What's in a Name?

By: Kara Runsten, CBI Climigration Associate

When it comes to word choice surrounding the idea of coastal transformation, that which we call a rose by any other name would not necessarily smell as sweet. Take, for example the word “relocate.” To a government official, this word may seem a practical and efficient term to use when discussing this issue. To marginalized groups and impacted communities, on the other hand, this term may evoke memories of discriminatory displacement policies.

Another good example of the importance of word choice can be drawn from the current refugee crisis. According to the UN Dispatch,[1] many politicians use the term migrant (i.e., a person who travels for work or economic reasons) to downplay their responsibility for caring for a displaced refugee (e.g., a person escaping armed conflict or persecution). While deporting refugees can be illegal or at least highly frowned upon by the international community, deporting migrants can be spun as a reasonable approach to protecting a country’s borders.

There are both positives and negatives to having no standard lexicon for discussing the topic of coastal transformation. On the negative side, having no established common language makes the issue harder to discuss, but on the plus side, this provides an opportunity for exploring appropriate, respectful, and effective terminologies with stakeholders in each community and shaping their use to the context at hand.

Let us take a moment to explore some possible words to describe the phenomenon of coastal transformation, which can be used as a starting point for discussion when engaging communities and defining a common language.[2]

As the buckets suggest, different terms may be appropriate in different situations. In communities where it is important to reframe the issue in terms of hope and ability to preserve a collective identity, words such as “renew” may be more appropriate. If communities are trying to attach a sense of urgency to the issue, a term such as “escape” might be more effective.

The most important takeaway is that explicit conversations about language are essential. Initiating an open, frank dialogue around these terms at the beginning of any discussion about this issue can help stakeholders form a common, mutually acceptable language to use when communicating with each other. This can go a long way toward building community identity and congeniality in the subsequent planning process.

[1] http://www.undispatch.com/refugees-vs-migrants-the-word-choice-matters/

[2] All definitions above are from Merriam-Webster.

 

Kara Runsten is a Master of City Planning candidate at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning focusing on climate change adaptation, environmental dispute resolution, and stakeholder engagement.

Kara Runsten is a Master of City Planning candidate at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning focusing on climate change adaptation, environmental dispute resolution, and stakeholder engagement.