Sunday 19 April 2015

Trivialising migrant deaths: why words matter


Steve Peers

The escalating tragedy of thousands of migrants’ lives being lost every year during attempted Mediterranean crossings is one of the most difficult issues facing the EU’s immigration policy. However, the importance of addressing this issue has recently been undermined by comments in the UK’s most popular newspaper (The Sun) by Katie Hopkins, the controversial media commentator. Let’s have a look at exactly what she said – and why such words matter.

Hopkins begins by saying that she doesn’t care about migrant deaths, referring to migrants as ‘feral’ and comparing them to the ‘norovirus’. Instead of a rescue mission, she advocates an Australian solution: to ‘threaten them with violence’ (gunships) until they go away. If they want a better life, they should ‘get creative’ in North Africa. Britain is not a promised land, and ‘swarms of migrants’ are already turning its towns into ‘festering sores’. Indeed, the migrants are ‘like cockroaches’ in their ability to survive bad fortune.

Hopkins’ rant raises two issues. First of all, should we respond to her at all? I think it’s usually best to ignore Internet trolls, and Katie Hopkins is the biggest troll of all. I’ve been ignoring her for years, and my first impulse was to ignore this latest outburst in turn. However, after some thought I decided we need to respond to her, due to the combined effect of the content of her words and the scale of the media platform which she used to make them.

Secondly, I have grave doubts about calling people racists or Nazis in public debate. Those terms have been debased by overuse. For instance, it’s not ‘fascist’ to set up free schools, or ‘Nazi’ to reduce welfare benefits. Nor it is usually ‘racist’ to advocate stricter immigration controls – especially in the UK, where the current debate is about restricting the numbers of mostly white people from countries like Romania and Poland. There’s even a so-called ‘law’ (Godwin’s Law) about the speed at which arguments degenerate into counter-insults about which person is the most like a Nazi. Calling people racists or Nazis is usually an indication that the speaker has no better argument, and leads to the supposed racists becoming more entrenched in their opinions. It’s simply counter-productive, and I’ve argued with people on social media who make the inane argument that voting for UKIP will lead to Auschwitz.

Having said that, I think comparisons with Nazis are still genuinely appropriate in the very exceptional cases where they can be justified – not because the Nazi party as such is likely to re-emerge anywhere, but because public discourse that uses Nazi concepts and imagery should disturb us in a civilized society, for two reasons. First, because it could lead to vile treatment of the groups being stigmatized could be treated in practice. How many refugee children will be called ‘cockroaches’ in school next week? Secondly, because the dehumanisation of any group of people dying in large numbers demeans us all, and undercuts any argument about saving them.

So with that in mind, let’s look at Hopkins’ comments. They immediately reminded me in particular of the phrases used in the Nazi propaganda newspaper Der Sturmer. So I did a Google Images search on ‘Der Sturmer cockroach’. As you might imagine, these images are very unpleasant. I won’t reproduce any of them, but unfortunately I have to describe them to make my point.

A can of bug spray exterminates a cockroach wearing a Star of David helmet. Jewish spiders spin their webs, and Jewish snakes and maggots conquer the world. The ‘Yid-Fly’ stings its victims with its long nose. Hideous Jewish men slobber over helpless Aryan women.

This imagery is not only anti-semitic. A search for ‘cockroach racist’ leads to further images from the far right. Huge upright cockroach figures resembling African men, some of them accompanied with the ‘n’ word. A world without Jews and blacks is like a world without rats and cockroaches, one cartoon asserts.  Cockroaches also designate Jews, Mexicans and Iranians.

I could probably find more such images with different search terms, but you get the point – and I feel sick. Is it fair to compare Hopkins’ rant to these illustrations, though?

First of all, as others have already pointed out, to some extent the policy itself is the UK government’s policy, at least as regards objection to search and rescue missions (I’m not aware that the government supports gunships to force migrants back to Libya). To be fair, this policy was partly based on a belief that the Italian navy’s recent ‘Mare Nostrum’ rescue mission, wound up late last year, served as a ‘pull factor’ for migrants. So ending the mission would actually reduce the death toll, since fewer migrants would attempt the crossing. This ‘seatbelt effect’ argument was perhaps plausible when it was first made several months ago, but it has since been disproved by events, as migrant deaths for the first few months of 2015 are well above the level of 2014 (see statistics here). In any event, this isn’t the argument that Hopkins is making.

Indeed, the absence of a large-scale rescue attempt is implicitly also EU policy. There’s been no attempt by the EU to coordinate a joint rescue effort to replace Mare Nostrum, and the EU’s immigration Commissioner says nothing much about the issue. But that’s not the point: I accept that the policy itself is not a Nazi policy, since there’s no intention to kill people based on their race – although I am bound to wonder whether more effort would be made to save these migrants if they were white. Instead, the arguments for the lack of a rescue effort are: its cost; that there’s no capacity for the UK/EU to handle more migration; and that the migrants should seek protection (if they need it) closer to their country of origin. These aren’t racist arguments as such, although the way that Hopkins makes them is facile.

Perhaps it’s pointless to fact-check a rant. But the problem with ‘getting creative’ in Libya is that, as Amnesty reports, 'the human rights of tens of thousands' of foreigners in Libya 'continue to be routinely violated'. As for the ‘survivability’ of migrants, the estimated death toll in the Syrian conflict alone is 191,300 - and that was a year ago.

Having said that, it’s hard to see how the UK alone, or the EU as a whole, has the socio-economic capacity to take in all of the 50-million odd people who need protection worldwide. It’s certainly a political non-starter. So significant numbers have to remain near their country of origin, and some of them will inevitably seek to make the dangerous Mediterranean crossing. Some new solutions could be tried, but there’s no obvious ‘silver bullet’ that could solve the problem miraculously.

What is objectionable is not the underlying argument that Hopkins is making, but the language which she uses in her piece to make it. While she borrows the imagery of the extreme right, she doesn’t quite make the argument as the Nazis, because she is not calling for the murder of large numbers of people, but rather for indifference to their deaths. That’s a fine line, as we can see if we put the argument in personal terms. Would you draw much moral distinction between a person who killed your family member, and a person who could have made a potentially successful effort to save their life but deliberately chose not to?  

Also, think about this: would the article have been published it if had been illustrated with a drawing like those I described above, depicting black people as feral stowaways or drowning cockroaches? Of course not.  And would it have been published if it had described Jews in the same way? Again, of course not. Thank God no British newspaper would today print anything remotely so anti-semitic – and let’s pray that this never changes. (Although Hopkins has suggested that the Labour party’s Jewish leader should stick his wife’s head in an oven). But the same self-restraint should apply to the way the media describes any group of humans.

So what is to be done? Some have suggested that Hopkins and The Sun should be prosecuted for racial hatred. Certainly her words promote hatred, but is that hatred based on race? Presumably Hopkins’ piece was checked over by the Sun’s in-house lawyer – who surely has one of the most ethically compromised jobs in the entire British legal profession. He or she might have argued that her expression of loathing was not specifically based on people’s race. That’s a pretty fine line, since surely not a single one of the 3279 people who drowned in the Mediterranean last year looked much like Katie Hopkins.

But in any event, I see no point in prosecuting her. It would allow her to portray herself as the victim, and would give more publicity to views. Prosecuting the editor of Der Sturmer didn’t stop the rise of the Nazis – it only increased membership of the Nazi party.

What about the newspaper which published her rant? The most remarkable thing in this saga is that any national newspaper would think that these views were fit to print. Have we really plunged to this depth of public discourse? Is it so hard to argue that ‘Charity begins at home’ without adding the explanation, ‘…because migrants are like feral, swarming cockroaches?’

The Sun newspaper has form on this, of course. In 1989, it lied about and sneered at the deaths of 96 Liverpool football fans at Hillsborough stadium. Most of the population of Liverpool have boycotted the paper ever since. We could even put the migrant death toll in the Mediterranean in terms the Sun understands: in 2014, it was equal to 34 Hillsborough tragedies – one for nearly every Liverpool Premier League match.

So my suggestions are these. First of all, we need to step up support for human rights, migrant and refugee groups, who do a brilliant job daily of reminding us of the common humanity that we share with the migrants, and working for solutions. Their job will not be made easier by the popularisation of neo-Nazi imagery in national newspapers.

Second, we have to counter extremist language by Katie Hopkins or anyone ‘inspired’ by her and given a similar high-profile platform. There’s certainly no point threatening her, or using extreme language in return. In spite of everything, I still believe that she is good at heart.

Finally, and most obviously, follow the wisdom of Liverpudlians: don’t buy that vile paper.

Photo credit:

Barnard & Peers: chapter 26


  1. Kudos! Excellent piece.

  2. Great piece,very well composed,well done for the good write-up.