Between politically correct and the truth

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Last week The Huffington Post published an article regarding the University of California at Los Angeles’ ban on the term “illegal immigrant.” In putting this ban in place, the university joined the ranks of some of the United States’ most acclaimed news networks, including the Associated Press, CNN, ABC News and NBC news.

The weird part? I never knew “illegal immigrant” was problematic.

What’s wrong with it? It’s accurate, unlike the partially taboo “Indian,” so why have numerous institutions and organizations placed a ban on it? The reason seems obvious: The truth hurts. Let’s try not to offend.

Great, there’s another one to add to the never-ending vortex of political correctness.

Where does it ever end? According to the Global Language Monitor, it’s becoming less acceptable to say “Columbus Day,” something I’ve noticed on my own. These past few years, more and more people have bitterly wished me, “Happy Bring-Smallpox-to-Millions-of-People-and-Wipe-Out-Whole-Civilizations Day.”

Well, that’s a downer. (By the way, the alternate — and supposedly more acceptable term — is Explorer’s Day.)

Some common phrases are also under attack. The U.S. State Department Chief Diversity Officer John Robinson said it’s probably best to kick “hold down the fort” from your vocabulary.

“To ‘hold down the fort’ originally meant to watch and protect against vicious Native American intruders. In the West, Army soldiers or settlers saw the ‘fort’ as their refuge from their perceived ‘enemy,’ the stereotypical ‘savage’ Native American tribes,” Robinson wrote, in State Magazine.

Another interesting one is “rule of thumb,” supposedly offensive to women. Way back when, a husband could beat his wife with a rod no wider than his thumb and, provided he obeyed this “rule of thumb,” he would not face legal repercussions.

So where does “illegal immigrant” fit in? It lacks the history of “holding down the fort” and “rule of thumb,” so why is it offensive? Have UCLA and the media taken political correctness a little too far? Are they waltzing around the truth with alternate terms such as “undocumented” and “unauthorized”?

The New York Times, one of the few major news authorities that continues to use the term, thinks so.

“It is clear and accurate; it gets its job done in two words that are easily understood,” Public Editor Margaret Sullivan said, in The New York Times.

The New York Times is not the only one that disagrees. Many see the ban as excessive, and even worse, an impediment to the First Amendment.

However, the UCLA resolution says allowing the term conflicts with other constitutional rights. “[T]he racially derogatory I-Word endangers basic human rights including the presumption of innocence and the right to due process.” That is, the very term “illegal immigrant” goes against the mantra “innocent until proven guilty.”

Similarly, The Huffington Post, which uses the term “undocumented immigrant,” points out that the banned term criminalizes the people in question, rather than their actions. One cannot be inherently illegal. Therefore, it’s acceptable to say “illegal immigration,” at least, according to the Associated Press.

The College of William and Mary itself has not banned the term; however, because The Flat Hat follows Associated Press style, “illegal immigrant,” along with other words nixed from that stylebook, including “homophobia” and “Islamist,” have been dropped.

Whether we agree with UCLA and the Associated Press’s decision, it’s important to be mindful of our language, especially as we begin to look for jobs. Obviously, we want to avoid offending potential employers. Likewise, we want to be professional. Then there’s cultural sensitivity and awareness; we need to demonstrate that we are familiar with social issues, as well as conscious of how our words portray them.

Email Samantha Farkas at [email protected]