Finding Words for Exile (I)

When we walk down to UCLA’s intramural field to play pick-up soccer on Tuesdays and Thursdays, my colleagues in Physical Geography like to lay into me. They often joke that we Human Geographers like to over-complicate things by making up ridiculous words [1]. The response that I’ve since come to rely on — apart from “nuh-uh,” that is — is to point out that we are doing different kinds of work. This is philosophy of science stuff. In the physical and natural sciences, the goal is (arguably) to take phenomena that seem impossibly complex and reduce these to simplified, but also universal principles. Some still believe that social interaction also follows predictable, universal rules — or that it is somehow more self-evident, because we learn it without trying (bah). But I would argue — and I’m in good company — that the single most important task of social science is to show how complex and disruptive the social world actually is, to take typical interactions and relationships and think through their deeper effects.

A lot of these effects happen through language. In late August 2015 Al-Jazeera published this intriguing article by Barry Malone arguing that Syrians entering Europe are in fact “refugees,” not “migrants.” Around the same time, British Prime Minister David Cameron was taken to task for warning of “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean” to enter Britain illegally. In a more extreme instance, Syrian Kurds (and ultra-nationalists in Europe) accuse Syrian Arabs fleeing to Europe of being cowards unwilling to hold their ground.

Cowards, Migrants, Refugees. Words like these are caught up in narratives (or sure, discourses), which are in turn part of something bigger than an individual like David Cameron, powerful though he may be. They shape relationships and distinctions among people, to the point that we not only see them as natural, but act upon them without considering alternatives. Are the Syrians heading to Europe economic migrants or refugees? Are they terrorists or revolutionaries? Rebels or traitors? Threats or objects of humanitarian concern? Allies or victims? To grossly paraphrase Pierre Bourdieu, language is one of those things that “keeps it all going” — that is, it maintains particular distributions of power and opportunity. In other words (haha), words don’t just describe the social world as it is — they help create it [2].

What kind of world is being created for Syrians through this kind of language? For starters, Syrians are denied individual personalities and motives, in favor of emphasizing the collective, the unknown, the chaotic. David Cameron’s words evoke what one scholar calls a “spectacle of bodies en masse,” the fear that these unknowns are a source of potential disorder threatening a world of neatly-ordered nation-states. This emphasis on a Europe unable to cope with large quantities of refugees is, as Hans Rosling demonstrates, more than a little ridiculous next to the burdens born by Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Still, the controversy over Cameron’s words not only forced him to clarify his position as UK Prime Minister, but the shift in the narrative of how these people are to be treated resulted in a minor increase in the number of individuals the UK will be accepting from Syria, up to 20,000.

There are some much more immediate effects to whether one is classified as a migrant, refugee, or even as a Syrian. Apart from the deep metaphorical power of language, whose effects are difficult to pin down, legal categories have the very concrete power to shape lives. In the EU, a set of regulations established in 2013 called the Dublin Procedures determines who is counted as a refugee, and who is a “migrant in an irregular situation.” When one’s fate is tethered to geography via the institution of citizenship — and all the practices that keep this going — fleeing from violence as a refugee becomes the way of cutting the cord. Only, you have to be able to make good on that bureaucratic loophole. Humanitarian agencies have turned away refugees or provided them with fewer services on account of not being Syrian or lacking requisite paperwork —erecting what one author has called a “humanitarian caste system.” It should be no surprise then that individuals do whatever they can to meet these standards when the messiness of their lives does not match neatly with such criteria.

It would be a mistake to reduce the sore feet and heavy hearts of thousands of Syrians to a matter of words. The world they inhabit boils with barrels packed with shrapnel, heaps of concrete, foreign bodies from oceans away wielding guns bought in black markets. Meanwhile medicines, bandages, clean water, jackets…the list of missing materials lengthens daily. It is for this reason that the disjoint between the legal documentation and the material realities of those displaced by violence becomes so ridiculous. Though once valid, many Syrians cannot renew their passports due to ongoing violence; births and marriages in liberated areas of the country go unrecorded, except by NGOs like the Network of Free Syrian Lawyers [3]. Of all the documentation shoring up one’s individual position in the world, university diplomas and medical records are among the last to be snatched in the flurry to leave one’s home amid violence. Thousands in Jordan and Turkey thus find themselves reduced to a peculiar non-existence, cut from all social ties, a state at once empowering and frightening. Small wonder many risk a kayak across the Aegean to Greece to become human again.

Backed with the disciplinary power of wealthy states, words fix individuals in time, space, and in larger narratives about what these mean politically. They also set them adrift. It is easy to let Syrians — or Iraqis, Afghanis, Albanians, what have you — be lost to legal systems that trap them in violence and destruction. Much harder is to probe the limits of these systems, as well as to consider the counter-narratives of refugees. Friends of mine like Mary Pancoast and Ilaria Gigliogli know far more than I ever will about how individuals respond to a world full of borders and the inequalities that they keep going. If there’s anything we have learned from this particular conflict, it is that these are increasingly hard to ignore.

When seeking the right words for exile, the best place to find these are with those using them. In this case, it is in the counter-narratives of Syrians, which I will touch on soon. To break once more with my friends in Physical Geography, I do not need to make up these words . It just needs a bit of listening.


[1] This isn’t unique to Geography; social science has been mired in this kind of controversy ever since it took a turn for the postmodern and the post-structural in the seventies. As a joke, in 1994 physicist Alan Sokal submitted this mock article to Social Text, a cultural studies journal based at Duke University. That it was accepted proved, to his mind, that social science lacked proper scientific standards and was thus bankrupt. Its writing was so meaningless that it could even be automated. Ian Hacking offers a pretty excellent discussion of this issue.

[2] Material wealth is also important, but Bourdieu is one of several thinkers who avoid re-hashing the tired debate between material explanations of social change (more or less pushed by Marx) and ideological explanations (pushed by Weber). Suffice to say that I find multi-causal, rather than mono-causal explanations more appealing.

[3] One of my closest contacts in Gaziantep was a former Free Syrian Army medic involved with this organization.

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