12 June 2007

Defining Words and the Implications on Truth

It has been said that whoever controls language controls politics. Using language to make things more respectable, more palatable, is a common occurrence especially when considering politics and divisive issues. But there must be something said for using plain language to adhere to the truth of matters, meaning the objective truth, striped of emotion.

Take for example the following phrases:
- illegal immigrant
- undocumented immigrant
- undocumented worker
- undocumented American.

These four phrases are bandied about to describe a single group of people: those who left their home country and entered the United States illegally and who continue to live and work in the US. That is the basic truth of this classification and is clearly stated by using the term “illegal immigrant”. It is not racist or xenophobic. It is objective fact.

The second term contains a significant shift. By calling this group of people “undocumented immigrants”, there is a negation of their illegal entry into the US. If only there were documentation on these folks, the term implies, then these immigrants would be just like any other legal immigrant. It is not an act of the immigrant – their illegal entry into the US – which is the problem. It is rather a failing one someone’s part (fault to be filled in as you will) to provide them with the required paperwork. There is no crime here, and if there is, then it is not a crime committed by the “undocumented immigrant”.

The third term shifts even further. By substituting “worker” for “immigrant”, there is an underhanded denial (or refusal to recognize) that the person in question originates from somewhere outside of the US. He or she is just a worker, not someone from another country who entered the US (illegally) to find a job. How could one possibly deny “rights” to these workers?

And finally, the most recent mutation of “illegal immigrant” comes from Senator Reid: “undocumented American”. This is where the language finally and irrecoverably presupposes citizenship upon those who have entered the US illegally for whatever reason. They are, according to Reid’s language, already Americans. They simply lack the documents to prove it. Using this language, anyone on the planet could be called an undocumented American.

“Political language. . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
- George Orwell

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