Sophistry Rising: the Refugee Debate in Germany

In Germany, there is apparently no limit to the amount of absurd sophistry regarding how to treat people entering the country. When it comes to illegal immigration, refugees and political asylum, one general indication that we are living a potential disaster is not so much the number of migrants but the inability to recognize just how painfully hilarious the public debate about them has become. Here are just a few of the elements of what has become a public embarassment. The sequence in which they are listed here is not intended to reflect their relative importance.

One of the more insidious words used in this context is “we”. Admittedly this point is not one specific position statement, but it covers a lot of ground. For example: “Yes, we can.” Nearly everyone of any political stripe can sign up to this. That’s because it is practically meaningless. It is an empty bucket into which anyone can puke whatever they have recently slurped, chomped and incompletely digested. If you hear the pronoun “we” used in public policy statements you should be concerned. It is possibly an “I” in disguise or a group that the speaker himself cannot clearly identify. This also applies to “they”, especially where it is understood as the counterpart to “we”.

Dead language. Example: “The boat is full.” More credible, and hence more insidious: “Merkel has opened the border.” Germany is not a boat and, in fact, nobody knows what in this context the word full means. Specifically, there is far too little public discussion of substantial questions regarding population density, social cohesion, integration, etc. Moreover, the border has no door or gate that was once closed and is now open. The statement is complete nonsense. As with the first statement, its emptiness is exposed as soon as the discussion becomes concrete. It is not an exageration to claim that nearly all public discussions about the topic of migration are infected with dead language.

“The reason there are so many refugees entering the country is because of the  human smugglers.” No. This statement is false. The reason there are so many human smugglers is that there are so many refugees. The reason the latter are victimized so frequently is that their migration has been illegalized. These travel agencies operate in a market that has been made illegal. That is why they are called smugglers. No, they are not smuggling their customers through doors (closed, ajar or wide open) but rather around obstacles, man-made obstacles. Cracking down on smugglers means making a desperate situation more desperate (concretely: refugees will pay higher fees for travel services and accept more dangerous travel conditions).

None of this would be of any interest except to language analysts if it weren’t for the damaging consequences of a non-critical attitude towards the use of language. There is no truth in language, only commonly agreed deceptions. As long as language users all agree on a deception, it’s the truth. And nearly everyone loves lies. Readers and movie-goers even pay to be deceived. What people are afraid of is suffering injury or damage. But what happens when our choice of words is inadequate? And what does that mean? I suggest that most people could care less that the truths of the day are merely popularly accepted deceptions. What should be of concern, however, is that particular deceptions lead to specific damages, injuries and loss of life. Between Aleppo and Stockholm, Kundus and Hamburg, Bamako and Paris, all this is happening now.

William Hadfield is an American translator residing in Germany.