September 11, 2015
by Martin Odoni
I was glancing at a feature on BBC Capital earlier today, called Idiosyncrasies of the Brits at work. The article offers a foreign perspective on the culture of the British workplace, in particular the views of people who have come to work in the UK from abroad.
The aspect of the article that started to irk me was that the writer, Mark Johanson, referred to the people he had interviewed as ‘expats’ (short for ‘expatriates’, obviously enough) throughout. Not a problem in itself, but my concern is that ‘expats’ is definitely not the term the BBC would use if it were a news article about people coming into the country from an impoverished background elsewhere, and accepting absolutely any work that came their way, no matter how badly-paid.
There has been much unhappiness recently about the media’s persistent use of the word ‘migrants’ in relation to the Refugee Crisis. By equating the word ‘refugee’ with ‘migrant’, the media are giving a wildly-exaggerated impression of refugees from the Middle East travelling to the West for purely economic reasons, when the overwhelming majority of them are simply fleeing for their lives from a devastating war. In other words, they are refugees, not migrants as such, and certainly not economic migrants.
‘Economic migrancy’ is a term that means moving from one country to another in hope of finding a better standard of living. The stereotype image we have of economic migrants is a mob of unclean, unhealthy, devious individuals of a different ethnicity, probably born in the desert, all looking for someone else’s riches and hard work from which to leech a living. This image is, if not a complete fantasy, then a projection of a tiny minority onto the whole, and is only a step removed from the, also-largely-mythical, stereotype of the ‘welfare scrounger’.
The word ‘migrant’, which has a slightly-ugly sound, and an even uglier growing stigma attached to it, is almost exclusively used by the media to label people who are trying to get into the country and are willing to do unqualified work. By contrast, the people being interviewed in this article are all in office jobs, presumably fairly well-dressed ‘jacket-‘n’-tie’ employees with a solid income. They may be foreigners, but they are at least ‘presentable’ foreigners – similar enough to ‘us’ for them to get a more pleasant label. Therefore, the BBC calls them ‘expats’ instead of ‘migrants’.
Had they been born in a Third World country in the grip of famine and endless economic misery, and having reached the UK, they were only working as, say, dustmen or janitors, you can be confident that they would not even be interviewed, and that they would be referred to as ‘migrants’. Or even as ‘economic migrants’. In the end, that is probably what they are, but then in all probability, so are most of the people who were interviewed for the article. Even the ones from the United States, if they came here for a higher wage than they were getting back home, are economic migrants. But somehow it is less stigmatic when they are well-dressed, are in better-paid jobs, quite well-to-do, and most of all, if they speak English as a first language. So the media, possibly without noticing, use a less highly-charged term for them.
As readers/viewers, this habit corrupts our instinctive reactions. On the one hand, it urges us to have sympathy for the well-paid people, the ones who are less likely to need our help, and who are probably choosier about what work they are prepared to do. And on the other hand, it invites us to be suspicious of the ones doing low-qualified, poorly-paid jobs, when they are the ones whose lot-in-life is likely to be worse.
With the misapplication of the dehumanising word ‘migrants’ to refugees, we are becoming equally unsympathetic to people who are simply escaping the horrors of war. Hence the current backlash against Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives from a conflict they had no hand in creating, while hardly anyone bats an eyelid at the thought of, say, a rich Australian owning well over thirty per cent of the British media. “Mr Murdoch wears a suit-and-tie, he has money, and he speaks perfect English, dontchaknow?” He does not wear a dirty sheet and sandals, or a T-shirt and jeans, and does not speak Arabic as a first language. Therefore, Murdoch is an expat, not a migrant.
Not only does this show how easily careless media rhetoric can completely distort our powers of empathy, if we are not thinking critically when reading, or listening to, the news; it also shows how, perhaps unconsciously, even supposedly ‘respectable’ media receptacles like the BBC are needlessly propagating lazy stereotypes that should have breathed their last by about 1987. As long as they continue to do that, intolerance and division will remain major stumbling blocks in British life, as too many people will be conditioned to despise ‘the other’.