Words have power

Larisa Manescu

The Associated Press banned the term “illegal immigrant” on April 2, and critics argue that it was an unnecessary, dramatic and overly sensitive copy editing edict.

I, however, could not be more enthusiastic about the overdue move to ban the term.

In a nation where so many are concerned about the effects of verbal bullying, a re-examination of the connotations of labels and their power to hurt is what we need. Other than “illegal immigrant,” other examples throughout history include replacing “colored” with “African-American,” “Indian” with “Native American,” “homosexual” with “LGBT” (to encompass the entire community), and “mentally retarded” with “intellectually disabled” (Obama signed Rosa’s Law in 2010, which made this replacement for all federal statutes). 

When people advocate for political correctness, their goal isn’t to be annoying; the underlying intention is to be fair to the group being identified, because they realize that the media often propagate inaccurate, politically incorrect terms and understand the negative consequences this has on the way in which society views minority groups. 

Wanda Cash, a UT journalism professor who advises Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on open government issues, supports the news of the AP’s change in policy because it is both a more accurate and more respectful way of describing another human being.

“I believe this change is about being fair and about being specific. The word illegal applies to behavior or action. Illegal doesn’t apply to a human being,” Cash said. “If someone is here illegally, without legal documentation, let’s describe it that way.”

An example of the alternative description she is referring to is “undocumented immigrant.”

As an intern for Project Vote Smart, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides objective voting information to the public, my job is to translate the legal jargon of legislation into highlights that the general public can easily understand. I use press files — an accumulation of various media coverage — to better understand the controversy surrounding legislation. “Illegal immigrant,” although seen frequently in press files, never appears in the summaries we create; instead, it is always substituted with “undocumented immigrant.” Before the AP recently changed its stylebook, this alternative term had already gained popularity among with newspaper editors who refused to put “illegal immigrant” in their headlines or stories. 

The AP is taking it a step further to make sure that the language targets the action and not the person. The stylebook update says, “Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: Illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant … except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented.” If you feel too lazy to type out a prolonged description rather than a label, get over it. Journalism, as a field that prides itself on its ideal of objectivity, should be held to the highest and most precise standards. The most accurate reporting isn’t about taking shortcuts.

“Illegal immigrant” is not the only label that the AP should reconsider. Another frequent description that pops up in news stories is “rape victim.”

The word “victim” is the opposite of the message that people who have experienced rape and sexual assault should be hearing, which is one of empowerment.

Instead, “victim” is a trigger word that causes the individual to feel inferior and vulnerable, making it difficult to move past the attack and allow the healing process to begin. A good alternative is “rape survivor,” which Voices against Violence, an advocacy organization opposing sexual violence on campus, has promoted through campaigns and theater performances. 

“Rape survivor” is not an arbitrary creation — it is a term that shows respect and empathy to the people it describes. If it were adopted as the standard for newspapers and publications across the country, it would eventually become more accepted generally: Individuals would no longer have to be victims, but survivors.

What do you say, AP? What do we have to lose?

Those criticizing political correctness are speaking from a place of privilege, in which they themselves haven’t been called whatever term they’re defending and therefore don’t see its use as problematic.

At the same time, just because one member of the group being labeled says that he or she isn’t offended by a term doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to assume that all members of the group are fine with it.

Political correctness isn’t just for show, because words matter. Labels, even those with the subtlest of undertones, shape our perceptions and can perpetuate unwanted stereotypes. When society thinks of a better word to properly describe a group of people, take the time to expand your vocabulary.

Manescu is a journalism and international relations and global studies sophomore from Ploiesti, Romania.