After the chaotic New Year’s Eve in Berlin, a suitable term for the perpetrators is sought. “Southerners”, “people with a migration background” or maybe you prefer “West Asians”? The word is not the problem at all, but the properties that we associate with it, says rhetoric expert Michael Ehlers.

Hold on, this is going to be a wild journey. She starts with a quiz. Fast! Off the top of my head: Which countries are in Western Asia? How many can you think of? A little tip: In the past, it was also called Near East. But be careful: Near East already contains a European perspective. Because only if you look at the world from Europe is the region in question at the front.

Of course I had to look too. Wikipedia includes the following countries and regions:

Egypt (but only the Sinai Peninsula), Armenia, Azerbaijan (whole or part), Bahrain, Georgia (whole or part), Iraq, Iran, Israel, Yemen (excluding the island of Socotra), Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman , Palestine, Republic of Cyprus (political part of the European Union), Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey (Asian part, i.e. Anatolia), United Arab Emirates.

In any case, according to a recommendation for “discrimination-sensitive language use”, Berlin police officers should now say “West Asians” instead of “Southerners” if they want to describe people who … how should I put it … somehow do not look like autochthonous residents of Germany (?), Western Europe (?), Northern Europe (?) should look stereotypical. Too bad that not all Germans or French or Belgians look or ever looked the same. Also, not all West Asians look the same.

West Asian is no more precise than southern for describing a phenotype. This is exactly what leads critics of the language recommendation, such as Alexander Throm, domestic policy spokesman for the Union faction, ad absurdum, who demands that a description of the perpetrator must also include all the external characteristics of a perpetrator. Unfortunately, Südländer is just as unsuitable for this.

Whether you are from the South or West, everyone has stereotypical images in their heads. West Asian is then simply the new cipher for young migrants, who like to be masculine-aggressive, rather uneducated and socially weak. You might as well use some fancy term: gunxmurfel. The problem is not the concept, but the attribution of properties in a specific context!

No one in their right mind can seriously claim: They (i.e. the West Asians/Southerners) 1. all look the same and 2. are all the same. Or? Who doesn’t know them, the hordes of young Qataris who have been left behind and who are banging on the Zeil in Frankfurt?

And again, only a few people have anything against southern joie de vivre, as the term in the TUI catalog evokes associations with balmy summer nights in front of a Greek tavern.

I’m sure if the term ever catches on, we’ll also see a phenomenon called the “euphemistic treadmill.” The term describes the effect that euphemistic word formations absorb all negative associations of the words they replace, i.e. experienced a deterioration in meaning. It’s not words that matter, but concepts and images in your head. The new euphemisms can be perceived as even more negative than the original designations they “replaced”.

If you have read carefully, you may have noticed a few more terms in the text that are subject to this effect: “uneducated” and “socially weak”. Let’s look at “socially weak”. The term was originally intended to replace the term “poor” and prevent the negative attributions associated with it.

Apart from the fact that the term is imprecise, because someone who has little money at their disposal can still be a very social person, the negative connotation has simply been transferred to the new term and, in my opinion, has even increased there. The term actually obscures material poverty and its consequences. This means low-income people. Even more precisely: people with little money.

The euphemistic treadmill also applies to business terms. Think of the shifts in the valuation of the term ‘wind up’, which was supposed to replace ‘closure’. Or layoffs à job cuts à layoffs. Termination à Outplacement.

I don’t have a definitive solution as to how the Berlin police should describe specific groups of perpetrators in the future. Maybe an individual look would be more helpful? Some associations offer “people from immigrant families” or even “people with international history”.

But here, too, the treadmill threatens. After all, you can also immigrate from Sweden. And people with Swedish grandparents don’t fit our image of the typical West Asian at all, do they? So these alternatives are not really precise either. Like I said, I don’t have a solution either.

What I have a sufficiently precise, if a little old-fashioned, solution for is the name of the group of perpetrators who caused a stir on New Year’s Eve in Berlin, among other places: drunken hooligans.

Michael Ehlers is a rhetoric trainer and has been coaching public figures, entrepreneurs, top managers, professional sports trainers, influencers and many more for over three decades. The multiple bestselling author (including Rhetoric – The Art of Speech in the Digital Age) is a sought-after expert and has carried out rhetoric analyzes (chancellor duels, Putin analyses) for Focus, N-TV, ZDF and almost all ARD broadcasters, for example. Ehlers is Managing Partner of the Institut Michael Ehlers GmbH, Bamberg, Director of the Center for Rhetoric at SGMI Management Institute St. Gallen and lecturer at the St. Galler Management Program (SMP). He regularly appears at events as a keynote speaker.