizing the importance of language in shaping the public perception of status holders, you might question whether we should reset our focus from the reactive awareness campaigns surrounding the lives of status holders to the proactive education of journalists on suitable writing styles for such sensitive, yet crucial topics. After all, how can the receiver ever get the right picture if the sender does not change the signal.
Arcimaviciene, L. and S. H. Baglama (2018). “Migration, metaphor and myth in media representations: The ideological dichotomy of ‘them’ and ‘us’.” Sage Open 8(2), 2158244018768657.
Bakker, M. (2020). “Migranten vullen de Lege hotels op Gran Canaria.” De Volkskrant. At https://www.volkskrant.nl/nieuws-achtergrond/migranten-vullen-de-lege-hotels-op-gran-canaria~bccdf4acb/.
Bliss, H. E. (1917). “The subject-object relation.” The Philosophical Review 26(4): 395-408.
Cleland, M. (2018). “13 Powerful Refugee Stories From Around The World.” GlobalGiving. At https://www.globalgiving.org/learn/listicle/13-powerful-refugee-stories/.
Hart van Nederland (2020). “COA gaat asielzoekers op korte termijn onderbrengen in hotels en vakantieparken.“ Hart van Nederland. At https://www.hartvannederland.nl/nieuws/opvang-asielzoekers-hotels-vakantieparken.
Huisman, I. (2016). “Vluchtelingen: van massa naar mens. Een kritisch discours-analytisch onderzoek naar de representatie van vluchtelingen in Nederlandse kranten in september 2015.” Masters Thesis: University of Utrecht.
Krumer-Nevo, M. and O. Benjamin (2010). “Critical poverty knowledge: Contesting othering and social distancing.” Current Sociology 58(5): 693-714.
Zwam, E. (2020). “Catastrofe dreigt voor vluchtelingen uit Ethiopië. ‘Zonder grootschalige internationale hulp gaat het hier helemaal fout’.“ Trouw. At https://www.trouw.nl/buitenland/catastrofe-dreigt-voor-vluchtelingen-uit-ethiopie-zonder-grootschalige-internationale-hulp-gaat-het-hier-helemaal-fout~b992aa9e/.