Today I noticed a story that caught me a bit by surprise. The story connected two things I hadn’t previously related. Those two things were “illegal alien” and “slur”. I had never thought of the phrase representing a slur though, on second thought, I can certainly understand how someone in that situation might be less than thrilled with being so described. I certainly don’t want to be the last person out there to realize that something has evolved from common to unacceptable speech.
This has happened many times in our history. If you haven’t read the original Sherlock Holmes books by Arthur Conan Doyle then you might be quite surprised to find Holmes and Watson ejaculating seemingly at the drop of a hat and quite often. Were they raving sex perverts? Hardly. You see, in Doyle’s day that word meant an abrupt emphatic exclamation expressing emotion. Simply yelling “ouch” was known as ejaculating. Over the decades the meaning changed and it fell out of normal discourse (well, more or less).
So that begs the question of whether or not this phrase is, in point of fact, a slur.
Those who make the argument that it qualifies as a slur list a few key points to their argument:
1. The only illegal part of their action was coming into the country. Once in they’re here they’re not in a perpetual state of being illegal and thus using that word casts them as nothing but illegal.
2. We don’t call other groups of people or groups illegal.
3. The term itself acts as a judgment against an entire group to dehumanize them and reinforce beliefs especially in those who tend to be less informed.
Okay, the first point I find entirely dubious. It’s like suggesting that a murderer walking free after committing their crime isn’t a criminal until they’re actually caught. They absolutely are and, thankfully, we put a lot of resources into tracking down such people given the obvious dangers to having them roaming the streets. The difference here is simply a case of degree.
If you’re a murderer, a rapist, an arsonist, a thief, a shoplifter or even a speeder, the fact of the matter is that you are, in varying degrees, a criminal. The lower down the scale you go the less likely you are to be caught but that doesn’t make your actions any more legal.
If there’s a recent picture of you speeding you run the risk of getting a ticket. Does that mean you were free of the act between the time you sped and the time you received the ticket? What about the Nazi’s that fled to Argentina? Were they no longer criminals because their acts of atrocities were not being perpetrated in Argentina?
Numbers 2 and 3 suggest that it’s not right to call people who came into the country illegally or whose documentation expired “illegal immigrants” because we’re making a judgment against them as a group. Yes, that’s true because they are part of a group just as those people who buy things from people who sell things are mutually referred to as customers (or by others as sheep).
Would it be preferable to call everyone of that status a criminal? I think “illegal immigrant” is actually a much softer phrase than the equally valid term “criminal”. Maybe the proper term should be “criminal immigrant” but I doubt that would appease anyone.
We also use similar terminology for many facets of our society. We readily use terms like “geeks”, “nerds”, “pirates”, “hackers”, “slackers” and more to describe entire groups of people. Many find these terms less than flattering. We have phrases like “illegal drugs”. Is heroin being wrongfully judged by referring to it as an illegal drug? Can we all just carry around heroin because, until we use it, it’s not actually involved in an illegal act?
One person tried to argue that we don’t call employers that employ such people anything other than employers. Again, I’d call them criminals. I’d be more than glad to call them illegal employers. If they hired people here illegally and haven’t yet been held accountable, they are still every bit as guilty and what they do when not hiring those they can’t legally hire is beside the point.
People who enter this country illegally are criminals and criminals are no less criminals while acting as everyday citizens. Do not misunderstand my comment. I support changes to the laws in this regard and think we need to do something to support such situations but that doesn’t change the fact that these people are criminals in the eyes of the law as it stands today. Where this gets murky is with respect to their children who may not know they’re here illegally. I have much more sympathy for those individuals. However, ignorance of the law (and your standing in it) is still not a valid excuse.
The famous example of the journalist who found out at 17 that he was not here legally is a classic case. Upon realizing that he could not get a drivers license he then chose to hide his situation and lost much of the standing he had prior. He became aware of the situation and chose to live the life of a criminal instead of addressing it. Again, I empathize here and I think I likely would have done the same thing. I would have been a criminal and, in this case, an illegal alien. It’s sad that such people have little in the way of simple solutions but actions have consequences and sometimes the actions of parents have negative ramifications for their children or grandchildren and this is one of those cases.
A big issue with the word slur is that it can be a very fluid concept. The different dictionaries can’t even agree on its meaning. One definition says that it’s an allegation about someone that is likely to insult them or damage their reputation. Is “illegal alien” a slur? By that definition any term would be. Is it a slur to call a murderer a murderer? Surely to them it is. Using that term clearly hurts their reputation in society but that’s what happens when you break the law. Are progressives upset that we’re slurring sex offenders under this broad an interpretation?
Then there’s the entire issue of deconstruction of the term. To what is the word, “illegal” referring to? Is it referencing the person, the action or the current state? When you call steroids an illegal drug it references the state. They’re perfectly legal in many situations except when not prescribed as intended. Pot is much the same way. Is the plant itself illegal or is it just illegal to use or grow in your basement? The term illegal here very much seems to not be referencing the object but the state. An argument can be made that the word illegal, when referencing a non-citizen here illegally, refers entirely to their status and not to them specifically.
Also I’m trying to avoid the whirlpool effect. That is, if the rule states that any term that’s found offensive by the recipient is therefore deemed a slur, then there’s never going to be any phrase we can use. What does it mean if someone calls another person gay? Well, it depends on the person and the intent doesn’t it? If someone you know is intolerant of homosexuality and refers to your friend Bob as gay it’s likely not just a simple observation but instead an unfair judgment. If Dan Savage calls Barney Frank gay then he’s very likely pointing out the obvious and not leveling a slur.
Perhaps others are offended to be described as human. It suggests they’re a willing participant to a group that starts wars against its own kind, forces children into sex trades, kills animals, destroys its own habitat, etc. Is being called human therefore a slur? At times I’m not happy being defined as a man. It depends on who’s doing the speaking and the context. We all know the curious case of the N-word. I can’t say it but Samuel L. Jackson can say it all day long. Context.
I know that when I think of a group of people currently described as illegal aliens I don’t have any animosity in my mind or heart. I think of a group of people that make up a large swath of different situations and issues. I simply find it frustrating that many of us feel that we have to keep changing our language in a fruitless attempt to keep adjusting for those of us among us who will always think the worst of just about everyone.