As 1930s radio shows and 21st Century talk-radio shock jocks remind us, words — perhaps even more than images — carry evocative power, the power to incite passion. Fernando Lázaro Carreter, the academician and guardian of Spanish (whose quote appears in the title of this post and in a slide deck I published years back on immigration writing for lawyers), viewed words as the epidermis, at once opaque and translucent, that thinly veils the emotions of the speaker. Lázaro Carreter and other wordsmiths such as George Orwell, William Safire, Frank Luntz and George Lakoff all recognized the power of language, and its modern companion “messaging,” to pierce the fragile skin of the public and likewise expose emotions.
Two recent immigration-related events illustrate the language-induced unveiling of popular passions. The first involved Virgil Peck, a Republican state lawmaker in Kansas, and the second a newly-minted third-grade teacher in Georgia. Were it not for the viral power of media, their ill-advised words might have been quarantined in a small pocket of each state. Instead, carried aloft by the winds of social media and the 24/7 news cycle, the contagion spread and popular emotions have now been unleashed.
Mr. Peck, wearing his heart too loosely on his sleeve, unleashed on himself a pecking Twitterstorm from all directions, reminiscent of the phone-booth scene in Hitchock’s The Birds. Although he has since apologized, outraged citizens now demand his resignation for these ill-chosen comments during an appropriation-committee discussion of the spread of wild swine in Kansas:
The teacher, on the job for about a year, may face discipline for using a lesson plan by Christian writer and proponent of homeschooling, Brenda B. Covert, lifted from an “educational” website, to teach third graders about “illegal aliens.”
The lesson tells the allegory of an unwanted young boy, an interloper who hops a backyard fence to interrupt a play date involving Taylor, Sam and Buster, Sam’s dog. Sam’s mother, representing authority, makes the intruder leave. A quiz follows with six questions, the last two of which are:
5. What is a citizen?
A. a person who avoids cities
B. a person who lives in a city
C. a person who belongs to a country
D. a person who visits a country
6. What does the U.S. do with illegal aliens?
A. The U.S. puts them to work in the army.
B. The U.S. puts them to death.
C. The U.S. sends them back where they came from.
D. The U.S. shoots them into outer space.
Judging from the results of Newsweek‘s recent quizzing of Americans on the questions in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ naturalization examination (38% failed), the third-graders might be forgiven if they couldn’t answer Question 5. (The 38% who flunked the naturalization exam would probably say that either 5.A or B. must be right, because, after all, “citizen” must have something to do with “cities.”)
As for the last question (What does the U.S. do with illegal aliens?), I agree with 18-year-old Matt Trips, a self-described “pianist, composer, humanist, anthropologist, [and] probably some other stuff too,” who says in the MUST SEE video below, “[Question 6] is disturbing to me on so many levels.” (I won’t paraphrase Matt [although I note that the town in question is not Duluth, MN, as he says, but Duluth, GA.] His 11-minute analysis speaks volumes about all that is wrong with teaching impressionable kids to fear other human beings and what a lesson like this says about our society.)
Matt’s pique is mirrored by COLORLINES, a news daily that describes itself as “offering award-winning reporting, analysis, and solutions to today’s racial justice issues.” In keeping with COLORLINES‘ Drop the ‘i’ [illegal] Word campaign, writer Mónica Novoa rightly attacks EdHelper, the site where the offensive lesson plan originated:
It’s outrageous that this website for educators provides such insidious anti-immigrant messages. As harmful as it is for children to indirectly imbibe hate speech through TV, media, etc., it is much more atrocious and harmful when that hate speech is being provided to them under the guise of education from a source they trust and possibly look up to.
The i-word opens the door to all kinds of messy interpretations, regardless of the form it takes. It teaches kids either that it’s ok to evoke violence against other human beings (whether in the form of a joke or a lesson plan) or to feel worthless if they are on the receiving end. While parents can prevent children from being exposed to racial slurs and hate-filled messages at home, it is also up to educators to ensure a safe learning environment. This is harmful to society as a whole, but especially to children who could be the target of i-word hate speech.
Had the Georgia teacher searched the web just a bit more, she would have found legitimate sources that offer an introduction to immigration and humanize immigrants, like the “Community Education Center” and “Teaching Tolerance.”
Regrettably, however, the abuse of immigration language by public employees has occurred in the past. Older observers of the immigration scene will recall Harold Ezell, then Regional Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who was wont to refer to undocumented immigrants entering America from Mexico’s Rio Grande River as “wets” (short for the pejorative “wetbacks”) and to dub apprehended immigrants as “illegal aliens” who should be “caught, skinned and fried.”
Compassionate and inclusive political speech — a phrase I prefer over the maligned coinage, political correctness — must frame the immigration debate of the future, as the astute philologists at the Opportunity Agenda demonstrate. There can be no acquiescence with hate speech. Xenophobes and nativists must be called to the carpet. Now that the term “undocumented immigrant” has entered the Supreme Court’s sober lexicon, introduced by a “wise Latina,” the time is surely upon us to recognize, once and for all, that no human being is illegal!