Saturday, June 07, 2008

Name Calling in the Immigration Debate

I've decided that "name calling" has become a complicated issue in political debating as well as the immigration debate because name calling, labeling, describing, use of metaphor, ad hominum attacks, subjective perception and anger are so intertwined.

So I thought it might be useful to sort out some definitions and examples and perhaps facilitate a more constructive discussion (though I am not hopeful, unfortunately, because bias and anger seem to be too "in the way" to do so).

I think to do this efficiently, we should eliminate the obvious "name calling," such as referring to immigrants and racial groups as "vermin," "trash," and "dog food." While some could argue these are metaphors, they are neither accurately descriptive nor useful metaphors since comparing human beings to another species or as waste is counter-productive and anger-producing. Furthermore, no amount of justification can "prove" a human being is "trash." This is not to say other word usage is not anger producing, but at least other descriptives maintain that immigrants, illegal or otherwise, are indeed human beings. So let's start at least on that common ground.

Now let's get to other terms which some deem "name calling." The biggest complaint stemming from the anger-motivated is the term "racist." I've discussed the term "racist" before in previous postings, but it's important to separate descriptive terms like "racist" from those mentioned above. For example, if a government passes laws that restrict or target specific populations, we might accurately call that entity "racist."

"Racist" is a term used to describe other specific behaviors and perceptions as well; for example, if a group declares they feel "invaded by Spanish speaking people" or "bad smelling food" or "third world culture," we might conclude this group is engaging in making racist statements and promoting racism because s/he is afraid of becoming a cultural minority in his/her own country. Openly and seriously describing anyone as "vermin" could certainly fall into the category of racist ranting.

Perhaps the more accurate way is to describe the behavior and not the person in this situation: "You've passed a racist policy," or "You seem to be making racist statements and that bothers me," or "I perceive what you are saying as racist." Given the intensity of the current dialog and the lack of time in which we have to discuss this issue moderately, however, it's easier to describe people who engage in such behavior as "racist," especially if they make overt references to human beings as sub-human and/or deserving of persecution and loathing based on color and/or language. In my mind, racist politicians, government officials, those who are members of racist groups and those who support racist policies are never acceptable and should not be in a position of leadership because they are incapable of treating people equally and fairly.

One of the easiest terms to define is ad hominem attacks. These are personal attacks aimed at individuals that first, are mean spirited, and second, do not provide any information that really forwards the conversation. Some of these attacks are meant to demean people, assassinate their characters, and provide an outlet for unbridled anger and cruelty. Such attacks would include elements like name calling and racially charged accusations (for example, "you're nothing but white trash"). These are unsubstantiated statements that rarely have any logical bases.

Metaphors and descriptives, on the other hand, are commonly used in political debate to communicate perceived behaviors and decisions. If citizens, for instance, refer to a politician as a "stuffed shirt," "windbag," "pathetic," or "irresponsible" and provide examples of alluded to behavior, then these terms should be viewed as descriptives and not necessarily name calling or ad hominem attacks. Granted, some of these descriptives may be offensive to the listener, but for better or worse, they have become acceptable terms used in political discourse. The word "racist" does not wholly fall into this category because "racist" is a term as opposed to merely a descriptive.

Finally, there are perceptions which are subjective conclusions everyone reaches via the senses. For example, if the current debate on immigration propagandizes and generalizes all day laborers as "illegals," then anyone's perception could be that Hispanic men gathered at a 7/11 are illegals. Perceptions are not always based on logic, research, or anything other than what comes through sight, smell, etc.

I think it's important to make these distinctions in the immigration debate and any other for that matter because word use is so powerful. While we might not always be perfect communicators, it's best to try to take our time to use exact wording as much as possible and, as listeners, dissect the true message behind the wording and emotion. Sometimes the person speaking really is just angry, but other times, they truly are mean-spirited, vindictive, threatening, and even dangerous.

And no, I am not perfect in this either. No one is. But we must keep trying if we truly want to solve our problems as a community and as a society.
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