Everybody remembers Tarzan, right? Together with Jane, living in the jungle. From childhood memories, that was my idea of people living in a jungle. I remember that a couple of years ago there was a society discovered living in the jungle that has had zero contact with any other human societies. But in today's society, we call the refugee camp in Calais a 'Jungle'.
The fact that everybody calls it a 'Jungle', is a very interesting linguistic fact. What kind of people live in the jungle? Are they like 'us'? Already, they are separated from the more typically associated 'Western world'. By using 'Jungle' as a reference, the refugees at the camp are separated from the society they want to move into, making it subconsciously easier for 'us' to say 'they' shouldn't, because hey, 'they' are from the Jungle and 'we' are not. Just like Tarzan didn't really fit in the Western world, the people from the Calais 'Jungle' might not really be fit to be 'our' neighbours...
Searching for the words 'Calais' and 'Jungle' in Google shows over 16 million hits. 'Calais Jungle' even has it's own Wikipedia page. What this comes to show is how something that originates as a type of word joke, something not that serious by a journalist, takes on its own life. It becomes a 'thing' in the online world. We have to understand the dangers of this. Compressing a complex situation like Calais into the term 'Jungle' creates an image of something that is easier 'demolished', something that is further away removed from 'civilized' society.
This type of language obscures from what are people like you and me. Who are human, with dignified jobs as teacher, doctor, and banker. It creates an 'us' and 'them' that are unrelated to each other.
I keep saying 'us' and 'them' in between punctuation marks because in no way can you generalize and group people completely. There should be no us and them. But the fact remains that it is created, and words like 'Jungle' remove the 'them' further away from 'us', making 'them' less relatable.
Language in a way shapes your view, it shapes perception. Language is a lot more than just a way of communication. In the way that a country shares a language, it shapes identity and cultural belonging. But also the type of language and choice of words help create a cultural representation of a social world. We construct a world though our language. In this way, we can create boundaries, we can create a sense of belonging, or a sense of distance. We can turn humans to become inhuman.
In some ways, it is what I see happening in the refugee crisis. What the problem here is, is that linguistics create a sense of distance. It creates a sense of distance from the human, to something that is political, and a 'far away from my bed show', as we would interestingly say in Dutch. We politicize humans.
I'd like to take this moment to look at some of the headlines of the news on Monday:
"Calais 'Jungle' demolition" - The Telegraph
"Calais refugee camp: first buses leave as police prepare for demolition" - The Guardian
"'Chaotic' scenes at Calais camp clearance" - BBC News
"France begins to clear 'Jungle' migrant camp outside Calais" - New York Times
Words like 'jungle', 'demolition', 'migrants', 'chaos' and connecting it to 'police', shapes an image of an uncontrollable group of people, 'occupying' a space that needs to be 'demolished' and evacuated. Something that needs to be defeated.
Why this is dangerous is because the people who are actually living there, are becoming less and less human. The reason they fled their country to move into a society that is better than theirs, is becoming much harder through our language. They become further away removed. In a way, this makes it easier to 'demolish', to clear out.
It is difficult to discuss things without putting people in boxes, without using words like 'migrants' or 'refugees', but we need to be aware of our use of words. Aware of the consequences when we say 'Jungle', when we say 'migrant' or 'refugee'. They are people like everyone else. Humans like everyone else. With names, occupations and norms and values. Put yourself in their situation. What if it were you?
Stop calling it a jungle. Just stop.
In a world where we humanize animals and mourn the death of Cecil the Lion, it makes sense we also humanize humans, instead of dehumanizing them. In a world where Tarzan is king of the Jungle, we need to realize that refugees live here, with us. I remember a refugee saying to me in the Netherlands: "We are not criminals, we are not animals, we are human. And we are here." For a change, our language needs to reflect this human side and proximity. If language constructs a world, I do not want it to construct a world where we call a refugee camp a 'Jungle', but a world where we are all here, together. Because really, 'Me Tarzan, You Jane' no longer works.