Last week, the AP announced that it was dropping the use of “illegal immigrant” and – though this change has received less attention - of “schizophrenic”:
"The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term ‘illegal immigrant’ or the use of ‘illegal’ to describe a person,” a blog post from AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explains. “Instead, it tells users that ‘illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”The only problems with the replacement policy and language are those that reflect fundamental failings of our society. Referring to people “diagnosed with schizophrenia,” for example, still carries the implication that "schizophrenia" is a real thing – a disease that doctors can diagnose as they do arthritis; describing immigration as an illegal behavior similarly implies an acceptance of the criminalization of movement. But since we live in a society in which “schizophrenia” is considered a real diagnosis and crossing borders is sometimes against the country’s laws, the problem can’t really be addressed through language. Nevertheless, while progress is still being made on those basic problems, people who write about related issues can do what's possible to avoid misleading and harmful labels. And using language that doesn’t lazily label people itself helps contribute to change in that it can lead people to question their assumptions.
The move, Carroll writes, is part of a broader shift away from labeling people and towards labeling behavior — for example, referring to people “diagnosed with schizophrenia” instead of “schizophrenics.”
I was amused by Janet Napolitano’s response to questions about the change:
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters last week that she didn’t “really get caught up in the vocabulary wars.”So, she doesn’t get caught up in vocabulary wars, but she’ll be damned if she’s going to change her vocabulary. You’d think someone so unconcerned with “vocabulary wars” wouldn’t bother with such insistence on a simple term, especially one so many people find objectionable and that could easily be discarded.
“They are immigrants who are here illegally, that’s an illegal immigrant,” she said.
This reminded me of Erich Fromm’s response in the 1970s to those calling for dropping the generic use of male pronouns and the use of “man” to refer to humans. In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), Fromm refused to alter his language on the grounds that he didn’t support the “fetishization” of language.
Another semantic problem is offered by the use of “man” as a word to denote mankind, or humankind. The usage of the word “man” for both man and woman is not surprising in a language that has developed in patriarchal society, but I believe it would be somewhat pedantic to avoid the word in order to make the point that the author does not use it in the spirit of patriarchalism. In effect, the contents of the book should make that clear beyond any doubt.My response when I read that was the same as my response to Napolitano’s comments. First, it says something about how the person thinks about the people affected by the language and about their own position in relation to those people. If you claim not to be interested in vocabulary discussions and yet tenaciously cling to unnecessary terms you know are rooted in oppressive and unjust systems like patriarchy, if you dismiss objections to the cultural components of patriarchy as fetishizing language and insufficiently attentive to the supposed intent of the writer, you demonstrate arrogance and contempt for the people harmed. The principle you’re upholding is that you can treat those people exactly as you wish, and the word has in fact become a fetish – of your own sense of superiority.
I have also, in general, used the word ‘he’ when I referred to human beings, because to say ‘he or she’ each time would be awkward; I believe words are very important, but also that one should not make a fetish of them and become more interested in the words than in the thought they express. (p. 20)
Second, this doggedness often suggests that the attachment to the word reflects prejudices that run deeper than the person is acknowledging, or even consciously recognizes. This became clear when I was reading Fromm’s 1976 To Have or to Be?. In the foreword, he returns to the question of language and sexism:
Another point of style that I want to clarify concerns the use of generic ‘man’ and ‘he’. I believe I have avoided all ‘male-oriented’ language, and I thank Marion Odomirok for convincing me that the use of language in this respect is far more important than I used to think. On one point only have we been unable to agree in our approach to sexism in language, namely in respect to the word ‘man’ as the term of reference for the species Homo sapiens. The use of ‘man’ in this context, without differentiation of sex, has a long tradition in humanist thinking, and I do not believe that we can do without a word that denotes clearly the human species character…. I think it is advisable to restore its nonsexual meaning to the word ‘man’, rather than substituting awkward-sounding words. In this book I have capitalized ‘Man’ in order to clarify my nonsex-differentiated use of the term.” (xxiii; my emphasis)Of course, there are several obvious problems with this argument. Seemingly difficult to miss is the fact that the word “humans” – hardly an awkward-sounding term - has long existed to denote our species. Also, it’s arrogant and short-sighted to acknowledge that a woman has educated you about the importance of language in sexism and then to refuse to accept that you might still be ignorant and to give her the benefit of the doubt and change your practices. And it would appear logically that the history of man’s use in humanism is irrelevant to the justness of that use. Finally, the suggestion that “man” used to refer to all humans could ever be “nonsex-differentiated” in any nonsexist sense is of course laughable.
But it’s the phrase I highlighted that led me to understand better Fromm’s unreasonable stubbornness on this point. It’s the last few words that hold the clue: “I do not believe that we can do without a word that denotes clearly the human species character.” This reference to an alleged “species character” points to why some of the obvious objections mentioned above weren’t at all obvious to Fromm.
Fromm’s right that the term was long (and continues to be, unfortunately) used by many humanists in this way. That isn’t a justification for its continued use or evidence of its indispensability - it’s an indication of a serious problem with the tradition of humanist thinking. This becomes more clear if we ask: Why doesn’t a word that simply denotes human beings as a species suffice? Why would humanists need to refer to some special human “character”?
The humanist tradition is deeply invested in speciesist ideas. It has been interested, often to the point of obsession, in distinguishing our species from “animals” in some essential way. This is the central conceit: Man isn’t just something you are simply by being a member of the species Homo sapiens. It’s a project, an achievement, an ideal – something only our species can potentially aspire to and attain. In this sense, “man” corresponds to human-with-adjectives: “fully human,” “subhuman,” “dehumanized,” and so on. Further, in the associated hierarchies, Man corresponds to white, cis, “Western,” “Civilized,” “sane,” and, especially, male. The lower down on the hierarchy are the beings or their behaviors considered, the further from the essence and ideal of “Man” and the closer to “The Animal.”
So we come back to sexism, but we can only fully understand it in light of speciesism. It’s not simply that humanists think “Man” should cover women, too, and don’t understand the concern. It’s that the tradition depends on a concept of humanity that draws lines between humans and other animals, and the distinctions are made in terms of the qualities alleged to characterize dominant categories of humans, particularly men.
[The tension within this view of Man – in the sense of both species and sex – as being both allegedly essential (what they are, as defined against others) and an ideal (the highest aim to which they can aspire) is important to recognize. A man is supposed to be the representation of the human/male essence and at the same time to strive to fulfill this ideal or demonstrate that he fulfills it. We can see this clearly in references to “fully human” and “real men.” This contradiction leads to a great deal of insecurity and the constant need to define and defend boundaries.
Humans in subordinate categories are on shaky and shifting ground. Fromm huffily declares that women are covered by the term Man, but since women’s alleged qualities – those most associated with The Animal – are what Man is defined against, women can only partially achieve the status of Man. Nonhuman animals, the quintessential Other believed to represent the antithesis of Man, can never come close.]
Given this, it hasn’t been possible for humanists to discard “Man” without replacing it with terms that convey the same basic ideas. As with “schizophrenic,” we can do our best to challenge prejudices and discrimination through challenging words, but in the long run we have to address and change the system of beliefs that gives rise to these terms and requires their continued use. The ideal is a world in which the so-called humanistic conception of Man has no purchase – in which the question “What makes us human?” makes as much sense as “What makes a bullfrog bullfrog?”
The important point here is that we shouldn’t accept superficially casual dismissals of “vocabulary wars,” “fetishization,” or “language policing.” We should look closely at the words people cling to with the most tenacity, even as they try to sound blasé about it. In Napolitano’s case, I suspect that the resistance to surrender the “illegal alien” label is in part an attempt to avoid facing the harms of a system in which marginalizing and devaluing people with official labels is central, and in which she participates. In the case of Fromm and other humanists, the unbending attachment to “man” reveals a deeply rooted speciesism that lies at the base of other lines of oppression.
*I want to emphasize that I’m not extrapolating from this single comment – it was reading it in light of his many books that was enlightening.* As I've noted before, Fromm’s sexism went well beyond the thoughtless use of language. There was some improvement in his use of language, but other elements of sexism persisted and even worsened over the years.