[Guest post by Aaron Worthing. Follow me by Twitter @AaronWorthing.]
For some time I have railed against the push to use the term “undocumented immigrant” instead of the term “illegal immigrant”—especially when journalists are involved. For instance at my old blog (language warning at the link), I once wrote about how calling Meg Whitman’s nanny “undocumented” had the effect of actively misleading people about what had happened, writing:
But I want to point out to you this hilarious blog entry from the LA times: “Union ad to highlight Whitman’s undocumented former employee.” Of course we all know that the left has taken to calling an illegal immigrant as an “undocumented immigrant” because it sounds better. Only there is a problem. As Whitman has shown, her maid was very well documented. She had a social security card, and a driver’s license. The problem was these documents were fraudulent.
So by using the euphemism “undocumented” they are implying that Whitman hired her without proof that she was here legally and eligible to work. That is simply not true. I am sure this implication is an oversight, but it shows you just what happens when you start using bullsh-t euphemisms, instead of just telling it like it is. She is an illegal immigrant. You might not like the laws that declare her to be one, but she broke the law by coming and working here. And it is actually dishonest to call her anything else.
As Michelle Malkin has pointed out, these supposedly undocumented immigrants actually very often have tons of documents, only fraudulent.
And at this blog I have hit that theme in the past. And mind you, I am equally opposed to using the term “illegal alien,” too. While “alien” is a technically correct term, it has carried a negative connotation since around 1979 or so.
[Leslie Sanchez, a Republican strategist] added that “because of the ascension of Latino independents and Republicans, candidates have to be very sensitive as to how they talk about this issue.”
“They can’t use the term illegals,” Sanchez said. “At best it’s undocumented immigrant, at worst it’s illegals and illegal aliens, and both are pejorative and condescending.”
Of course the article didn’t specify what term to use. Maybe Ms. Sanchez recommends ignoring the subject entirely. (And to be fair to Ms. Sanchez she might be only reporting how others feel, without endorsing it.) But I am just astonished at our inability to even talk about this honestly.
Look, we all know what is going on here. Advocates for different causes take a thing* that people dislike and rename it in the hope of escaping that opprobrium. The problem is, however, that the opprobrium is attached to the concept, not the word, so the only result over time is that the new term gets a negative connotation, too. There is no shortcut to changing how that thing is perceived, you have to work to change how the underlying concept is seen, instead of trying to slap a happier word on it. For instance, in my own life I have seen this kind of effort in relation to disabilities. When I was growing up I started to see a trend toward calling disabled persons “special” or “challenged.” And all that happened was that the same people who sneered at disabled or handicapped people started sneering at those terms too until those terms attached a negative connotation, too. These word games do not work and all they succeed in doing is annoying people.
But—you might say—you yourself have just said you don’t use the term illegal alien, either. What is the difference? Well, as the link suggests, because of science fiction movies the term “alien” has become uniquely associated with inhuman life, possibly monstrous in form.* So unlike the situation with “illegal immigrant” where the opprobrium is actually attached to the concept it is describing, the term “illegal alien” carries an opprobrium unrelated to the term it is describing (although I suppose most space aliens living on earth would also be illegal immigrants as well).
So, please, folks, let’s not substitute PC terms for accurate and neutral words. Let’s talk about these things like adults, and if you don’t like how a group is perceived in our society, rather than trying to change the language, why not instead change the attitudes underlying it, instead?
* I use the term “thing” there because I am trying to speak broadly about many different things—ranging from groups of people, such as illegal immigrants, to concepts like, say “liberalism” which now hides behind the term “progressivism.” It is not meant to dehumanize the subject at hand—people who have crossed our borders illegally often for very human reasons like the desire to give their families a better life.
* I fully acknowledge that this aversion to the term “alien” might be idiosyncratic to me. I will confess that as a child it was the aliens (the extra terrestrial kind) that scared the heck out of me and gave me nightmares. This included movies such as Alien which at that age I was only allowed to see a few still photographs from until I was old enough to see R-rated movies, but it was still enough to freak me out, but also included more benign movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Seriously, they abducted a child just about my age in that movie and you weren’t told they meant no harm for certain until the very end. My parents dragged me to see that in a six-screen drive in theater, and I spent most of the movie turned around watching Star Wars on a different screen (and with no sound). And through much of E.T., I was convinced the creature was going to eat Elliot. In my defense, I was only ten years old, and just before going to see it I saw movie poster for some B-movie just beforehand featuring a creature that looked kinda like E.T., with fangs. And the early scenes are deliberately creepy, to capture the fact that Elliot was scared, too.
I am mostly over that, but that probably colors my thinking of the term “alien” today. So sue me.
[Posted and authored by Aaron Worthing.]