AP dumps 'illegal immigrant' but not neutrality

All big political wars are fought more often with words than with weapons.

Your “terrorist,” so the saying goes, is my “freedom fighter.”

Your “illegal alien” may be my “undocumented worker.”

Immigration activists demonstrated in Miami in January. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

But what if you do not see yourself as a combatant in a culture war? What if your job is to report on that war in a responsible way?  What if you see language as a gateway rather than a battering ram?  All those questions, and many more, come to the surface with the AP's decision to dump "illegal immigrant" as a supposedly neutral news label.

But let's begin with the language wars.

As political strategy it works this way:  Before I can win the hearts and minds of the public at large, I must win the war of words.  To do this, I must frame the issues using language that reflects my view of the world.  If I get there first, I have a great advantage.  If I am playing catch-up, I must work harder. I may even have to undo common language usage.

Aldous Huxley argued that our public lives would work better if our arguments appealed to cool reason, rather than using language to inflame the emotions.  George Orwell condemned our tendency to use political language to obscure our true meanings and intents.

Opponents of certain medical practices won the battle when a procedure clinically known as “intact dilation and extraction” became criminalized as “partial-birth abortion.”  Raise your hand if you are in favor of  killing partially born babies?

There is an old word for the use of language and other symbols in support of a political or world view.  We call it propaganda, a term that was once neutral (your cause could be good or bad), but now has a negative connotation, thanks to Herr Goebbels and the machinations of the Third Reich.

My “propagandist” is now your “advocate.”

This brings us to the arguments over the phrase illegal immigrant.

I expressed an opinion in  2010 in "The Glamour of Grammar": “The phrase illegal alien turns people into criminal Martians, yet undocumented workers seeks to veil their illegal status. Which leads me to illegal immigrants, a compromise that seems clear, efficient, and, from my limited perspective, nonpartisan.  Other will and should disagree.”

And, of course, they have. ABC and Univision dumped my preferred term; the San Antonio Express-News hasn't allowed it since 2008. Tuesday the AP Stylebook turned the trick. For the moment, the New York Times is sticking with “illegal immigrants,” but history is on the march, and its ombudsman is on the case.

It is not unusual for individuals to see bias where none is intended – or even where the evidence is scarce.  This bias toward bias – seeing the other as the enemy and their language as lies -- becomes magnified in times of war, or when political powers are polarized and gridlocked, as they are now.

In such an environment, “neutrality” or “non-partisanship” becomes seen by some as either obsolete or vicious. This raises the question of whether a reporter can be – to use a word that has fallen out of fashion -- “disinterested,” that is, not a mouthpiece for a special interest?

My neutrality may become your obstacle to social change.

My stated preference for “illegal immigrant” derived from a philosophical attachment to reportorial neutrality as expressed in 1939 by S.I. Hayakawa in his book then titled "Language in Action":

“For the purposes of the interchange of information, the basic symbolic act is the report of what we have seen, heard, or felt." Reports have rules: first, they are capable of verification; secondly, they exclude, so far as possible, judgments, inferences, and the use of ‘loaded’ words.”

He argues that “the process of reporting is the process of keeping one’s personal feelings out.  In order to do this, one must be constantly on guard against ‘loaded’ words that reveal or arouse feelings.”  He prefers, for example, “homeless unemployed” over “tramp”: “Chinese” over “Chinaman,”; and “holders of uncommon views” over “crackpots.”

I think that, if her were alive today, Hayakawa would endorse “illegal immigrant” as the fallback position for news reports.  But, to borrow a catchphrase of multicultural politics:  “Your opinion, Professors Hayakawa and Clark, is no match for my experience.”

My preference for “illegal immigrant” involved an unloading of the alternatives, either the dysphemistic “illegal alien” or the euphemistic “undocumented worker.”  It did not occur to me that some would find the word “illegal” to be loaded, but I now understand why they do.

(To those who believe that America stole Texas from Mexico, even the word immigrant may seem loaded. My immigrant may be your liberator.)

The politics of all this became much clearer in the last presidential election.  The loss of the Hispanic vote by the Republicans occurred not just because the political right wing proposed policies (“self-deportation”) that seemed hostile to a culture, but because they used language that was demeaning to that culture.

Here, for example, is one of the tamer objections that appeared on the ABC Univision website:

“It is quite true that ‘illegal alien’ is not accurate.  Neither is ‘Undocumented immigrant’ or ‘Migrant worker.’ The proper description, political correctness aside, is ‘Criminal Alien.’

The AP argues, essentially, that the dignity of human beings requires us to avoid demeaning labels such as “illegal.” To describe a person as “illegal” is, to use Hayakawa’s term, to “load up” the language, a violation of responsible discourse. The AP also disapproves of such imprecise terminology as “undocumented.”

The proposed solution works for me: describe the action in the particular. “State police arrested ten men who they claimed crossed the border illegally.”  This requires more information, not less; more language, not less; and more nuanced reporting, which always helps.

One of the most cogent arguments for “more reporting” as a way of overcoming loaded descriptions came out of the Hutchins Commission report of 1947.  Among the requirements of a free and responsible press was “the projection of a representative picture of the constituent groups in the society.”  Using examples from that time, the authors condemned portrayals of the Chinese as “sinister drug addicts” or of African-Americans as “servants.”

Instead, “responsible performance here simply means that the images repeated and emphasized be such as are in total representative of the social group as it is.  The truth about any social group, though it should not exclude its weaknesses and vices, includes also recognition of its values, its aspirations, its common humanity.”

To find and depict our common humanity requires more reporting, not less; more language, not less; more thinking, not less.  That settles it, AP Stylebook.  I’m on board.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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