Hurricane Lexicon

6 Sep

As an editor, I found this story pretty interesting.

I have to say, I disagree with the reading of “refugee” as a perjorative term or as a term with any racial implications, but I can see what Rev. Jackson and the Congressional Black Caucus are reacting to. The difference lies in the denotative meaning vs. the connotative meaning. I find this subject fascinating, so if you don’t, stop reading here.

If you’re not familiar with the terms, think of the denotative meaning as the dictionary meaning and the connotative meaning as the subtext. For example, slender and skinny both mean thin, but slender has a pleasant connotation (pleasingly thin) and skinny has a somewhat negative connotation (too thin or unattractively thin).

So refugee, as the article points out, is defined as one who seeks refuge, but the word implies more than that. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. defines it as “one that flees; especially: a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution.” I think that definition hints at the connotative meaning.

Fleeing isn’t generally considered a noble thing to do. There was a report on NPR from a guy living in the French Quarter who refused to leave and is surviving rather well, thanks to the generosity of his neighbors who have called to tell him how to get into their houses to get food and his and his friends’ resourcefulness. He said something like, “We’re not at the Superdome taking handouts,” implying that that was a shameful thing to do (of course, his home was largely undamaged). He would not flee. He would likely consider it a sign of weakness.

But the other element is who we picture when we hear about refugees. I think of people living in camps for generations, unable to get employment in their host country and relying on services to survive. I think of people who have no home. And I think that starts to get at what the anti-“refugee” folks take offense to.

The problem, however, doesn’t seem to be the word, but rather the treatment of refugees. We shouldn’t treat the Katrina refugees as refugees, but we also shouldn’t treat refugees like refugees. I’ll spare everyone the Tom Petty song reference, but it’s true. You don’t have to live like that, but more importantly, we don’t have to treat refugees like that.

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