The Denver Post
April 4, 2006
“Illegal’’ as a noun breaks law of reason
When figuring ways to shape public opinion, the first thing any savvy strategist does is craft phrases that will elicit a desired response.
Want people to have a more positive reaction to dead Iraqi civilians? Call them “collateral damage.” Want to get Americans to feel good about government spying? Name your law “The Patriot Act.”
If you can control the words people use, you can frame the issue. In effect, you control the way people view it.
That is exactly what is happening with the immigration debate.
To avoid dealing with complex problems in our nation — crumbling public schools, senior citizens who have lost their pensions, a shrinking middle class – some politicians are taking the easy way out by focusing on undocumented immigrants.
Those politicians are being goaded by nativists, racists and brainwashed people who are confused in our culture of fear.
Their term of choice: “illegals.”
That shorthand term for “illegal immigrants” – which they use as a noun, making linguists cringe – is being used repeatedly by reactionary commentators and politicians in every venue available.
They rail about “illegals” on radio talk shows. Hate groups like the Aryan Nations spew vitriol about the “illegal invasion” in email blasts. Bill O’Reilly and Lou Dobbs drone on about “illegals” every night.
These distinct groups use the same language. The same words. The same phrases. It’s an orchestrated effort designed to instill fear in Americans. And it’s working.
“The terms ‘aliens’ and ‘illegals’ provoke fear, loathing and dread,” says George Lakoff, a linguist who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. “There is a physiology to this governed in the brain. Certain ideas activate the neurons in the brain, which result in visceral bodily reactions.”
That is why if you think “chocolate,” you feel happy; if someone says “vomit,” you feel disgusted.
Lakoff: “If you say ‘illegal immigrants,’ it activates an immigrant frame. And when people think of immigrants they think of their grandparents, they think of them as honorable, hard working people.”
But, he said, if a person cuts out the word “immigrants” and uses “illegals,” it conjures a different image: People who are dangerous and want to commit criminal acts.
Throw in other scary words, such as “invasion” and “alien,” and it’s bound to make people feel scared.
That’s how propaganda works. Repeat the words continually until it reshapes the way people think.
If you don’t believe there is a plot to reshape the way America thinks, Google “Frank Luntz strategy report” and you’ll find his 160-page blueprint for reactionaries, written by the man who helped Newt Gingrich write his “Contract for America.”
In it, Luntz lists phrases reactionaries should never use. He cautions: “Never use ‘drilling for oil’; instead say ‘exploring for energy.’ “
Luntz also says, “Never use ‘undocumented workers.’ Use “illegal aliens.’ “ He continues: “In fact, instead of addressing ‘immigration reform,’ which polarizes Americans, you should be talking about ‘border security issues.’ ”
Lakoff says if we want to undo the damage done by alarmists, we need to reframe the issue by using alternate terms, such as “necessary workers” or “essential workers.”
“It would create what’s called a positive stereotype,” he said.
We also would have to talk about how these workers are “upholding the American lifestyle” and “making the American dream possible for us.”
Without these workers, crops would rot, trash would pile up in offices, hotel dust bunnies would become dust mongrels, and restaurants would have to be refashioned as places where “u-cook, u-serve.”
When I think of all that undocumented workers do for us, I don’t feel fear. I feel gratitude.
Cindy Rodríguez’s column appears Tuesdays and Sundays. Contact her at 303-820-1211 or firstname.lastname@example.org