Last week the Associated Press announced that it would ban the term illegal immigrant from its stylebook. They are among many organizations and immigration advocates of late who argue that the term is uncivil, or even defamatory.
Whether there is a point in that or not – and quite a few, including immigrants, think there isn’t – the main problem here is a matter of how language works. The idea is that banning “illegal immigrant” will change how people think, that using the term undocumented immigrant will improve the public opinion of the people in question. But it won’t.
The problem is that language dances much more lightly on thought than we often suppose, and in a battle between thought and language, thought has a way of winning out. Words’ meanings, even when crafted to bend away from opinion, drift back to where we didn’t want them to be, like a fly keeps landing on you after you swat it away. This has happened to previous attempts to expunge a term of its negative meaning.
Consider affirmative action, now so conventional we rarely stop to parse what the actual words comprising it mean. “Affirming” what? What kind of “action”? The term was a magnificently artful and gracious construction of the 1960s, giving a constructive, positive air to an always controversial policy.
Note, however, that political opponents soon came to associate the term with the same negative feelings they had about the policy it referred to, such that today it is uttered with scorn by many. Racial preferences was the chosen replacement – but now it is now as loaded as affirmative action was.
Words cannot escape reality. A similar thing happened with welfare, a constructive euphemism compared to once common terms of disparagement such as the dole. Once again, though, surly associations long ago settled back down on the term. By now we have to think a bit to process that the original meaning of welfare, in the political context, was well-being. Notably, another term of art for the same policy, home relief, rapidly took on the same kinds of associations.
If an issue commonly attracts dismissive attitudes, those attitudes simply migrate to any new term that is created. This has happened to urgently intended terms such as women’s liberation, (now feminism) and crippled, later handicapped, only to be replaced by disabled.
Changing the terms can perhaps get a conversation started, rather like God getting the globe spinning under deist philosophy. But fast forward about 10 years and undocumented immigrant will have taken on the same dismissive air that illegal immigrant has now. Expect arguments, then, that “undocumented” is itself a slur – especially since some are already making them now. If you change only the language, real life catches up. What really creates change is argumentation. If we really want to improve the lot of this group, we’d do better to attend to the fate of the President’s immigration bill about to be presented to Congress.
It’s harder to change reality than to play with words. But then, who thought real life wasn’t hard?