Rehumanizing the migrant: the translated past as a resource for refashioning the contemporary discourse of the (radical) left

Author: Mona Baker

in Palgrave Communications




This study examines conceptions of outsiders to the polity, focusing on the lexical items migrant(s), refugee(s), and exile(s) in both internet- and print-based sources. Drawing primarily on a subsection of the Genealogies Internet Corpus consisting of left-wing sources, I argue that left-wing politics is currently caught up in the rhetoric of the right and of mainstream institutions in society, largely reproducing the same discursive patterns even as it sets out to challenge them. Dominant patterns in left-wing Internet sources reveal, for example, that the economic migrant vs. political refugee distinction enforced by mainstream institutions remains largely intact, that the assumption of a “refugee crisis” unfolding in Europe is accepted at face value, and that the left is entangled in the same politics of labeling imposed by the right, reproducing designations such as “undocumented migrants” uncritically. Refugees and migrants, moreover, are represented as victims with no agency, are discussed in legal terms that serve to dehumanize them, and are repeatedly “quantified” as a homogenous and potentially problematic category. Acknowledging the contagious nature of dominant discourses and the difficulty of finding an alternative language with which to argue against established institutional rhetoric, the study further explores historical models that appear more consistent with the values espoused by left-wing politics today. It examines a subcorpus of modern English translations of ancient Greek texts such as Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War and Herodotus’s Histories to demonstrate the viability of adopting a different conceptualization of refugees and other outsiders to the polity that may be drawn from classical antiquity—and/or from nineteenth- and early twentieth-century receptions of texts originating in classical antiquity—and the possibility of developing an alternative discourse with which to speak about migrants in the present.