Bynam on Assisting Refugees

Over at Political Violence @ a Glance Dan Bynam weighs in on what not to do in Syria. It is an interesting post, and believe it or not I write to call him out for his use of offensive prose (used by others), and remind him that he is writing about human beings.

Two offensive “images” of refugees dominate public discourse: one as victim, the other as threat.  Below is an iconic image of “the refugee,” from the US dust bowl.  It has become a trope that plays on “white man’s burden” notions of assisting the victimized.  For more on this issue, you can view a full lecture of mine on this issue here.


Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936; courtesy the Library of Congress

Bynam titles Option 3 “Help the Refugees,” thus invoking this image.  That usage is, of course, quite tame (i.e., hardly offensive), and the folks I know at the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and in the human rights community more generally, concur with the importance of raising funds, and this image is helpful (as long as one avoids the Sally Struthers “Save the Children” presentation).  It is his cavalier use of the other image that led me to write.

Bynam invokes the other image, citing Sarah Lischer’s book and writing “refugees can often be carriers of conflict.”  The issue here is the phrase “carriers of.”  Disease metaphors when discussing human conflict is fuktup.  Full stop!  No exceptions.

Why are biological (disease) metaphors such a problem?  This one’s easy folks: it is dehumanizing.  When we use biological metaphors to discuss social processes we treat human beings as if they are cells.  Indeed, as if they are “carriers of” disease.  Please, stop and think.

Do I seriously have to school scholars like Lischer and Bynam about the impact of their words?  Scholars have plenty time to think carefully and choose their words with care.  Policymakers, pundits, and politicians turn to us looking for useful short hand terms and phrases, and they will repeat them with nowhere near the care and thought of an academic.  So professors like Lischer and Bynam (and there are many others) do not get a pass.  You screwed up, folks, and it is time for you to either defend your dehumanizing language or stop using it.

The words we choose are consequential.  Let’s hold one another to higher standards.

Oh, by the way…

In four brief sentences Bynam managed to get my dander up in several ways.  Above is the important one.  These are minor, and thus relegated to the bottom.  Bynam writes:

Okay, if we want to avoid too much involvement, maybe we can just help the refugees and otherwise alleviate a humanitarian disaster. Here social scientists have a lot to say

He then references Dick Betts and Sarah Lischer, ignoring what other social scientists have to say.  For instance, Idean Salehyan’s book and articles (2006, 2007) on the address the issue Lischer raises, yet Salehyan manages to communicate the rather complex processes involved without invoking offensive, jingoism.  And yes, I have written on the topic.

Second, I am confused by the reference to Betts’ argument that intervention is never impartial (about which I agree, but let’s go with Andy Kydd, here, please).  What confuses me is that Syrian refugees are by definition people who have left Syria.  Those in Syria are internally displaced persons.  Helping refugees requires zero intervention.  Assisting internally displaced persons does.  The term “forced migrants” includes both groups.  But, hey, I guess I am picky about words…

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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2 Responses to Bynam on Assisting Refugees

  1. JJ says:

    Nice post! A good explanation of the legal/security implications of “mere words”: Castles, Stephen. 2003. “The International Politics of Forced Migration,” development 46: 11-20.

    And, at the risk of shameless self-promotion: Johnson, James. 2011. ”’The Arithmetic of Compassion’: Rethinking the Politics of Photography,” British Journal of Political Science 41: 621-43 – dealing with conventions of photographic depiction of forced migration. (Plus a brief follow up forthcoming in Perspectives on Politics, interpreting post-Katrina displacement as forced migration.)

    I hope all is well. – Jim

    • Will H. Moore says:

      Thanks: I should have recalled the BJPS piece! I’ll look for the PoP article (I know Darren Davis at Notre Dame will be interested).

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