The Impossibility Of Neutral Language

Tim Lee has a pretty smart post about the politicized language around so-called “illegal immigrants” noting that standards for what counts as an unremarkable way to talk about another human being shift around quite a lot over time. In the 1950s, for example, you would regularly refer to a group of gay men as “perverts” which today would probably count as libel. But I think it’s important to see that there is no truly neutral language to which objective newspaper writers can aspire. Rather, newspaper writers adopt a rhetoric of objective journalism that leads whichever language they choose to be construed as the neutral one. Political pressure induces “neutral” language to shift which, in turn, plays a role in shifting public understanding of the issues.

That said, I do think it’s important to caution people against overstating the significance of language. Critiquing George Orwell, Richard Rorty notes that in practice, newspeak tactics fail. “Ethnic cleansing” was developed by thugs during the Bosnian Civil War as a newspeak term that was supposed to replace “genocide” with a phrase (“cleansing”) that has positive affect. The practical impact was to turn “ethnic cleansing” into a chilling term that connotes genocide. By much the same token, if someone were to advocate a final solution to the illegal immigrant problem the euphemistic language would fail to be euphemistic. We’re all too aware of what that means. Perhaps the clearest example of this comes from Orwell himself. If someone says “Fox News acted as the Bush administration’s Ministry of Truth,” that’s a way of calling them liars.

In terms of the immigration debate, in other words, I think it’s a mistake to have this picture in your head where either the good guys or the bad guys are going to win the debate by brainwashing the public through calling people either “illegal” or “undocumented.” Instead, people are primarily choosing their language in order to express solidarity and affiliation with other groups of people.