Reclaiming the language

The Deseret News just published a letter to the editor of mine, about immigration.  In this letter, I tried to make a modest and reasonable proposal.  Since conservatives are so upset about illegal immigration, why not make more immigration legal?  In other words, if you’re concerned about people from Mexico and Central America crossing the border illegally, why not issue more green cards?  Especially since immigrants are a net plus for our nation economically.  Develop some process where people without criminal records can come over legally and work here.

(The DN comments responding to my letter have been hilarious, BTW. I especially love the high dudgeon displayed by one dude, incensed at the suggestion that immigrants might be better people than Americans.  How dare I?!?!?)

I get that immigration is a hot-button issue, and that some folks get really riled up about it.  But one aspect of it seems particularly interesting to me; the fury people display at the word ‘amnesty.’  We liberals are, apparently, ‘pro-amnesty.’  And amnesty has become an epithet. Dave Bratt, who defeated Eric Cantor in Virginia, basically won his race by using one word: he labeled Cantor ‘pro-amnesty.’  Amnesty, in this context, means ‘soft on crime,’ (crossing a border illegally being the moral equivalent to rape/torture/murder, apparently).  Amnesty means telling illegal immigrants, ‘ah, we were just kidding.  It’s all cool.  Stick around, why doncha?’  It spits on the rule of law.  Or something. Watch: every time an immigration bill comes before Congress, someone in the House of Representatives will stand up and say ‘it’s a pro-amnesty’ bill.  And then see potential votes for the measure just . . . vanish.

So I declared myself in favor of amnesty.  I like that word: amnesty.  It’s a really good word.  It’s an act of forgiveness, a pardon.  It’s related to words like ‘kindness’ and ‘pardon’ and ‘absolution.’  It’s a Christian word, really.  Of course, obviously, we should extend amnesty to people who crossed our border, got a job, support a family, pay taxes, start businesses.  So someone broke a law years ago.  Let it go.

Conservatives have been very successful with this tactic, of turning a perfectly good word into an insult.  “Liberal” is one.  For awhile, a lot of liberals started calling themselves ‘progressives,’ because conservatives had been so successful in demonizing ‘liberal.’  Well, to heck with that!  I’m a liberal, and I’m proud of it!  “Favorable to progress or reform?”  You bet.

Liberals do it too, of course.  Both sides seek political advantage through the careful use of language.  Don’t think that the political slogan ‘hope and change’ represented much beyond language that had been carefully vetted by focus groups and polls.


Still, it can get mighty sleazy.  In 1996, Newt Gingrich sent a famous memo to GOPAC, a conservative political action committee.  In this memo, he urged conservatives to memorize two lists of words, one positive and one negative.  Here’s the memo.

I’m sorry, but this list makes me ill.  It really does.  How does calling political opponents ‘greedy selfish traitors’ contribute to civilized discourse?  If words have meaning, then really strong words, like ‘traitor’ or ‘treason’ have to stand for something significant and dreadful.  They can’t just be used to win a Congressional race over a guy you may not disagree with all that much anyway. And the cynicism of it appalls.  “You, too, can speak like Newt!  Just memorize these word lists!”

But it does work. We see it all the time in relation to President Obama.  There’s got to be relationship between the frothing-at-the-mouth fury we see so often directed at this President, and the language used to describe him.  He’s a tyrant, a communist, an uncrowned monarch!  He wants to be king!  He’s destroying America!

Except their actions don’t really match the rhetoric.  If you really do think that this President is a tyrant, hell-bent on destroying America, then obviously, you have to impeach him.  But there’s no real enthusiasm among Republican leaders to do anything of the kind.  The only people calling for impeachment are people who can afford to use irresponsible rhetoric or engage in irresponsible acts.  It’s all House back-benchers.  And talk show hosts.  And Sarah Palin.  People who will never be held accountable for their words.  Meanwhile, Speaker Boehner occasionally calls Obama an ‘imperial President,’ but he has to do that; he’s terrified of the Tea Party right.  His actions belie his words; all he’s really done about Obama’s supposed tyranny is file that ludicrous lawsuit.  And when the Speaker couldn’t get even a purely symbolic, harshly punitive border-kids bill through the House, he then said ‘well, the President can deal with this unilaterally; he has the authority.’  After suing the President for doing exactly that.  Funny funny stuff.

Anyway, as a liberal–and I am a liberal, and proud of it–I intend to use the word ‘amnesty’ every time immigration comes up in conversation.  Let’s claim it!  It’s a great word.  Let’s try to use language that is precise, specific, clear, and accurate.  Let’s not go around calling each other traitors.  That’s just silly.

3 thoughts on “Reclaiming the language

  1. starbugary

    I’m a Liberal too and proud of it! Your right amnesty is a good thing that we should be embracing. All of the dangerous rhetoric that the right has been spewing for years should be catching up with them shouldn’t it? I am not sure that the conservatives want the immigration problems that our country is facing fixed, at least not with any workable pragmatic solutions. All I ever hear is how much they hate President Obama, who only has two more years anyway, he isn’t running for re election he already won! I get the impression that they think if we just militarize and close our boarders that the problem will solve itself. I don’t think that these kids fleeing from war zones in Central America are frightened by weapons though, they just put there hands up and cooperate. I got into it on FB once with a right winger, she was praising the Mexican’s for having a policy on their Southern boarder where they just shoot people, she was saying that we should be more like them and do that as well. I still wonder to this day if she fully thought that through, that she was literally advocating for the murder of human beings, people who she knows nothing about. This is a great post, thanks for sharing it…

  2. L. Susan Lewis

    There are two words I fear that will become obsolete in the next decade or so. The word “statesman” which was once used to describe so many of our House and Senate representatives. It means “one who is experienced and WISE in the business of government.” I think that these are becoming a dying breed. Very little wisdom seems to prevail in the workings of our government these days. Particularly since most of what you hear in political discourse has come to so closely resemble the bullying and name calling we find on too many grade school school playgrounds.

    This supports the peril of the next word which faces extinction in our syntax, “debate”. I remember debates in high school speech class where it was very clear the “debate” must be based on verifiable facts and logical thinking. Haven’t seen much of that lately. It has now degenerated into a misnomer. Now any exchanges between political adversaries are centered around name calling and insinuation. A more adequate term for it now would be “bash-fest.”

    And shame on the American public for letting the repetition of slander and lies become the basis for our lazy and/or apathetic approach to do was once considered a noble deed. The right to vote responsibly so that all Americans can hope for a bright future.

  3. juliathepoet

    I am currently taking an ethics class, and it has been interesting to see a mix of political ideologies, but also the huge differences in learning styles and expectations. I don’t want to overly generalized, because everyone has things that they are passionate about, but there is a huge difference in educational temperament in our class of nine.

    Three are former military, and all have discussed PTSD at some point. For one, his experiences have led him to be intensely interested in the needs of humans around the world and for the earth we live on. The other two have both expressed a great value for order, efficiency, and taking care of the issues in front of you.

    For two of the students, this is not their first attempt at the class. Both took it as an online class previously, and since they did not pass it in that format, they were required to take a corporeal class. Both have missed a number of classes, and while both talk often in class, I often have difficulty understanding why they chose to talk about things other than the topic at hand.

    I am the oldest in the class, although I found out my professor is a few months older than me, even though he looks ten years younger. For most of the younger students,this is one of several classes that fulfills a graduation requirement. There is only one other student with a PoliSci/Philosophy background, and we have had informal study sessions that lead to spirited debate, of the enjoyable kind. While we were involved in a discussion on the Jim the Botonist” critique of Utilitarianism, one of our classmates from Argentina asked if he could join us.

    After 10-15 minutes of us talking I realized that it was still just the two of us talking. I stopped and apologized, and then asked him if he was understanding what we said, or if he had specific questions. He kind of half smiled and told us that he really just wanted to hear two smart people talking about an idea, without yelling, calling names, or insulting each other. He sees the lack of civil discourse as the defining weakness of the USA.

    He said, “And Americans are so self-absorbed* that they think that the rest of the world is blind.” (*We fought through an imperfect translation process to get the right words.)

    The more I think about it, the more I believe that the self-absorbtion is what leads to the breakdown of civil discourse. If I never listen to other viewpoints, if I never come face to face with those I demonize, if I don’t have to recognize their humanity, then I have no reason to be loving or kind. If we want people to listen to us, we must listen to them.


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