Truth in Labelling

Sometimes in language you need a handy label that lets everyone know what you are talking about. “Liberal” and “conservative” have been useful even although somewhat broad in discussing politics. “Man” and “Woman” are good for obvious reasons. “Insider trading” works for financial crooks. And the term “illegal immigrant” is an easy description for people who have come into the country illegally.

But the Associated Press, one of the world’s largest news outlets, announced this week that it would no longer use “illegal immigrant” in its copy. A directive from AP bosses said the word “illegal” should be used only to describe an action, not a person. “Illegal immigration”, but never “illegal immigrant”.

The term has been under fire for years by immigration advocates as inaccurate and dehumanizing. It’s been popular to ask the sloganized question, “How can a person be illegal?”. Admittedly it’s a linguistic mash-up because “illegal” refers to the method not the person. Labels are often inaccurate but in fewer words they encompass enough truth so people understand the meaning.

A lot of people use language to soften the blow of truth. They say “passed away” instead of “died”. Passed away? Really, where did he go?  People don’t pass away they die. The gauzier term paints a Thomas Kincade glow on death.

Some language changes do bring a touch of kindness. “Disabled” has replaced “crippled” and “developmentally disabled” is what we once knew as “retarded.” Both are nicer but less precise.  The cloying “special needs” was introduced to soft peddle everything from mental and physical disabilities to people who want to order different food on an airplane.

Language changes are often politically driven. Soon after the 1992 Los Angeles riots some people tried to re-label it an “uprising” as if emptying out the local Payless shoe store was a political act. It happened in an area of the city originally known as Watts, which became “South Central” after the 60s Watts Riots. After 1992 “South Central” was re-named “South Los Angeles” as though changing the name again would eliminate the area’s problems.

Sometimes language just needs to be a blunt instrument. As Archie Bunker once said to his hippie son-in-law Meathead, “Anyone who lives in a commune is a commun-ist.”

In the case of immigration what’s happening is an effort to fudge the difference between people who enter the country legally and those who don’t. It’s a smart tactic for immigration advocates to describe illegal immigrants as people who haven’t filled out the proper papers, hey, they’re just a little behind on their homework. Removing the label gives them a better shot at citizenship and journalists shouldn’t fall for it. They should clarify the distinction and let voters make the decisions. The public needs more truth, not less.

Changing  “illegal immigrant” to “undocumented” or anything else is like calling a subway fare jumper an “unticketed passenger”.

 Interestingly, the Associated Press does not offer a replacement for the term it would eradicate. So how should we put it? America has 12 million … choose one of the following …. non-permitted, uninvited, less-documented, unaccounted-for, amnesty-eligible immigrants. The truth is we have12 million immigrants who came here illegally and the question is not what to call them, but what to do about them.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Page Two

Jaw Meet Floor

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Small President

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Cuba Diaries

Sunday, March 13, 2016

An Alphabet of Maladies

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Healthcare Confusion Act

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Freedom from Speech

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Too Big to Fire

Friday, June 19, 2015

More Probable Than Not

Thursday, May 14, 2015

It's Been Said

" 'The enemy of the people,'" was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017 ... It is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase 'enemy of the people,' that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of 'annihilating such individuals' who disagreed with the supreme leader."
Arizona republican Sen. Jeff Flake speaking on the floor today.

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