As the immigration debate takes centre-stage in election year, politicians, the media and everyone else need to take serious stock of the language being used, writes Andrew Chen in this edited extract from his book Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century.
The number of people arriving in New Zealand has become a constant topic of discussion at the proverbial dinner table. We hear it discussed by our politicians and influencers in the media every day, following the same arguments and patterns that have come to define our immigration debate. Time and time again, we see the participants in this debate resort to stereotype and anecdote, based on misconceptions and myths, leading to a distortion of the immigration debate in ways that are less than fair.
It is our choice of language that creates artificial differences between migrant and local New Zealanders, and we see the effects of that language in our discussions of our culture, our infrastructure, our skills shortages, our perceptions of crime, and our politics. These effects permeate our lives so much that it is critical that we get the language right.
“He was born in New Zealand? Oh, that makes him a real Kiwi then!”
My childhood is littered with memories of hearing that phrase. At the time, I never thought about how that must make my mum feel – the implication that her son was a Kiwi but she was not. I think routinely she just laughed, because what else can you do in that situation? My parents have now been in New Zealand for more than 25 years. The fact that they were not born in New Zealand seems to set them apart in some people’s minds, yet that’s not something that they can ever change.
When I asked people whether they considered my parents to be Kiwis I heard a lot of qualifying attributes. “Oh, they’ve been here for so long, of course they’re Kiwis now!” But how long is long enough? “Do they speak English well? Ah, then they’re Kiwis!” But how well is well enough? “Does your dad play rugby and eat mince and cheese pies?” Maybe not that last one, but it does feel like it would help my dad score some Kiwi points if he played rugby (he’ll happily eat the pies).
There are two problems with these qualifiers. Firstly, we don’t have a common point of reference with which to decide where the Kiwi threshold is, so we can’t apply the label consistently. Divergent opinions end up sending confusing messages to migrants, making the standard shifting, subjective, and seemingly unattainable. Some migrants feel disqualified from ever becoming Kiwis and give up, making integration impossible. Secondly, people don’t actually stop to find out the answers to these questions.
Before the conversation even begins, we’ve already made a set of assumptions that give us a baseline belief, most commonly based on physical appearance. Birthplace is usually the first question (“Where are you from?”), with further questions posed only if the answer contradicts the existing baseline belief. When my parents say that they’ve been here for 25 years, the reaction is one of surprise, because an expectation has been created that my parents should be recent migrants based on their appearance and accents. Somehow, my parents’ birthplace disqualifies them from being Kiwis by default; they have to give more evidence to contradict the assumptions.
In How to Save Humanity, Alex Tabarrok writes, “No defensible moral framework regards foreigners as less deserving of rights than people born in the right place at the right time.” In the 2013 census, the number of people in New Zealand who were born overseas topped one million – roughly a quarter of the population. These migrants come from increasingly diverse backgrounds: in 1961, two-thirds of migrants came from the United Kingdom and Ireland; now that proportion is down to a quarter.
A million people weren’t born in this country – so what? By creating this distinction between Kiwis and non-Kiwis in our everyday language, with the implication that Kiwis have more rights than non-Kiwis, migrants are put at a disadvantage in the immigration debate because they are excluded from defending themselves in that debate. Our choice of language when it comes to discussing immigration has a direct impact on the wellbeing of our recent and less recent migrants, and plays a role in shaping the future of our society. Forming an environment where constructive discussion can happen is partly the job of our political leaders and policy makers.
The language used by our politicians is key. People are quick to use metaphors – “turn down the tap” (Andrew Little), “we don’t want their flotsam” (Gareth Morgan), “flood of immigrants” (Barbara Stewart of New Zealand First) – that have the effect of dehumanising migrants by describing them in terms better reserved for inanimate objects. A University of Oxford report found that, internationally, water-based metaphors are frequently used to describe immigrants, along with the use of the term “mass immigration”. Other times we’re less subtle; Winston Peters once called New Zealand “The Last Asian colony” and claimed that the government was involved in “ethnic engineering”. This rhetoric has the effect of removing the human element from immigration, making it easier to say horrific things about migrants and making it easier to propose inhumane actions.
Focusing that rhetoric on specific groups of migrants is just as problematic. Being anti-immigration is not necessarily racist in itself, and it is unhelpful and unproductive to dismiss anti-immigration arguments as racism. Racism shouldn’t be necessary – if someone has a problem with immigration, they should have a problem with all immigrants, regardless of where they are from; people can have legitimate concerns about the effects of immigration while treating people with the respect they deserve.
We don’t need the “utter falsehoods and lazy generalisations” that pop up again and again in discourse about immigration. To say that immigration may be increasing demand for housing in Auckland is OK; to say, based on shoddy surname-based analysis, that the Chinese are buying all the houses is not OK. To say that some migrants have some different values and may need support integrating into our society is OK; to say that the “rights and freedoms of other New Zealanders and Westerners are denigrated by a sorry pack of misogynist troglodytes from Wogistan” is not OK. To say that low-skilled migrants may need further training to develop new skills is okay; to say that Polynesians are “less productive and less likely to contribute to economic growth” and a “drain on [the] economy” is not OK. The truth is, we rarely subject white migrants to the same political rhetoric as we do Pacific, Asian, Middle Eastern and African migrants. In reality, making these race-based distinctions distracts us from dealing with the actual underlying problems of our immigration system.
Our politicians are leaders; when they use unfair language, whether intentionally or not, it emboldens those who would seek to make life more difficult for our migrants. The debate on immigration policy can, and should, be had without racist language. If fairness is something that we expect in our dealings with each other in New Zealand, we absolutely owe the same fairness to our immigrants. Our choice of language is crucial in how we apply that fairness. This is not mere political correctness; it is about treating migrants with respect as people in our discussions. It is not only up to our leaders, politicians and media to uphold our values of fairness – it is up to all of us to take responsibility for our words, to fight against racism and intolerance where we see it, and to support our fellow humans in their quest for a slice of heaven.
This is an Extract from Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century, edited by David Hall for Bridget Williams Books
This content is brought to you by LifeDirect by Trade Me, where you’ll find all the top NZ insurers so you can compare deals and buy insurance then and there. You’ll also get 20% cashback when you take a life insurance policy out, so you can spend more time enjoying life and less time worrying about the things that can get in the way.
This election year, support The Spinoff Politics by using LifeDirect for your insurance. See lifedirect.co.nz/life-insurance
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.