As psychoanalysts we can hardly claim to have answers to all the ills, political or otherwise, of modern civilisation. But as practitioners of speech and language we can at least strive to pay attention to what is at stake in some of the discourses currently taking shape around us.

The recent resurgence of far-right political parties has been accompanied by the infiltration of the public sphere by an insidious discourse that does not call directly for violence and killing, but rather seeks to put a lethal jouissance to work under the guise of rational appeal to some common good.[i]

How are we to find ways to counter the rise of these new discourses, anonymous in their enunciation, neutral and reasonable in their argument, but lethal in their consequences, consequences for which any responsibility is disavowed in advance?

Take for instance the leading article of a recent issue of The Spectator magazine in the UK[ii]. This piece carries the commendable title ‘Refugee Lives Matter’. One only has to read the first few paragraphs of this article, however, to discover that these lives do not matter in quite the way that one might expect.

The piece opens by drawing links between the refugee policies of the USA and Europe:

“The photographs of children in cages at US migration centres, apparently separated from the parents with whom they illegally entered the country, do not reflect well on the Trump administration. Talking tough on migration helped the President to win the election but there is a difference between building a wall and carrying out a policy which appears to use cruelty as a shock tactic.”

The exact nature of the difference between building a wall and a policy of cruelty is not specified. The paragraphs that follow, however, suggest that the author thinks that building a wall would in fact be an act of kindness in comparison with what he considers the true cruelty at stake in the West’s treatment of migrants from Third World countries:

“Yet there is a policy towards migrants that is ultimately far crueller, and which is being pursued beneath our noses in Europe. This is to tempt migrant into unseaworthy boats to cross the Mediterranean.”

Note here the rhetorical role of that delicate little word “tempt”. In the light of the complex and intertwined issues at stake in the contemporary phenomenon of migration in a globalised world, it offers a reassuring simplification to be able to think that that it is Europe’s “tempting” policy on migration that is one of its primary drivers.

A similar argument was at the root of the UK government’s refusal to sign up to any European refugee rescue programme in the Mediterranean, on the grounds that rescuing refugees would simply exacerbate the problem. Better then to stand by and watch desperate men, women and children drowning in the Mediterranean than to feel any sense of implication in a question that touches each one of us in our humanity.

Avoiding this awkward trap, the author of this piece resorts instead to the neutral administrative language of statistics and calculation, laying the foundation for a rather abrupt conclusion that might otherwise appear here as a non sequitur:

“Last year, according to the International Organisation for Migration, 3,116 people died attempting to reach European countries from North Africa by sea, in addition to 5,143 deaths in 2016. However demeaning the treatment meted out to Mexicans caught after a failed dash across the US border, it is not killing them.”

Note the spurious link by which we arrive at the claim that however demeaning the treatment of immigrants in the US at least “it is not killing them”. This apparently reasonable claim leaves us only a couple of delicate steps away from the true destination of this scurrilous line of argument, that perhaps it would be better for all concerned if we did in fact resort to killing a few more of “them”.

“European governments cannot claim they bear no responsibility for these deaths. Migrants are taking the risks because, in the vast majority of cases, their journeys are successful – and if they land, they probably get to stay. This is due to EU policy on migration.”

It turns out that the anonymous author of this ‘opinion piece’ is not in fact entirely averse to assigning responsibility for this lamentable situation. If these deaths can be attributed directly to the European Union policy on immigration, then it is clear that the only possible conclusion at this point is that the policy will have to change.

Although the author is not yet quite brazen enough to carry his own argument through to its logical conclusion, he is quite happy to point us in the right direction, once more resorting to the objective and impersonal vocabulary of statistical calculations in order to spare us the messy business of implication in difficult ethical and political choices.

“For every life lost in the Mediterranean in 2016, there were 50 successful landings; a death rate of just 2 percent. The Britons and Irish who emigrated to America in search of a better life faced far higher chances of dying yet were not deterred. If there is a 98 per cent chance of being able to start a new life on a more prosperous continent, it ought to be no surprise that so many take this risk.”

The reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions. It is not all that difficult to see, however, that under these terms what would be required would be a more or less radical readjustment of the parameters of the calculation. The author could not, of course, be expected to assume responsibility for deciding just what level of migrant deaths would be appropriate to act as a suitable deterrent. What ratio, after all, would be sufficient to clear the conscience of all right-thinking Europeans of any sense of implication in this mess?

One of the outstanding achievements of this piece, however, is not so much the well-tried device of replacing awkward political choices with the language of administrative calculations but rather that of managing to present an argument for more lethal outcomes for immigrants under the guise of humanitarian concern for the interests of those who will be the victims of this change of policy. Refugee lives matter indeed!

Are we really going to allow this kind of discourse to infiltrate our public spaces without comment? Or will we have to set ourselves the task of calling out its obscenity wherever and in whatever form we encounter it, before we ourselves become so immune to its insidious effects that we no longer notice what it is saying?


[i] Cf., ‘Discourses That Kill’, Argument for the European Forum to be held in Brussels on 1st December 2018, circulated on NLS-Messager number 2738, 7th July, 2018.

[ii] Leading Article, ‘Refugee lives matter’, The Spectator, 23rd June 2018.