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Five ways to change the conversation about refugees - Anat Shenker-Osorio

Anat Shenker-Osorio thinks that our conversations about asylum seekers need to change… starting with the phrase asylum seeker.

“What you’re doing there is you’re taking an action and you’re turning it into a person’s essence. You’re making it the sum totality of who they are as a person. And you’re taking as their essence the thing that your audience least understands about them,” she said.

Anat is a communications expert with a background in cognition and linguistics, which she says is “just a fancy way of saying I look at why certain messages resonate and others don’t.” Recently, she was over in Australia for six months, working with the Centre for Australian Progress and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre to try and change current, critical conversation about people seeking asylum.

Here are five pieces of wisdom - which Anat shared at the Lush Summit, London on Thursday 9th February 2017 - that can make all the messages we share stronger.

“This is the Titanic. Would you like to buy a ticket?”

Nope… You sure? Anat isn’t surprised, but she explains that this is what standard, progressive messaging essentially paraphrases. Whether it be climate change, the war on poverty or the refugee crisis, we often tend to focus on the problems, rather than the solutions. Though this might work for instant clicktivism, Anat’s found that it doesn’t promote long-term change.

Alienate the opposition

You’re probably (definitely) not going to change the minds of your opposition. By this Anat doesn’t mean vast swathes of people, like Republicans. She means a small group of outliers: in the USA, this groups is usually between 12-15% of your population sample.

Estranging any part of your audience might sound counterproductive, but Anat says: “That is what assures us that our message isn’t just popular, it’s actually progressive; it is actually moving people.”

To be considered as 'opposition' in Anat’s research into Australian attitudes towards people seeking asylum, a participant “had to agree that people who come to Australia seeking asylum should be detained indefinitely, including babies; we specifically asked that."

What does your community think?

Sometimes, those advocating for people seeking asylum try to inspire empathy by talking about the suffering, physical and sexual abuse which many refugees face. However, during participatory research, Anat found that the community hated this discourse, which presented them as hapless or put upon rather than “living the basic, fundamental life of freedom that every human deserves by virtue of being a human.”

“People seeking asylum don’t need our f*****g help. They got themselves to Australia, which by the way is inconvenient to fly to… in an airplane. If you got your ass to Australia, you do not need some white dude’s help. What you need is for people to get out of your fucking way because you fixed your own life,” says Anat.

Fake it ‘til you make it

Nobody wants to be picked last for PE. And “nobody wants to be on the losing team”, says Anat.

So don’t be the losing team; declare yourselves the winners instead! This isn’t alternative news, but it is a “fake it ‘til you make it moment”, says Anat. She believes that it’s necessary because often it’s not that people don’t believe your ideas are right; it’s that they don’t believe they are possible.

2017 has given us a potent wake up call, says Anat: “We forgot that a man with big ears and a funny sounding name won a presidential election on hope and very little else linguistically.”

These are human choices

At its most simple, Anat says: “We need to stop saying certain things and start saying other things.” Human problems can be solved by human actions, so rather than positing your audience as members of a nationality or as asylum seekers, talk to them as caring humans and as people seeking asylum.

It’s down to all of us to do, regardless of the words written on our business cards or LinkedIn bios, says Anat.

“When it comes to public communication, we all have the exact same job. And that’s adult education.”

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