The War on Labels

By Cyberquill 04/05/20135 Comments

Doing its part in helping to phase out the practice of labeling human beings, the AP Stylebook has officially mothballed the term “illegal immigrant.”

Henceforth, “illegal” shall be reserved for denoting actions and behaviors: although a person can still immigrate to or live in a country illegally, no person is illegal anymore.

Besides its dehumanizing—and racial—connotations, so the argument goes, when attached to a person the term “illegal” falls untenably short in the precision department, which is why courts and lawyers never use it in that way. In our legal system, after all, a person is innocent (= legal) … no, wait, “innocent” and “legal” are labels, too, are they not? … a person has behaved innocently (= legally) until convicted by a court of law of having behaved otherwise.

Along similar lines, the Stylebook has previously set forth, for example, that individuals traditionally called “schizophrenics” be referred to as individuals “diagnosed with schizophrenic disorder.”

“It’s lazy to label people. It’s better to describe them,” explains AP senior managing editor Michael Oreskes.

And Mr Oreskes has a point, for strictly speaking, we cannot observe essence. All we can do is observe exteriors, such as behaviors. We can watch what people do and, from that, draw inferences as to who and what they are. But inferences are merely inferences, not facts per se.

Therefore, doing away with labels kills two birds: it ensures accuracy of reporting, and it makes for a less judgmental world that emphasizes our common humanity by regarding everyone, first and foremost, as a person. Then, should the need arise, we can append some description in verb form, e.g., “a person who has overstayed his visa by fifteen years.”

So I suppose, for the sake of accuracy, we ought to to change “cook” to “a person who cooks”; “smoker” to “a person who smokes”; “thief” to “a person who has committed theft”; “vegetarian” to “a person who practices a vegetarian lifestyle”; and the plane you’re on shall no longer be flown by a “pilot” but by “a person trained and paid to operate jetliners.”

From personal experience, I can attest that most folks who wait tables in New York City bristle at being labeled “waiters.” According to them, waiting tables is merely what they do, not who they are.

So next time you’re in a restaurant and an aproned humanoid armed with pen and pad materializes at your table, don’t be so lazy as to regard him or her as your “waiter,” for he or she may or may not actually be that. If you wish to order another cocktail, instead of snapping your fingers and yelling “waiter,” you may want to take the time to be so non-judgmental and accurate as to instead holler the description “Sir (or lady) who waits on me” as you snap.

One problem with this type of ostensibly label-free circumlocution becomes obvious right off the bat: people naturally gravitate toward the shortest way of saying what they wish to say, especially given that so much of modern communication is being conducted at a speed of 140 characters or less. Good luck trying to introduce ponderous phraseology where one or two words would communicate pretty much the same with equal clarity; for imprecise as “illegal immigrant” or “illegal” (used as a noun) may be in the most technical of senses, everybody knows exactly what it means, namely a person who, for whatever reason, lacks the proper paperwork to be in the country.

(The term “suicide bomber” lacks precision as well, but it is generally understood to refer to an individual who intentionally kills others along with himself, not someone who blows himself up alone in the middle of the desert.)

What the anti-i-word movement, including the AP Stylebook, has so far failed to present is a practical—i.e., pithy in the sense of not-wordier-than-that-which-it-is-meant-to-replace—alternative to “illegal immigrant.”

(“Undocumented” and “alien” have been rated no good, either, for a person may have boatloads of documents, just not the right ones to grant legal residence status, and “alien” sounds like some creature from outer space, thus dehumanizing the individual thus referred to even more that “illegal.”)

Of course, this failure to offer pragmatic alternatives stems not primarily from a lack of imagination but from the true motive of the anti-i-word movement: to blur the line between legal and illegal immigration via imposing restrictions on language.

Mindful that wordy periphrasis is unlikely to attain widespread popularity yet hopeful that the ban on “illegal immigrant” will catch on nonetheless, the ultimate objective here is to train our collective mind to describe—and eventually to regard—all people who come to this country simply as “immigrants”—or, even less label-y, as “people who came to this country”—without adding pesky and divisive qualifications, such as who has and who hasn’t the right papers to be here.

The calculation appears to be that the less often we’re reminded that such an invidious distinction even exists, the sooner it’ll fade into oblivion. Refusal do distinguish legal from illegal immigration by using “immigrants” sans modifiers for all immigrants irrespective of immigration status has been a longstanding practice among the champions of so-called “comprehensive immigration reform” in the sense of scrapping the concept of illegal immigration altogether.

Now, all-around progressive as the war on labels may seem at first blush, it might backfire in some areas.

For instance, many opponents to same-sex marriage, die-hard conservatives in particular, in arguing why banning gay marriage is fundamentally dissimilar in nature from banning inter-racial marriage, insist that sexual orientation differs from ethnicity in that the former merely denotes behavior.

In other words, being gay, they say, is not who you are but what you do.

Gay marriage advocates, on the other hand, at long last appear to be making meaningful inroads in getting the majority of the population to warm up to the notion that sexual orientation constitutes an innate quality rather than just a behavior … and now along comes the AP Stylebook and, in its quest for precision and political correctness, walks back the rainbow cat by decreeing that describing actions and behaviors is to be preferred over “labeling” people as being this or that.

Let’s face it, the war on labels is a sham from the jump, as no one has a problem with using labels except labels deemed politically incorrect or otherwise unpalatable.

Ergo, the trick is to simply refer to labels we object to as “labels” and to refer to labels we like as something else; similar to the way an “angry and incoherent rant” differs from an “eloquent and passionate analysis” solely in that we object to the points espoused in the former and agree with the points made in the latter.

In the end, it all comes down to which of the labels we choose to label “labels,” for only a bad label is a label.

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  • Richard

    Sound and extremely thought-provoking in a number of ways, summed up beautifully in the final sentence.

    • Cyberquill

      Instead of labeling the author, you describe his work. That’s the way to do it.

      • Richard

        Generalising about individuals is a fact of life, justifiable or not.

        We talk of corrupt rulers, modern artists, bent policeman, bad actors, just warriors and without them we would have no corrupt rule, no modern art, no bad policing, no bad acting, no just war.

        Without illegal immigrants, we would have no illegal immigration.

        Hardly a chicken/egg situation.

        • Cyberquill

          To be fair, there are illegal immigrants who have never committed the act of illegal immigration. To wit, those are the children brought to a country by their illegally immigrating parents.

          • Richard

            Yes. Probably wrong to label them, then.

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