Rinku Sen's argument against the term "illegal immigrant":
At the center of this debate are human beings. Not illegal beings, but human beings. Discourse reflects the way that people think about themselves and the country thinks about us.
The word homosexual, for example, is clinically correct but experienced as dehumanizing by gay and lesbian people, and so they pushed for journalists to drop it. As the discourse changes, so does the culture and policy affecting gay peoplenot nearly fast enough, but significantly nonetheless. Some may say, “But being gay isn’t a choice.” Well, neither is escaping poverty, drought or war. That millions of people wind up in the country without permission comes about for many reasons, only a very few of which have to do with the choices individuals made.
I actually have no problem with the word "homosexual" and use it as a neutral term all the time. Again, the noun-adjective issue is more important to me. To call someone "a gay" is different than calling someone "gay." And not ever being able to say something lame is gay is so gay.
But this is a complex issue. There's the difference between saying something and writing it. There's the place and the time and the speaker/writer. Language is infinitely complex, context matters, agency matters. For me to use the word homosexual is different that a straight person using it. When Eric Cartman calls someone a "faggot", it's different than Ann Coulter whipping up a CPAC crowd. And gays, like other minorities also have more lee-way to say things others don't, like the ironic use of "a gay", or my conversational references to "the AIDS" or, occasionally the adjective "AIDSy", because it is self-evident that we are not trying to be homophobic any more than is necessary, but that we are being self-mocking and funny.
As I've said, I don't like the term "illegal" as a noun because it dehumanizes, especially in speech. But "illegal immigrant" seems totally neutral to me, in speech and writing. But before I disappear up my own ironic homosexual posterior, back to Serwer, suddenly in a spasm of liberal guilt:
Reading Sen's piece made me feel a bit like that serial killer on Family Guy who stabs himself and says, "My G-d, is that what I've been doing to people?" I cringed. I don't know that I've been entirely persuaded to stop using the term, but I'm certainly going to think about it.
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