The use of language to create visual spectres is an effective approach for politicians, their supporters, and allied interest groups to develop a narrative that can become the media narrative.

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a work report related to asylum seekers in Australia, and had noticed two significant changes made by the Australian Federal government to legal and bureaucratic terminology. First was a change to the term used for those who arrive by boat from ‘Irregular Maritime Arrival’ to ‘Illegal Maritime Arrival’. The aim of this was to legitimise PM Tony Abbott’s assertion of the illegality of arriving without a visa, which legally speaking isn’t true.

Second was the renaming of the ‘Department of Immigration and Citizenship’ – which oversees asylum seeker applications – to the ‘Department of Immigration and Border Protection’. This reinforces the shift from multiculturalism and legal process to gatekeeping, which began under Howard, revived by Gillard and Rudd, and now simply confirmed by Abbott. Even the costs of changes to departmental website, new logo, stationary and letterhead, updating of legal documents, and new business cards often proves expensive, but is trumped by politics, regardless of accuracy.

These changes institutionalise an image of asylum seekers as criminals deserving to be sent to the Pacific version of Devil’s Island. The irony of sending ‘criminals’ to a South Pacific prison colony seems lost on the Australian public.

Political convenience can also treat similar humanitarian cases differently. Consider the S.S Exodus, the people-smuggling boat run by the Jewish Haganah containing European Jewish refugees captured en route to Palestine by the British in 1947, which has become symbolic of a humanitarian cause. Comparatively the Hazara,the vast majority of Afghan people who arrive to Australia by boat and have experienced centuries of persecution and genocide up until today, have an equal case for humanitarian protection. But due to political reasons, public bigotry, and the need of politicians and media to gain an audience, the narrative suggests a “wave”, “swamp”, “flood”, “surge”, or other water-based metaphors coming to take our jobs and blonde virgin daughters.

Key to a successful narrative is a convincing visual spectre which we can project our own hopes and fears. The image of asylum seekers reflects a fear of the foreign other coming to dominate us. Locally, one of the most successful narratives is the fear of a large, interventionist state.

The most prominent concept is the ‘Nanny State’ – the use of state coercion to achieve results. The visual spectre reminds me of Hyacinth Bucket: telling you how to do things and being overbearing. This narrow definition only touches on perceived state intervention in personal choices rather than one that includes accumulated state powers such as spying and collection and storage of internet data. Instead this is limited to purchases, parenting, and dietary choices where freedom is treated similar to personal consumer choice and verging on paranoia. A “quick, hide the non-regulation lightbulbs or the state will collectivise our children” school of thought.

Another successful narrative, on the size of the state, uses language suggesting a large state as akin to a morbidly obese person. Less Nanny State, more ‘Fatty State’. When the public sector is deemed too large, it’s referred to as a ‘bloated bureaucracy‘, akin to an overweight person winched out of the house by crane. Solutions entail weight loss metaphors: ‘belt tightening’, “a leaner, more efficient state”, ‘trimming the fat’ through cutting backroom administrators and to free up or hire front line staff

If you assume the state was similar to an obese person, administration is the ‘fat’ and the front line staff the ‘muscle’. Weight loss requires healthier eating, exercise, and in some cases a stomach staple or liposuction. In reality, redundancies aren’t necessarily healthy choices. Redundancies often shifts admin to remaining staff, who work on tasks previously done by backroom staff. To cope, a government department may hire contract workers or temps at a higher price, albeit usually short term. Governments may subcontract state responsibilities to not-for-profits, not as partners as before but to carry out state functions, political agendas and admin for cheaper notable with the successor to NZ AID, the Sustainable Development Fund. Then there’s private consultants hired to advise redundancy processes, who are expensive and often have offered bad advice such as “pray, do yoga, and get a pet” – the equivalent of a dietary coach who suggests a lemon cleanse diet for a month. This part of the solution equivalent to wearing spanx: no ‘fat’ is really lost, more or less rearranged into more convenient areas.

Interestingly, right wing governments who use this approach also tend to favour more accountability measures for government spending which requires even more admin, often done by front line staff. With National Standards in primary school, teachers must spend more time measuring progress of every child against standards, which means more admin and teaching preparation. Metaphorically, fat can useful when exercise can transform it into muscle, but removing fat can hinder muscle performance and growth.

This metaphor undermines state functions with exactly what it promised to eliminate, like a bad diet and exercise plan. The linguistic metaphor works because of a body conscious society, in which our own fears over our weight are used to describe the state where even the littlest thing is unhealthy “pork”. In that sense, ACT and the Taxpayers Union claims of pork and waste are often the equivalent of the yelling of militant ‘fat camp’ coaches with a strict sense of outward discipline but with occasionally let slip.

Political language can be dangerous when used improperly. The narratives of the asylum seeker and the state trivialise rational debate and confine it to narrow ideas of legality, scope, and size based on prejudice and political convenience. In the case of asylum seekers, political agendas, media simplicity and public prejudice have institutionalised unhealthy realities. One person’s suffering is another person’s criminal punishment. The Nanny State concept is narrow and selectively misses the point about a broader encroachment of state power from all sides. The linguistic ideal of a state akin to a near zero body-fat All Black is a projection useful in a body-conscious society. The state could improve, sure, but isn’t obese. Both physical and metaphorical bodily ideals of perfection are deluded, unachievable, and unhealthy. Inclusive narratives with apt metaphors help, narrow ones are more likely to hurt people.



  1. segmation

    My son in law’s parents were born in Russia and he is very dark in color. He though and now his parents are American citizens. My son in law lives in Arizona and people mistake him as an illegal person maybe from Mexico for some reason. When ever he is asked if he is a Mexican, he never argues and he is proud to show his US passport. People can unfortunately make very bad stereotype calls. My son in law is a good man and always show his US passport. Not all people who forever some reason look like they are Mexico are either those originally Russia are asylum seekers but should be like my son in law and happy to show their US citizenship and not let things like this bother them.

    • finetoothcolumn

      Certainly so. There is a hypocrisy what is considered American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand etc, and what is indigenous. This is a limit of majority rule in terms of developing a legal and economic framework to recognise indigenous rights and perspectives.

  2. Anne

    This is a very interesting discussion about the power of language. Thank you.

    In the United States, immigrants are aliens, which is a different metaphor all together!

    • finetoothcolumn

      Cheers, I’m glad you enjoyed! Immigration’s certainly a lot tougher than, say the 19th century, which makes it tougher for those in need to come. Perhaps there’s a racial element involved. The term alien itself could easily imply “invasion”, which really doesn’t help any civilised discussion!

      • Alex

        The problem is, there are some immigrants (in the US) who DO consider what they’re doing an invasion. The “Reconquista” movement in America is a real thing, supported by certain Mexican nationalist groups, such as the Mexican Nationalist Front, as well as members in academia who see the opportunity to use illegal immigration to reestablish (at least in a cultural sense) the 1836 territorial boundaries. That’s not to say that every illegal immigrant from Mexico is actively or knowingly engaged in a war against the United States, but their presence and the US Government’s tolerance of the violation of its own sovereignty laws do play into the hands of those who see it as a war.

        Ironically, the racial issue is brought to the forefront by the pro-immigrant groups themselves, with La Raza (The Race) being one of the most prominent examples.

        As a Cuban, I’ve borne witness to the worst folly of the US attitude toward Latin American people, namely that politicians consider us an ethnically and politically monolith group, when nothing could be further from the truth.

      • finetoothcolumn

        Very good points! ‘Hispanic’ is certainly a very broad term for different cultural, economic, political, and historic experiences under that umbrella. And certainly no immigrant or refugee is an angel. The best evidence shows the majority of migrants still want to come to a new home, and most asylum seekers do have legitimate grounds (Australia in any given year approval is given eventually to about 80 to 90% of asylum seeker arrivals in an excessively punitive system). Certainly it requires a rigourous, smart system, but not a one that needlessly punishes people for political gain.

  3. MissFit

    interesting information. thank you for this. Your last sentence intrigues me.
    Narrow metaphors .
    Metaphors by nature are somewhat obtuse and directly indirect if you will.
    It’s interesting to note that regardless of the “girth” of ones metaphor – people CHOOSE to be [or not be] offended.
    Plus, if we are so unhappy with political jargon and the irresponsibility of the gov’t with their power to color views…why do we keep giving it more power? i hope your message gets people thinking . thank you again for the post

    • finetoothcolumn

      Cheers, glad you enjoyed. The “narrow metaphors” may me a funny phrasing, I admit! The use of “girth”, I suppose”, was probably invented and focus group tested as a way to explain complex economic arguments in a way the public would understand, and in a society that sees bigger size and weight as a negative, also implies bigotries within society. Problem is, the metaphor is completely ill suited to something as complex as the size and functions of the state. Interesting question, also! Voter turnout is lower across the western world where such austerity economics has been brutal. There’s probably a significant part of the population who don’t see politics working for them or connected to debates because it doesn’t mean much to their daily lives. Or there’s simply no debate, just simple metaphors to explain complexity. I’d also say it’s the failure of those politicians and interest groups on the left to articulate a simple, convincing counter argument, probably due to both unwillingness to fully challenge this view of a “large state” being a bad thing that many of their corporate donors might support. These metaphors apply to many other facets of policy – crime, defence, terrorism etc – which also remain unchallenged.

    • finetoothcolumn

      Thank you! Certainly people need to think, but perhaps it’s need to win the argument that the ends justify the means – duping people for a “greater good”/ power.

  4. elvispizza

    Some valid points, but somewhat adrift in shifting analogies. An aggressive restructuring revision to clarify the thinking and render a stronger, more concise argument is desirable.

  5. goodandevil2

    what about 1924 and 1929 and 1901 why forget we came over to the united states then to be a navigator to who? novia scotia or Europe? don’t forget Europe has many debates who really should have come over? and now we depend on spain until yesterday? a new economy based on old peoples travels and still they declined why the nyse fell and the divide is that they don’t have to explain the ratioining of Europe by noviascotia? or Australia? we talk about the Ukraine?russia? who the European?

    • finetoothcolumn

      Certainly, Europe itself is very divided on immigration and becoming very regressive (I wrote an MA thesis on anti-immigration politics). Strangely, immigration in the 19th and until the late 20th century to the New World of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries, while horrible on race until the later part of the 20th century, at least allowed a greater ease of migration. Now nations are gradually closing their borders and creating harsher criteria. I would agree that economic crises such as 1929 and probably 2008 have changed things only insofar as a neoliberal free market capitalism since the 1980’s has contributed to permanently higher levels of unemployment, especially with the decline of old manufacturing, which has heightened anti-immigration sentiment justified as protecting jobs.

  6. exsehptional

    Usually the government makes everything a euphemism, odd to see a dysphemism. I suppose just upon hearing it it paints a darker picture in your mind, with the presumption of others being in the wrong encouraged…

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