According to the ABC News report I read, “The Associated Press, the largest news-gathering outlet in the world, will no longer use the term illegal immigrant.” Apparently, this decision comes after years of pressure from groups that find the term offensive. The report boasts that “Fusion, the ABC-Univision joint venture, does not use ‘illegal immigrant’ because we believe it dehumanizes those it describes. …”
Is it the speed-reading craze or the general degradation of instruction, particularly in the public schools, that allows supposedly intelligent people to get away with nonsense like this? I mention speed-reading because it trains people to read words without taking the time to analyze the logic of what’s being said.
What sense does it make to say that the term “illegal immigrant” “dehumanizes those it describes? The word illegal means “unlawful, against or not according to law.” The term “immigrant” means “one who is immigrating,” i.e., in the process, state or condition of moving to or settling in a new place, region or country. The term “dehumanize” means to take away that which makes someone human. If I say that someone is in the process, state or condition of moving to or settling in a new place unlawfully, what essential attribute of humanity do I deny or take away?
Does pointing out that someone is new to a given place, region or country deny his humanity? Does pointing out that people are there unlawfully deny their humanity? In explaining the objection to the phrase “illegal immigrant,” Daniel Morcate (chief newsroom editor at Univision) is quoted as saying, “We can call various acts or actions illegal, but not the people who commit them.” But the word “immigrant” describes a person in terms of the action or activity in which they are involved. Conflating people with the action in which they are engaged is a commonplace and sometimes essential way of describing them.
So if I see people entered in a race, I can say “look at those entries,” describing the people in terms of their active status or condition. Under the same conditions a horse or a dog may be described in the same way. Being entered in a race is not a distinctively human status. But this does not mean that, by describing people as “entrants” I dehumanize them. If I find out that some of them are not qualified to participate (they failed a required drug test, for example), I might describe them as “illegal entrants.” The word “entry” conflates the person with their status in respect of the race. The term illegal accurately applies, in this regard, to the composite object of perception the word “entry” evokes.
This way of speaking is taken for granted in every realm of human endeavor. Accountants are certified or uncertified. Doctors are qualified or unqualified to perform surgery. The notion that people cannot be described as “illegal” (meaning that their status or condition is unlawful on account of the activity in which they are engaged) would mean that we live in a world in which there is trespassing, but no trespassers; robbery but no robbers; murder but no murderers, and so forth. All the latter terms describe people as essentially illegal, and the first (trespassers) is conceptually identical to the term “illegal immigrant.” Must we remove them all from the lexicon of acceptable speech?
Morcate’s notion that calling people illegal somehow dehumanizes them is not just contrary to common and acceptable usage, however. It is logically incoherent. To err is human, as the old saying goes. One aspect of what makes us human is our capacity to act in ways that go against the rules, even the rules that prescribe the necessities of our nature. Unlike ants and bees, we can reject our natural programming. In this respect, we are tragically never more decidedly human than when we are breaking the law, defying the rules, going against the conventional wisdom, etc. In this respect, far from denying their humanity, describing a person as an “illegal” ironically confirms it.
Of course, when we ascribe illegality to a person, we do so in a sense that may go beyond what we mean when we call non-human objects “illegal.” The non-human object is incidentally illegal, because its status in that regard arises from purely external factors. Because we can hold people responsible for their actions and activities, a person’s illegality may be the result of self-conscious self-determination, i.e., his own choice. If we simply disregard this possibility, if we treat people as if the illegality of their action, status or condition implies no responsibility on their part, then we deny one of the essential attributes of humanity. We dehumanize them.
So Morcate and the other immigration thought police are guilty as charged of the very crime they accuse others of committing. This conviction is a characteristic of the mavens of political correctness, owing to the dehumanizing character of the ideology that drives their agenda. They feign outrage at supposedly “dehumanizing” terms which characterize people as “illegal” on account of the illegal activities in which they are engaged, even though lawbreaking is a distinctively human capacity. But they themselves happily describe people as “homosexual” on the grounds that they have a penchant for certain kinds of physical pleasure that constitutes an imperative so inalterable that, like the non-human animals, they cannot choose to be otherwise than they are. The distinctively human capacity for choice has no bearing upon it.
This view of homosexuality quite literally “dehumanizes” people by denying one of their distinctively human capacities. Refusing to use terminology that implies that immigrants may be responsible for their legal or illegal status dehumanizes people. Treating nascent humans in the womb as “a mass of tissue” that can be killed without imputation of murder dehumanizes people. Regarding human beings as the products of mindless random changes in some primordial ooze dehumanizes people. It begins to look as if the whole thrust of the ideology that underlies “political correctness” is to dehumanize people, so that they can be treated as helpless, irresponsible victims of circumstance; or else abused as material objects whose title of humanity gives them no intrinsic worth.
And yet some people pretend to see no reason to connect this way of thinking with totalitarian oppression and mass murder.