‘Involuntary’

The word ‘involuntary’ was chosen specifically due to the complexity of its meanings, which address the intention, awareness, and control of one’s actions. Involuntary can be an action that one either did not wish to undertake (i.e. one did it reluctantly, unwillingly, against one’s choice or volition), or did it without noticing it (unintentionally), without awareness. Although the qualification here of the dislocation as ‘involuntary’ is intended to emphasise the actions against one’s real choice, it is important that, in addition, it does suggest possibilities of unintentionality, e.g. when people think that they leave their homes temporarily to avoid heavy fighting, intending to return soon, but unintentionally become refugees, never to return to their homes.

Involuntariness also problematises the question of control. One person may act against one's will and choice, but still with a degree of control, while another person without any control, as in some muscular movements, for example. In legal contexts, characterising manslaughter as ‘involuntary' places the accent on the intention and control and not on the undisputed (external) fact/event that a person caused (directly or indirectly) the death of another person. Do we characterise the fleeing of a family from their destroyed home as voluntary or involuntary, if they ‘decided’ to drive away in order to save their lives from bmtal enemy combatants? What degree of voluntariness was involved if soldiers forced them into tracks and drove them away? Involuntariness, incidentally, refers to both moments of dislocation (i.e. ‘internal’ and ‘external’) that are always present in such situations.

If we were to use the term ‘forced migration' in these circumstances, we would miss the richness of all the complexities involved. Emphasising the involuntariness of the decision, the focus is on the question of agency of the persons who flee, rather than on the external forces that cause them to dislocate. This is a subtle but important difference. The adjective forced, as in ‘forced migration’, shifts the attention exclusively onto the force that is exerted upon the persons, whereas the adjective 'involuntary' delineates the process inside them, so to speak, that makes them ‘decide' to become dislocated, contrary to their own ideal choice. It may be perceived as paradoxical to claim that the term involuntary emphasises the persons’ agency. Human agency is usually understood in terms of the capacity of a person to make choices. However, the question of choice is a very thorny one, as shown here, and confronting these ambiguities and paradoxes is most instructive in addressing the lived experience of such phenomena.

Therefore, the term involuntary’ ‘forces’ us to consider all these shades of meaning and ambiguities with regard to people’s decision to flee, instead of simply accepting that they were forced out (as in ‘forced migration’), as if they were inanimate objects, such as pieces of furniture, discarded and thrown into a skip. Therefore, selecting the adjective ‘involuntary’ is, again, another example of differentiating between ‘events’ and the ‘experience’ of the events, privileging human experience over dealing with the external circumstances.

 
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