Remember that little ditty our mother’s taught us as a mantra to ward off those who bullied and teased us?
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
Um, your mother was wrong. So was mine.
Words matter. Words can hurt like hell. Words can break you.
In an interesting move and one that activists applaud, the Associated Press has banned the term “illegal immigrant”. But before we all get too excited, the AP have expressed a desire to avoid “labels” rather than show sensitivity toward immigrants, though they would like to be sensitive to others’ feelings. Standards editor, Tom Kent told TIME magazine,” We’re trying to put the emphasis not on describing people but on describing actions or situations that they are in.” They have also rejected “undocumented immigrants,” because even that language lacks the precision they strive for.
Words are important. Our language shapes our perception of reality and others’ perceptions of our condition(s) as well. Ask any “single mother” whose “illegitimate” children come from a “broken” home. No one who is reading this blog today will be ignorant of the endless list of labels that haunt, crush and defeat those who desperately try to bear up under them. You will have been a victim of at least one, possibly more.
Were you called lazy, clumsy, stupid, ugly, worthless, a bastard, a bitch early on or repeatedly in your life? A faggot? A retard? A spaz? A dago? A wop? A kike? A spic? A loser?
It is nearly impossible to escape a label once it takes hold, growing roots deep into your psyche and those around you. You can spend the rest of your life trying to live it down, change it , turn it around. And it is exhausting.
See where I’m going here?
The reprehensible Glen Beck weighed in , veritably foaming at the mouth: “They’re illegal! They’re illegal! They’re illegal! They are here illegally!!!” Glen Beck enjoys taxonomies, it helps him to keep people in dark, cramped boxes, away from him, labeled appropriately.
I wish someone would make Glen Beck illegal. Real quick, please. We wouldn’t have to call him illegal. We could just deny him the use of hate rhetoric and all that . Free speech be damned. I know. I know. Forgive me.
Alternate terms? A few have been proposed. The AP rejects “out of status” for being even more imprecise. And so it goes. And while the AP rejected the term “illegal immigrants” for precision and stylistic purpose rather than out of the goodness of their collective hearts, I am totally okay with that, because they eventually, will set the standard and I feel confident they will come up with something acceptable.
Sharam Khosravi, author of ”Illegal Traveller” states that once the refugee, the migrant, the immigrant is thought of in a certain way or is thus labeled, it is difficult or impossible to escape:
The invisible border keeps immigrants strangers for generations. The Sisyphian plight of integration extends even to the next generation. The border exposes me to a gaze that does not see me as an individual but meets me as a type. The visual field is not neutral. The gaze is hierarchically interwoven complex of gender, racial and class factors.
Sartre was right:
“L’enfer c’est les autres.” (Hell is other people)
Calling immigrants illegal contributes to their invisibility. Denies them access to humanity, respect, consideration and intervention. In Italy they are called “clandestino,” forever hiding in the shadows for fear of being exposed for their “illegality.”
Khosravi speaks of not only crossing physical borders, but also, then, forever attempting to negotiate the borders in peoples’ minds—and insidious border, daunting, indeed. “An invisible border,” Khosravi astutely observes, “is, however, impossible to reach.”
“ Being at home means belonging, but it also means constructing borders and excluding the other. Any kind of group identification constructs the social category of the other.”
Group identification. And who does the identifying? Whoever is not in the unfortunate position of being labeled.
Forgive me my philosophical rant today. I have a lot of these issues on my mind, as usual. Every girl deserves, in fact needs, a “rant” every once in a while. But wait. I don’t want to label this a “rant” which has a negative connotation. Because the words I’ve put down here were not penned lightly. I am nothing if not passionate about this.
To close I should mention that immigration activists have praised the AP’s stylistic decision as well as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists who issued this statement:
“Those demeaning titles are not only inaccurate and disrespectful, but a propaganda tool used to dehumanize a group of people and instill fear in the general population in order to establish policy.”
I will end with another little ditty that both my grandmother and my mother, in their infinite wisdom repeated to me often:
“Make your words short and sweet for someday you may have to eat them.”
Thanks, Mom. This one is not a lie.