We Are Always Taking Sides

From a piece on the New York Time’s refusal to completely drop the I-word (“illegal immigrant”) from its reporting:


“Advocates on one side of this political debate have called on news organizations to use only the terms they prefer,” Mr. Corbett [from the NYT] said. “But we have to make those decisions for journalistic reasons alone, based on what we think best informs our readers on this important topic.” He added: “It’s not our job to take sides.

Continuing to use words developed by some people to categorize other people–especially once those other people start protesting–is taking sides. There is no neutral when it comes to choosing terms of social identity.

Continuing to support the status quo is taking sides.  Framing a claim that a word is degrading as an ‘expression of preference’ is taking sides.  Acting as if only people on one side of a debate have a stake in word choice is taking sides.  Feigning ignorance is taking sides.  Putting your head in the sand is taking sides.  Trying to find a way to not take sides is taking sides.  Trying to not get involved is taking sides.  We are always taking sides.

We do not have the luxury of neutrality, and even if we do, we do not deserve it.


People from the Drop the I-word Campaign say,

If you want to urge the Times to get with the times and stop using the i-word–and you have a Twitter account–please cut, paste, and send out this tweet:

@nytimes drop the i-word completely. #droptheiword

34 thoughts on “We Are Always Taking Sides

  1. Very true. Not taking sides means siding with the winning side.

    That should be added to the golden rule, as a basic ethical principle.

  2. Even if we have the luxury of neutrality we don’t deserve it? What does that mean?

    At any rate, there are generally more than two sides to questions (until, as Lewis famously noted, you know the answer, and then there’s never more than one).

  3. More often than not, there are more than two sides to an issue. The way the press tends to present issues as dichotomies that instantly shut out countless other viewpoints, considerations, and questions poisons our thought processes. What they call “objective” is often nothing more than two polarized reductionist views to create drama and stir thoughtless opinion.

  4. Intellectually, there are an infinite number of perspectives on any issue, but in real-life political terms, things tend to get polarized. Political struggle is not based on nuances or subtleties or creative viewpoints, which is unfortunate if you enjoy nuances, as I do. However, back to the real world, you often have a choice between, say, supporting drones or protesting against them or keeping silent, between supporting state healthcare or so-called free market healthcare or keeping silent. No one has much interest, outside of small academic circles, in subtle distinctions

  5. I suppose that this shit either gets to you or it doesn’t. It moves me.

    Which side are you on?

  6. I don’t know about this debate. What term is one supposed to use to distinguish those who are in a country legally from those who are in a country illegally?

  7. But ‘undocumented immigrants’ is rather ambiguous and unclear – many would not know what it meant. It in fact it means an immigrant without those documents obtained once one becomes a legal immigrant, so it cannot be clearly defined without reference to the term ‘legal/illegal immigrant. Whereas illegal immigrant is clear and unambiguous.

    Given that news organisations are supposed to be clear and unambiguous it seems reasonable to keep using ‘illegal immigrant’. Or am I missing something?

    I mean I can understand why illegal immigrants and those supporting their political aims would prefer the phrase ‘undocumented immigrant’ – it could be politically useful to muddy the waters – but it does not seem unreasonable for news organisations to keep using the clear and unambiguous term.

  8. I don’t think the intention is to muddy the waters. As far as clarity goes, I take it that ‘undocumented immigrant’ actually communicates better the legal reality. Where ‘undocumented’ modifies ‘immigrant’ I think it is more clear that one referred to is an immigrant whose immigrant status has not been (legally) documented; where ‘illegal’ modifies ‘immigrant’ rather than the immigration process itself, it seems plausibly less clear (convention aside) what exactly is illegal: the person or their mode of immigration.

    Of course, there are conventions, but I’m not a fan of arguments from convention (probably for obvious reasons given this is a feminist blog). I’m not sure if there’s a principled way to separate out the harmful conventions from the useful ones, and so I’m not sure how an argument along those lines would go here.

  9. Hmmm. I don’t see what’s so terribly nuanced about describing what being “undocumented” means and the difference, for instance, between not being documented and not having ones papers at hand (see Arizona). I would call that “journalism.” A little investigation could lead to the exploration of how a person becomes documented, what the requirements are, how the processes work, etc. so that people who want to consider it can develop a view that is more sophisticated than “undocumented” (whatever that means): ILLEGAL, and “documented: LEGAL. Further exploration could lead to many people thinking more deeply about these policies and processes and considering whether or not they think them fair or useful and to learn the meaning of various kinds of visas so that they understand different kinds of violations, and so might even think of someone who isn’t from Mexico when they think of violations of immigration law.

    Most U.S. citizens have not been taught civics at all— their views are formed mostly by the news media.

  10. where ‘illegal’ modifies ‘immigrant’ rather than the immigration process itself, it seems plausibly less clear (convention aside) what exactly is illegal: the person or their mode of immigration.

    I’m not sure what you mean about ‘convention’ (since all linguistic meaning is by convention). But I doubt it is less clear. People don’t have any trouble understanding that in the phrase “jazz musician” it’s the music that’s jazz, and the person plays that kind of music. So they shouldn’t have any trouble understanding that in “illegal immigrant” it’s the immigration that’s illegal, and the person has done the immigration.

    Ancient historian. Short-order cook. Nobody thinks the first must be a very old scholar or that the second is under five feet tall.

  11. There isn’t a large and loud group of people claiming that ancient historians and short-order cooks are ruining history and cooking, respectively, and are prepared to hunt those ancient and short-order people down and shoot them at a border. The terms about respecting PEOPLE not words.

  12. Frankly, whether you call them “undocumented” or “illegal” there will still be people who want to hunt them down and shoot them at the border. I hope instead more effort is put into supporting a sane immigration policy than quibbling about what terminology the New York Times uses. Don’t waste time on the i word petition, write your congressman, and then write them again. That’s the more powerful way to respect the people and hopefully change their lives and this country for the better. Then we won’t need to put any word in front of immigrant.

    At least they’re not being called aliens anymore.

  13. “There isn’t a large and loud group of people claiming that ancient historians and short-order cooks are ruining history and cooking, respectively, and are prepared to hunt those ancient and short-order people down and shoot them at a border.”

    I’m aware of that, thanks.
    I was addressing the issue of whether it is less clear what is being said when the word ‘illegal’ modifies the agent rather than the activity.

    “The terms about respecting PEOPLE not words.”

    Yes, thanks, I know. Respecting people by using words.

  14. How large a group of people is prepared to hunt and kill people at a border is a fact not in evidence here.

    At any rate, it’s not clear why “undocumented immigrant” better reflects the legal reality, philodaria. Do you think it better reflects the legal reality to refer to “undocumented gun purchases” or “undocumented handgun possessors”?

  15. I may be wrong here, but I do not think the issue here is semantic clarity. Rather, “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien” has the rhetorical effect of dehumanizing those it is applied to. “Undocumented alien” seems not so bad, and operates in a way that does not,invite us to ignore that the people being talked about have some basic rights.

    I don’t know why there is that difference, but I think it occurs outside the present context. Perhaps it is because “illegal” suggests that what we are talking about is outside the system of laws that (partially) constitute a society. And that in fact is how the immigrant is too often treated.

  16. If someone is an immigrant, and if they are so illegally, then it would seem appropriate to refer to them as an ‘illegal immigrant’ in any context where the legality of their immigration was relevant.

    I don’t see how this is dehumanizing, and I especially don’t see how it is “taking sides.” What side is it taking in what debate?

  17. “I don’t see how this is dehumanizing”

    Then try reading a bunch of stuff where people talk about how it’s dehumanizing. Do some research. Just a suggestion.

  18. As far as I know, the term “illegal immigrant” is the only instance where a person is called “illegal”. Generally, activities are illegal or things: an illegal weapon, illegal drugs, etc.

    When someone is engaged in an activity without the proper legal authorization, we generally say that they are “unlicensed” or “undocumented”. Thus, we may speak of an “unlicensed dentist”, when someone practices as a dentist, but does not have the proper legal authorization.

    Now since immigrants, with or without the proper documents, tend to be at the bottom of the pecking order, why treat them more harshly in verbal terms than we do a dentist
    who does not have their papers in order (for example, they never graduated from dental school, etc.)?

    I say that using the word “illegal” is harsher than “undocumented” because “illegal”, as I stated above, generally refers to activities or things and thus, is dehumanizing when applied to a person.

    So give them a break, don’t add insult to injury. The immigrants already have a rough time of it without being verbally treated so harshly.

    Or maybe some people like to kick a person when they are down?

  19. Hi swallerstein, thanks for your reasonable reply.

    As I understand it, the term ‘illegal immigrant’ means something like “someone who has immigrated illegally.” This doesn’t seem to be calling the [i]person[/i] illegal, but rather their act of [i]immigration[/i] illegal. As a way to distinguish people have immigrated legally from those who have done so illegally, its usage seems warranted.

    Further, it is not dehumanizing by the standard you give, since it is not referring to the person as illegal but rather to their status as an immigrant.

    You also mention that someone engaging in an activity without proper legal authorization is generally referred to as “unlicensed” or “undocumented”. You give the example of an ‘unlicensed dentist’. I certainly grant your use of unlicensed here, but I think your inclusion of ‘undocumented’ is question begging. We would not generally refer to an unlicensed dentist as an undocumented dentist.

    In point of fact, it seems that we would be more likely to refer to them as an ‘illegal dentist’ than as an undocumented one. For example, Google returns 15,300 results for “unlicensed dentist”, 5,250 for “illegal dentist”, yet only 216 for “undocumented dentist”.

    As a final concern, ‘undocumented immigrant’ seems to leave unresolved whether the person has immigrated legally or illegally. For example, it is at least possible for someone who has immigrated legally to have their documentation lost, perhaps due to some clerical error. In this case, it would be factually correct to refer to them as an undocumented immigrant. This makes me worry that ‘undocumented immigrant’ is actually an instance of slanted language meant to bypass the question of legality all together.

  20. Dregs:

    I’m an English teacher, so I’m happy to have my English corrected and to learn that
    “an illegal dentist” is used more often than an “undocumented” one.

    I wonder which term the unlicensed dentists prefer.

    Here’s how I see it. Immigrants, from what I’ve read, do not like being called
    “illegal”. They find it dehumanizing.

    Why respect their wishes?

    I’ll give you my take, which may not satisfy you.

    Immigrants come to your country (I live in Chile) to do the work that most American citizens prefer not to do, because it’s hard, boring, poorly paid, dirty, low-status, etc. If they are undocumented, they often earn less than the minimum wage and that fact creates a certain incentive to maintain a huge reserve labor army of undocumented workers, forced to accept wages below the minimum and substandard working conditions, since if they protest to the authorities, they will be deported.

    Please don’t tell me that they go to the U.S. to take advantage of the fantastic welfare system, since whatever welfare system existed in the U.S. 40 years ago has been dismantled. If I have no money, I can get better free healthcare in Chile (and many Latin American countries) than in the U.S., although if I have money, healthcare is better in the U.S.

    So you have a group of people in your country (I assume that you are American) who do the dirty work for low pay. Why not at least pay them the respect of calling them
    “undocumented” instead of “illegal” if such is their wish? That seems the least you could do for this group of people who render such important services to you at such a low cost. In fact, you could even welcome them and thank them for doing jobs that you would not do (maybe you’d do them for one summer while you’re in the university, but not longer).

    I suspect that I have not convinced you, but…….

  21. I agree with you that the treatment of illegal immigrants in the U.S. is morally deplorable, for the reasons you give and more.

    The only thing I am not convinced of here is that ‘illegal immigrant’ is a term that should be replaced. That some people dislike it does not by itself seem sufficient to require that the rest of society stop using it.

    I think the case would be different if ‘illegal immigrant’ were a slur. However, I don’t think that it is, especially since every other word I recognize as a slur is an instance of the substitution of a derogatory word for a more factual description. Rather, it seems to me that ‘illegal immigrant’ is the factual description itself.

    Despite this, there is still the concern that a word focusing on a single aspect of a whole can be a slur when referring to the whole is more appropriate–it can be seen as marginalizing the other, more relevant, aspects. For example, referring to a woman simply as a ‘vagina’ would be a slur in most contexts for this reason. The worry is that referring to someone as an ‘illegal immigrant’ commits the same type of error. In this sense, I think referring to someone as an illegal immigrant when the legal status of their immigration is irrelevant to the context at hand would indeed be a slur. However, what we seem to be arguing about is the use of the term at all, even in those contexts where the legal status of someone’s immigration is the primary concern. This, I think, is a mistake.

  22. Dregs, terms can take on a derogatory tone though over time (or an offensive tone), or, in some cases, it’s realized over time that a word has an inappropriately derogatory nature when that wasn’t how it was commonly conceived in the first place (I’m thinking of certain racial slurs here). But more to the point: I don’t think anyone is suggesting that words should be replaced whenever someone doesn’t like them. Some relevant differences here are that a sizeable group of people find this term offensive, hurtful, and dehumanzing rather than just unlikeable, and it’s not obviously or especially costly to use the preferred term instead.

  23. If the term “illegal immigrant” were not shortened down to “illegal”all the time (as in, “he’s an illegal”) then it would be less problematic, though of course it is regularly so shortened. To my mind (writing as an immigration lawyer and a person who writes on immigration) the best term is “unauthorized”. It seems to me to capture what’s desired without being potentially offensive, and is in some ways more accurate than “illegal immigrant”. For example, it seems to better capture the case of someone who enters on a valid visa and over-stays, a case that makes up a significant portion of the unauthorized population. It’s the term I most commonly use in teaching and writing, and is what I’d recommend.

  24. I may be wrong here, but I do not think the issue here is semantic clarity.

    It is not the issue, I agree, annejjacobson. I was responding to philodaria who was responding to TS, but I am pretty sure neither of them took it to be the main issue either.

    Shortening the term to “illegals” does strike me as distinctly dehumanizing, though I can’t quite put my finger on why. Calling people “undocumenteds” would just sound silly.

    Maybe it’s all context. Maybe we know exactly what sort of person calls other people “illegals”, and it isn’t a matter of what modifies what at all. It’s just a shibboleth.

  25. Quite a long discussion for semantics, ain’t it? However, if the immigrant entered the country without the due process, calling him/her illegal immigrant is absolutely valid. Or are we getting too sensitive to tell things as they are?

  26. “if the immigrant entered the country without the due process, calling him/her illegal immigrant is absolutely valid.”

    Here’s the thing, though: in the US (and in many other countries) a significant portion of the unauthorized population did enter the country with “the due process”. That is, they entered on a valid and validly issued visa. At some point, the visa was no longer valid, and the stay becomes unauthorized, even though it was authorized at first. (This could be because of over-staying the visa, or failing to maintain the terms of stay, such as failing to maintain student status, working without authorization, or a number of other reasons, some of them quite technical.) In the US this population is usually estimated to make up 1/3 to 1/2 of the unauthorized population (occasionally a higher number is cited, but I think it’s less likely.) So, it’s not a small group. My understanding is that this sort of thing is very common in many other countries, too. In the US, this is a civil violation, not a criminal one. We sometimes call violations of civil regulations that do not have criminal penalties “illegal”, but not all that often, and it’s not the language used, for example, in the Immigration and Nationality Act in the US. Even in the case of those who enter without inspection (as the legal phrasing goes) it seems to me that “unauthorized” is clearly preferable to “illegal”, both because it better captures the legal issues and because it avoids some of the unpleasant implications discussed above. Given that it is, if anything, more accurate to use “unauthorized” than “illegal”, and it is less likely to be offensive, I see absolutely no good reason to use “illegal” in this context.

  27. Matt, “unauthorized” does seem preferable to “undocumented”, particularly if one wishes to convey a legal description. And “unauthorized alien” at least has the benefit of being used in certain instances in the US Code and CFR, about as often (I have the impression) as “unlawful alien”, although “illegal alien” is clearly the preferred term in the statutes and regulations by a wide margin. You mention that “unauthorized immigrant” is the term you most commonly use when teaching. I’m trying to think of teaching contexts (at least with an audience of lawyers or law students) in which I would studiously avoid a term used by the relevant statutes in favor of an ostensible synonym that is either not used or is used much less, but there probably aren’t many.

    Anne J., I think the proposition that the terms illegal immigrant or illegal alien “invite us to ignore that the people being talked about have some basic rights” is, at the very least, highly debatable, at least in the context of legal systems in common law countries which are strongly predicated on the idea that people who are actual (or just alleged) lawbreakers have basic rights, and which possess laws and legal institutions that are relatively solicitous of those rights.

  28. SWallerstein, great post.

    You are probably right that person practicing dentistry without proper documents authorizing such practice, given a choice between “illegal dentist” and “undocumented dentist”, would likely prefer to be referred to as the latter, as you suggest.

    Let’s imagine an ordinarily-constituted person in this situation. In my view, it’s very likely that what the person really finds intolerable is not the nomenclature attached to her legal status so much as the legal status itself. In other words, she finds intolerable either that society requires someone to obtain certain documents (and their prerequisites) in order to practice her work unmolested, or at the very least that society has not deigned, for whatever reason, already to have delivered those documents into her possession.

    So, for our “illegal dentist” whose fundamental grievance can be boiled down to the fact that she is not a lawful dentist, I would venture to say that perhaps the chief appeal of a term like “undocumented dentist” – or at least among the chief advantages to her, whether she acknowledges it or not – is its tendency to obscure, and hence to erode, the relation or association between her situation and the concomitant violation of law. (Does anyone disagree that this is true?) To use Anne J.’s phrase, it “invites us to ignore” that the person in question has violated or is violating the law (an invitation, I would argue, that is much more consciously present than the invitation that Anne alleged with regard to “illegal”).

    It is not clear why, at least where the lawfulness or unlawfulness of the putative dentist’s status is relevant (such as in writing about the pertinent laws and policies), it would be even weakly incumbent upon others to defer to her preferences and motives in avoiding the adjective “illegal”. It’s not evident that such deference finds strong justification in the ordinary prescriptions of courtesy and respect, or of indebtedness for (let’s assume) significant services she performs that most of us would find unpleasant, or be unable, to do.

    Turning from dentistry back to immigration, another thought occurs to me with regard to your case for why Dregs owes people who are unlawfully in his country the respect of deferring to their preference for the term “undocumented”. After I emigrated from my home country years ago, even had I inwardly felt that way, I can hardly imagine that I would have argued to my hosts that they were beholden to me or any other immigrant, based on our work or other contributions, to respect my wishes not to be identified as an illegal immigrant if my status were in fact unlawful. (Naturally, I would insist, and did insist, that my hosts respect my legal rights, which is different.) Nor, I think, if I failed to comply with requirements for lawful entry and residence, would I have blamed any of my hosts for construing my failure as a gesture of disrespect, even if I privately disagreed with that interpretation.

  29. Nemo:

    I tend to call people what they prefer to be called unless I have good reason to do otherwise. Thus, if immigrants without their papers in order prefer to be called
    “undocumented” immigrants, I would call them that. I would even call dentists without their papers in order “unlicensed” dentists, if they want to be called that.

    It’s a question of respecting the way people want to be identified unless I have good reason to question that self-identification.

    In the case of immigrants without their papers in order, they often are discriminated against and shown a lack of respect by many people.

    Now, wealthy immigrants are able to get their papers in order, by hiring expensive lawyers to fix things for them. What’s more, almost all countries welcome immigrants who “invest” in that country. So the immigrants without their papers in order tend to be poorer immigrants.

    Often immigrants without their papers in order are discriminated against because they are immigrants (they talk “funny” or look “funny” or have dark-skins) and because they are poor.

    Now, since immigrants without their papers in order generally are not treated well by many xenophobic, racist or classist members of society, the least I can do for them (and I don’t do much more for them) is to respect their right to define their own identity; out of solidarity, I probably should do more, but respecting them is a first step.

    I assume that if someone is mistreated by others without a good reason, as a decent person or as someone who would like to be a decent person, I should make a special effort to treat them decently.

  30. While we are discussing such adjectives “illegal”, “unauthorized”, and “undocumented”, I’ll add something about the noun “alien”.

    Merry notes “At least they’re not being called aliens anymore”. Alien is a legal term of art with a venerable history; it means a person subject, or owing allegiance, to a sovereign power other than the one by reference to whose jurisdiction such person is an alien. (The “other” suggested by the Latin root being not the alien him- or herself, but the other sovereign.) In the legal sense, which really should be the only sense, it has never had a negative or pejorative association on its own but is entirely neutral. Thus, for example, in common law such concepts as the alien amicus and the alien inimicus were already well understood by the time of Coke’s writings (c. AD 1600).

    We have pop culture to thank for the very recent (essentially second half of the 20th century) and linguistically questionable application of “alien” to fanciful nonhuman denizens of other planets. It would be good to reassert the long-standing and dignified term “alien” before James Cameron succeeds in permanently damaging our connection to yet another part of our cultural history.

  31. SWallerstein,

    I believe I understand your point. Perhaps we might situate at one end of a spectrum addressing people in the manner in which they prefer to be addressed, which, within reason, is something that I think most people regard as an easy concession to courtesy. Approaching the other end, perhaps, would be consistently and exclusively describing third parties in those terms in which they would prefer to be described, which I think most people would agree can conceivably, at least beyond some indeterminate point, become a significant hindrance to the ability to express ideas and opinions. Where, along this spectrum, falls the desire of people who are unlawfully in the country of their hosts not to have their hosts apply the term “illegal”(or assorted other terms in their hosts’ language) to them qua immigrants? Reasonable people seem to disagree on this point.

    I daresay that most people would endorse – I certainly do – your sensible policy of calling people what they prefer to be called unless you have a good reason to do otherwise. The sticking point is that many people believe in good faith that they have, at least in certain contexts, good reason to do otherwise with regard to this particular subject, whereas others deny that such good reasons are actually (or perhaps even possibly) present.

Comments are closed.