Thursday, September 08, 2005

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.

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.
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. ...

"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 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.
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:
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.


At 10:28 PM, September 10, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

Jesse Sheidlower weighs in in a New York Sun story:

While it may offend some, the word refugee accurately describes the condition of Americans who fled the hurricane and sought refuge in other cities and states, the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, Jesse Sheidlower, told The New York Sun.

"These people are Americans, of course they are. But they are in an extremely difficult situation," Mr. Sheidlower said. "And calling them guests doesn't change that. Calling them Americans doesn't change that, either. They really do need a lot of help."

At 9:52 PM, September 11, 2005, Anonymous Mark said...

This post was a Ringleader's (Editor's) Choice for the Carnival of the Infosciences #6 which can be found at:

At 6:43 PM, September 12, 2005, Blogger Willo said...

Even The Onion has weighed in on this, and wonderfully so.


White Foragers Report Threat Of Black Looters

NEW ORLEANS—Throughout the Gulf Coast, Caucasian suburbanites attempting to gather food and drink in the shattered wreckage of shopping districts have reported seeing African­Americans "looting snacks and beer from damaged businesses." "I was in the abandoned Wal-Mart gathering an air mattress so I could float out the potato chips, beef jerky, and Budweiser I'd managed to find," said white survivor Lars Wrightson, who had carefully selected foodstuffs whose salt and alcohol content provide protection against contamination. "Then I look up, and I see a whole family of [African-Americans] going straight for the booze. Hell, you could see they had already looted a fortune in diapers." Radio stations still in operation are advising store owners and white people in the affected areas to locate firearms in sporting-goods stores in order to protect themselves against marauding blacks looting gun shops.


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