The language of Katrina
Geoffrey Nunberg has a segment on "Fresh Air" today (a longer, written-out version is here) on the language of Katrina.
He covers "looters" vs. "finders":
Of course the looters should be shot, the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan said. But by looters she meant the people who were taking what they wanted and not simply what they needed.And he covers "refugees," "evacuees" and, ahem, "internally displaced persons." Some newspapers and wire services have defended the use of "refugee" as meaning simply someone who seeks refuge. But that doesn't seem right -- ducking into a ski hut to wait out a blizzard doesn't make me a refugee. ...
That was pretty much where people were drawing the moral line, but it as they waded into unforeseen semantic subtleties. You were within your rights to walk out of a supermarket with a loaf of Wonder Bread and a jar of Skippy, but woe betide you if your bag turned out to contain Carr's Water Crackers and a tin of foie gras.
"Evacuees," "victims," "displaced," "refugees," "survivors" -- as with the question of what to use in place of "looting" of food and water, there's no ideal solution here. But that's as it should be. If you weren't struggling to find the right language to describe what you were seeing ofter the last two weeks, you probably weren't paying close enough attention.But one of the most interesting things to come out of the article is his note on how the press has been using "refugee" disproportionately in the neighborhood of "poor" or "black" or in reference to the people gathered in the Astrodome. He fleshed that out in a post at Language Log.
In my last post on "refugees" vs. "evacuees," Chris has posted a comment about CNN that's interesting. The station will continue to use the term "refugee," and Lou Dobbs said last night:
In Nexis wire service articles mentioning Katrina over the past week, articles containing evacuee outnumber those containing refugee by 56% to 44% (n=1522). But in contexts in which the words appear within 10 words of poor or black, refugee is favored by 68% to 32% (n=85). And in contexts in which the words appear within ten words of Astrodome, refugee is favored by 63% to 37% (n=461).Those disparities likely reflect the image of refugees as poor, bedraggled, and abandoned, which would make the word seem apt to describe the people getting off the buses at the Astrodome. That stereotype may be unfair and invidious in its own right, as George Rupp, the CEO of the Interntional Rescue Committee, was saying this morning on WNYC's Bryan Lehrer Show, where I was also a guest. But the way the press is using the word refugee now hardly does much to dispel the stereotype. And while there may be polemical reasons for advocates of the displaced to use the term, the way Woodie Guthrie did in his song "Dust Bowl Refugee," that's hardly what the media are getting at when they use it, or what President Bush was thinking of when he objected to the use of the term the other day.
The president, Jackson and others apparently think that news organizations created the term refugee just to describe victims of Hurricane Katrina. Hardly. Even a cursory review of reporting of such disaster of Hurricane Andrew, the 1993 midwestern floods and wildfires through the west have all prompted the use of the term refugee by news organizations. I'm proud to tell you that this network has resisted others telling them how to use words. Rejecting, in fact, the United Nations suggestion that we use, instead of refugee, the expression internally displaced persons. I love that one.