Our words become responsible
Misdirection and excuses aside, the language we choose to use in public discourse matters
There may be no better motto to heed in our digitally connected world than these lines from one of Adrienne Rich’s poems:
We move but our words stand
and this is verbal privilege.
Publicly recorded words have a long shelf life.
When former President Bill Clinton gave the eulogy for Sen. Robert Byrd, for example, he tried to contextualize and minimize the fact that Byrd was once a member of the KKK. While Byrd later in his career went on to back some civil rights legislation, his words, “The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia,” stand — eulogy rationalization be damned.
Likewise, Sen. John McCain will certainly be remembered for many positives during his long career in public office, but the racial slur he employed in an interview in 2004 while describing how much he hated his Japanese P.O.W. camp captors will also stand as part of his public legacy.
Today, all of us — public figures or private — who engage in paid journalism, citizen journalism, even social media “tweeters,” bloggers and those who comment on public websites, had better be prepared to be understood by what we are willing to write and promote in public.
A number of weeks ago we wrote an editorial decrying the language in two of the recent columns written by Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stu Bykovsky. He used deliberately offensive language about undocumented immigrants, even coining a faux-Spanish slur, “illegalista” to point specifically at Latinos. We called him out — and the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com — on writing and publishing those pieces. Bykofsky’s public response was to see it as an attack on his person (“Am I anti-Latino?”) rather than on the way he was wielding words, and many people have to come to his defense — including his fellow columnists and staff at the DN.
As each of these folks would undoubtedly tell you, freedom of expression is constitutionally safeguarded in our country — and thank heavens for that. This is indeed verbal privilege, and one that people in a number of other countries aren’t guaranteed, constitutionally or in any other form. But here’s the thing: freedom of expression doesn’t mean freedom from challenges to what you’ve said or how you’ve chosen to say it. Particularly if you repeatedly say it about a certain subset of people. Particularly if you choose to create a slur in “Spanish” when the original offensive term isn’t quite pointed enough. So let’s do away with any misdirection and make it crystal clear: illegal(s) and the coined-term illegalista are as offensive to Latinos as the term “spic.” As an exercise, please go back to the cited columns and swap out every instance of “illegal(s)” and “illegalista” with the more widely acknowledged slur. Still okay with writing it, publishing it, defending it?
What language we use can have real-world consequences. After Bykofsky published those two columns, the South Philly advocacy organization, Juntos, says it received threatening phone calls. In a letter to the Daily News, Christine Flowers, an immigration lawyer, pooh-poohed the causality in the Aug. 23 edition. But there are simply too many examples of how the ongoing and deliberate use of “illegals” as a slur has shaped threat-tinged response to anything that might remotely have to do with immigrants (especially Spanish-speaking Latino ones) to buy into Flowers’ dismissal.
A case in point are the people who recently responded to our AL DÍA story about a private preschool in Philly that will be offering total Spanish-language immersion. Irrespective of the fact that the article had nothing whatever to do with immigration or immigrants, the comment section is filled with anonymous commenters screaming in all-caps: “Deport or execute all illegal aliens.” Valerie A. Clark — braver than most in using a name to comment — wrote: “Better to shoot them as they cross over as invaders.”
Years from now, when we have moved past the worst of the hyperbole and vitriol of the current immigration debate, the words that were used as weapons — and the outrageously violent sentiments attached to them — will still be resonating. Perhaps less explicitly, but undeniably — because at its heart, the words chosen to slur undocumented immigrants have little to do with actual documentation and everything to do with criminalizing a whole people.
And we need look no further than what was been written about Michael Brown in advance of his funeral this past Monday to see how the criminalization of a people is perpetuated, reinforced and cosseted by language.
The New York Times has, rightfully, been taken to task for the way in which it has chosen to write about Brown, the 18-year-old, unarmed African-American shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. While there is nothing “explicitly” slurring in the articles, a comparison of the language used about Brown — the Black victim of a shooting — and Boston-Marathon bomb suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is white, is revealing and damning.
Twitter writer @DavidDTSS places the third paragraph of a NYT article about each side by side:
“Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life.”
“People in Cambridge thought Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — “Jahar” to his friends — as a beautiful, tousle-haired boy with a gentle demeanor, soulful brown eyes and the kind of shy, laid-back manner that ‘made him that dude you could always just vibe with,’ one friend says.”
None of us need a dictionary to see what these words are meant to connote. None of us should accept rationalization or contextualization as an excuse for choosing to use language as a weapon — or to perpetuate the weaponized thinking and sentiments behind that choice of words.
Yes, language matters. The words we choose have a life far beyond what we imagine when we tweet them, hit publish on our blogs, or file them with our editors. It is on us to make sure that our words — which will stand longer than we do — are responsible and do honor to our verbal privilege.