It’s all semantics

John Muenzberg

Column by John Muenzberg, Lecturer of philosophy

It’s become a movie cliche for a character, during a heated debate, to declare that they don’t want to “just debate semantics.” The implication is that debates about the meanings of words are trivial and unnecessary. 

After all, it seems to be assumed, we all agree about the meanings of words. To debate them is to avoid the real issue.

Yet one dominant characteristic of a critical mind is the recognition that we rarely all agree about the meanings of words, and debating them is, quite often, the most important issue there is. Using words in vague ways can indicate that people have not carefully considered their positions. It can also indicate that they are trying to take advantage of situations.

The most recent demonstration of this issue is the current crisis of refugees just now hitting Europe. Countries such as Libya, Lebanon and Jordan have been dealing with refugees for several years. Lebanon is a country of 4.5 million people. Since 2012, they have been forced to take in over one million refugees, mostly from Syrian civil war. Overwhelmed with the numbers, on May 6, 2015 Lebanon stopped officially accepting refugees.

This is one reason thousands of refugees are trying to enter Europe, and also why there has been finally been news coverage of their plight. After the tragic deaths of refugees, German Chancellor Angela Mekel announced that Germany would accept 800,000 refugees. She also rebuked other European Union (EU) countries for not accepting more.

The semantical importance of this announcement is that the EU are now officially calling them “refugees” rather than “migrants.” This change in terminology happened in late summer, as the number of asylum seekers blossomed. As a number of news outlets have explained, EU policy compels the member states to accept resident applications from refugees, but does not compel them to accept applications from migrants.

Migrants are defined as people who cross borders voluntarily. Refugees are people who are forced to leave their homeland due to threats to their lives. The goal of the Geneva Conventions, which EU refugee policy is based on, is that refusing refugees can turn a horrible situation into a catastrophe. The history of wars tells us that while soldiers are killed in battles, civilians commonly die from disease and starvation. Acceptance of human rights and acknowledgment of moral behavior compels the EU to accept civilians in danger.

But even though the refugee crisis began for Lebanon three years ago, leaders in Europe continued to refer to them as “migrants.” This was a calculated political move. If a leader called them “refugees” they would be committing their country to accepting applications and housing the people temporarily, which requires infrastructure and money.

News articles from spring commonly refer to migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. Since this implies a voluntary move, the stories failed to garner public reaction, nor did they bring about coordinated efforts by European governments. Ultimately it took several tragic incidents to finally alter the minds, and language, of European governments.

We could debate what the words “refugee” and “migrant” mean, and debate which criteria would designate a person as one or the other. Such a debate could be referred to as a debate of semantics, but I think we can recognize that it is more accurately a debate about whether some people are going to be housed, clothed and fed, or not. That semantic debate is not trivial. It is actually a matter of life or death.