Beneath a photograph of the refugee camp at Calais, France, known as "the Jungle", in yesterday's New York Times, this caption appeared:
"The squalid camp, growing and festering for over a year, has become a symbol of Europe’s faltering efforts to handle its migration crisis."
The sentence was a quote from the article itself. This morning, the first thing I saw when I checked my Instagram feed, were the photograph and caption, posted by Teju Cole, with the following comment (quoted here with his permission:)
Sometimes it's not the photo, it's the caption. Sometimes it's not the caption, it's a single word. What work is the word "festering" doing here? The caption is an excerpt from the article, which you can find yourself. "Squalid" is permissible in context but imperfect, but there are at least two problems with the framing of Calais as a "symbol of Europe's faltering efforts to handle its migration crisis." The first is that this is a crisis for those who must leave home, not for those who receive or refuse them. Europe does not have a migration crisis. The second problem is that Europe is not a country. There's a reason there's no "Jungle" in Germany, and there's an opposite reason there isn't one in Switzerland. Whatever is happening in Calais is about French policy and British policy. Italy is another thing. Hungary is a different thing. But that's all about the framing.
What I keep coming back to is that word "festering." I've heard it before. What festers? What instinctual response do we have to that which festers? I think I know the kind of work the word is supposed to be doing. That work is all about mislocating the crisis. And when the crisis is mislocated, when it is about those who must witness the crisis rather than those who must undergo it, then other actions, otherwise unimaginable, become compulsory. After all, what is one to do with people or places that are "festering"?
[Later this morning, I note that the caption has been changed to read "The squalid camp has become a symbol of Europe’s faltering efforts to handle its migration crisis." The text remains the same in the article itself; the New York Times does follow TC (one of their own critics and authors) on Instagram.]
What, then, is actually "festering?" In my opinion, it is our hatred and fear of "the other" who will somehow take away or undermine what we feel is rightly "ours" -- our jobs, our health, our security, our resources, our prosperity...and, if we dig deeper, our very whiteness and privilege: god forbid, one of them might intermarry with one of our children.
Well, you know what? That's exactly what I did. 35 years ago I married the son of a Syrian immigrant and a refugee from the Armenian genocide. And that changed forever my ability to be indifferent to or distant from those who are not white, Anglo-Saxon, American, Protestant, English-speaking, Euro-centric...you can fill in the adjectives yourself. I was already a young person leaning in the direction of difference; I was curious and open. But I had not yet been broken open. And if we carefully defend ourselves forever, if we hide behind words and never take action, our hearts will never be broken and we will never truly understand or help the other out of that brokenness. We will simply sit at a safe distance, maybe spouting outrage and sadness at the world's ills, but our empathy will be temporary and we will not have to change, grow, or give anything that is an actual sacrifice of self. Outrage is, frankly, cheap. My question to you is, what are you willing to do?
Language does matter: I agree. We have seen it at work in this deplorable election season, both for good and for ill. We are not, in general, careful with it, but taking great care with words is supposed to be the job of journalists, as well as speechwriters.
I would like to recommend another article, "What Does it Mean to Help One Family?", about the Canadian response to the plight of the refugees, which shows the complexities of both immigrating and helping. We will be welcoming a refugee family through the cathedral sometime in the coming year; at the present time they are still mired in paperwork in Beirut. This will not be the first time I've tried to help people making a new life in a new country, nor will it be the last, and every single time I know that I am not doing enough. I feel compelled because of my parents in-law, who had been helped by others and who never forgot that. Their story changed me: for their sake, as well as my own conscience, I cannot turn away. And then I became an immigrant too -- an immigrant with money, relative security, and language skills, to be sure -- but I found out firsthand what it means to leave your past behind, with all its practical and emotional connections and knowledge, and have to begin again to build a new life in a new place.
We all need to be more careful with the language we use. We cheapen our empathy by spouting platitudes, we speak when we ought to be listening, we use words for effect and shock value that linger and cause great harm, and in this word-intensive internet environment, we invest a stream of empty words with weight as if they represent acts of actual sacrifice or self-emptying.
Words matter; they descend from our heads to our hearts and continue to live there, as a sort of compost for our emotions and actions. In the heart, certain things fester, and others flower; which way it goes is ultimately up to us.