April 20, 2014

Wasting Our Time on Political Correctness or Not Calling Things What They Are

Listening to the Brian Lehrer Show on XM Radio today gave me about 15 miles worth of one of my pet peeves.  It’s called double speak, gobbledygook or more recently political correctness.

The subject of the show was illegal immigration (oops, I’ve offended someone).  It was a thoughtful discussion from different sides of a thorny issue.  I was engrossed and listening to what the guests said, listening to the callers and running through my position on the issue over and over through the filters of various guests.

Then came the last fifteen minutes.  The whinings about the debate that shouldn’t exist over what to call something that already has a moniker: illegal immigration.  Conservatives do it, liberals do it and it drives a lot of conservatives, liberals and moderates crazy – create terms of art where entirely truthful, descriptive plain language already exists in our vocabulary to describe a situation or circumstance.

“Pro-Life” is my favorite.  With the exception of Roman Catholic clergy, how many pro-life activists have you met who are anything but anti-abortion?  In a May Gallup Poll, 26% of Republicans said that abortion was “morally acceptable,” while 76% of Republicans said that the death penalty was “morally acceptable.”  Since there has been an anti-abortion plank in every Republican presidential platform since at least the Reagan era, and since “pro-choice” Republicans are as hard to find as “pro-life” Democrats, I’m going to safely assume that most of us would agree that the anti-abortion movement is grounded in the GOP.  For the GOP, calling the anti-abortion position pro-life is just slick marketing.  It’s more difficult to find a Republican against state-sanctioned killing – the death penalty – than it is to find a pro-choice Republican.  Pro-life, in its purest form would mean what the words say – with certainty.  As an aside, it’s always seemed rather intellectually inconsistent that the smaller and less government conservatives in the U.S. are so four square behind giving the government the ultimate power – to take lives.

Lehrer, today framed the 15 minute debate about what to call illegal immigration in these terms.  People who don’t like the term believe that by labeling someone as an illegal immigrant is to label their humanity, their personhood as illegal.  The argument against “undocumented immigrant” in Lehrer’s analysis of the term’s detractors minimizes their illegal status -  as if someone working and residing in this country illegally just left their papers in their other coat.

I agree with Lehrer’s description of the pitfalls of using the term ‘undocumented immigrant.’  I don’t agree with the premise that calling someone in this country illegally an ‘illegal immigrant’ attacks their humanity.  If you come to this country to live and work you are an immigrant in some sense.  If you didn’t go through the legal process to live and work in the U.S. you are here illegally and your immigrant status is illegal.  When opinion leaders force bogus, emotional arguments into the policy debate like labeling people who use the term illegal immigrant as besmirching the humanity of the people who happen to be here illegally it’s merely more slick marketing.  The many issues wrapped in the term illegal immigration are important, need to be solved and we need to identify the resources needed for a socially just and economically fair solution.  The dogmatic liberal position that those who use the term ‘illegal immigrant’ are sucking the humanity from people is just another useless battle in the culture war.

The problem of illegal immigration, especially along our southern border is serious and multi-faceted.  Just since 2006, 36,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s internal war against the drug cartels – most of them non-combatants living and working in Mexico’s northern tier of states.  We have a national security issue tied to illegal immigration.  Different estimates report between 11 and 20 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. at any one time.  If you’re here, illegally or not, and you have children, those kids go to school.  If you’re here, legally or illegally, and you show up at a hospital emergency room you get care.  We have a resource issue tied to illegal immigration.  If there are people suffering and in poverty and they make their way to the U.S. to be safe and have a chance to make a decent living what sort of mechanism should we have to be charitable?  We have a moral dilemma tied to illegal immigration.  If U.S. business interests have created and are feeding a shadow labor market where people can be paid below market wages, given no benefits and have no chance to attain legal citizenship we have another moral problem on top of an economic issue for American workers.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have kicked the illegal immigration can down the road to the point where states like Arizona have essentially legalized racial profiling.  Getting caught up in debates about what to call the problem takes away from solving the problem.  Watering down or politicizing the language describing the problem adds to our inability to solve the problem.

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