It was frustrating but not surprising to see today that CNN has joined the list of mainstream media outlets who have adopted the harmful framing offered up in the debate about the U.S. borders, by beginning to use the label of "illegals" in their reporting. It may seem like a relatively small difference between that and other commonly used terms, but I find it to be a particularly dehumanizing one.
When we group a whole bunch of people together into a single ambiguously defined but broadly used label, we make it much easier to separate ourselves and our sense of humanity from the individuals who make up that group, and their humanity. When we use "the illegals" or "the foreigners" or "the gays" or "the blacks" or "the liberals" or "the homeless" in a discussion about the standards or rules or expectations to apply to that group, the abstraction allows us to consider policy without really considering practice and consequences. The way we would act with someone standing in front of us can be disregarded altogether, and the way we think we should act according to experts and politicians and those with the loudest voices begins to take its place.
This is made even worse when stereotypes are perpetuated about the group, and negative but finely detailed false images of them are painted by those who would pursue particularly harmful or discriminatory practices against the group. Come on, you've heard them: "all illegals are..." and "the gays just want to..." and "the homeless won't even..." and "liberals don't know how to...", repeated over and over again. This is how we learn to disrespect entire populations, ethnicities, and world-views without really knowing anything about them. This is how we learn to hate.
How does it change the conversation, then, when we say "illegal immigrants"?
Or when we say "people who are immigrating illegally"?
Or "men and women and children who are crossing the U.S. border illegally"?
Or "men and women and children who are crossing the U.S. border in hopes of finding something better for themselves and their families, in spite of attempts by others to keep them out"?
The more clear we are about the real human beings we're discussing, and the motivations involved in their actions, the better discussion we can have about the issues at hand. And difficult though it may be, the more likely we are to be affected by the real people involved, instead of distanced from them through the use of an all-encompassing label. Yes, it's harder and takes more thought and doesn't sound as snappy in an article, but words matter, and I think we owe it to our fellow humans to be more precise.
I also think it's a basic responsibility of the men and women who create the news media we consume to expose this disingenuous and harmful use of language; they certainly shouldn't be perpetuating it themselves.