This is not a political statement. It is a civil plea, especially for our schools as incubators of civil discourse. It is a public confession of a deep fear for our future, for my future, for the future of my children. My plea is a simple one, but it is also one that is so complex that I probably contradict myself on this point a dozen times and week, and I don’t even notice it. My plea is that we think twice and maybe three times, or four, before we choose framing tactics as our primary weapon of public disagreement. Here is what I mean by that.
The New York Times recently published an articled entitled “British Citizen One Day, Illegal Immigrant the Next.” It is a short article that highlights the complexities and pain points of immigration laws in Britain and how they impact the lives of actual people like Renford McIntyre, who came to Britain from Jamaica as a child, but only recently found himself labeled an illegal immigrant and facing the implications of that unsettling label. I’m not really writing about this article though, but instead about some of the replies in social media. There were certainly many who, prompted by the article, expressed their range of viewpoints and deeply help beliefs and values about immigration. A few went after the New York Times and the author(s) of this particular article for playing right into the hands of “the enemy.” Their response to the article was not about the many themes and issues surfaced in it, but about the choice of words. They responded by explaining that there is no such thing as an “‘illegal’ immigrant”, no more than there is such a thing as an illegal human being.
You might agree with these critics in the sense that you do not like the phrase “illegal immigrant.” You might think it dehumanizing. You might not like the way that such a phrase frames people’s thinking about immigration, leaving the door open for arguments in favor of stricter policies and practices with regard to immigrants in a given country. Only, to say that there is no such thing is as illegal immigrant is just not accurate, not in the sense that it is a phrase that has common usage and a basic understanding in the English language. People generally understand it to mean a person who is residing in a country unlawfully. The laws of the country include restrictions on who can enter the country or reside in the country, and under what conditions. The phrase “illegal immigrant” is in multiple dictionaries, including at least one legal dictionary that I found. So, as much as I or anyone else might not like the phrase “illegal immigrant” or might not want others to use the phrase, it exist in the English language. That is why it concerns me when people insist on being the word police, redefining acceptable vocabulary in public discourse on the basis of what language and framing best supports a particular person’s position(s) and desired outcome(s).
We see the same thing in public discourse about “free college.” Proponents use the phrase often, building upon the word “free” to have the literal meaning of no cost incurred by the student, but also drawing upon the spirit and power of a word like “free” in a democratic context. Only the critics like to shift the conversation by arguing against the use of the phrase altogether. There is no such thing as “free college”, they declare, because somebody is always paying for the tuition. They complain that “free college” hides the realities of the great costs to taxpayers, even in instances where those taxpayers see themselves as having little or not influence over how that money is spent. Yet, there is such a thing a “free college.” It is a straw-man to suggest that those in favor of tuition free higher education do not recognize that it costs money to implement such an effort, even cost to the taxpayer.
Then there are the even more heated debates where we have pro-life advocates and pro-choice advocates, particularly on the topic of abortion. You are not pro-life, one side argues. You are anti-choice. On the flip side, pro-choicers are really anti-life, advocates of terminating the most helpless of human life, at its earliest stage and without a voice or ability to speak up for himself or herself. You see what each side did? They make strong arguments. The pro-choice people use their framing to emphasize the important rights of women, particularly when it comes to the rights over their own bodies. The pro-life people use their language and framing to draw attention to the rights of the early stage human life. Only, long before they get into more substantive debates and discussions, there is an even more basic battle over terminology. They claim that there is really no such thing as pro-life, or that there is really no such thing as pro-choice.
I am not arguing for or against immigrants or immigration laws in this article. I’m not championing or critiquing tuition free college. I’m not using this as a time to stand in support of the collection of positions associated with those who identify as pro-life or as pro-choice. What I’m doing is pointing out the danger of using a public discourse tactic where we are not even willing to acknowledge the vocabulary and terminology at hand. Instead of saying that there is no such thing as [fill in the blank] or claiming some sort of personal right to serve as the semantic police for public discourse, perhaps we are wise to start by acknowledging that these phrases and words do indeed exist, and that they bring with them a wealth of meaning. We can critique the connotations. We can point out the history (even dark and troubling histories) of a given phrase and why we consider it problematic, unhelpful, or even dehumanizing. We can argue our points passionately and hopefully with a good measure of reason as well. Only, I contend that we are wise to be incredibly careful and sparing in our use of the framing power play that seeks to deny the very existence of the words and phrases used by other people. That risks being about silencing others, about claiming that they, their frame, and their associated positions, should not be welcome in the public debate of ideas, rights, principles, values, and norms that inform society. Framing is about power, not the pursuit of truth, justice, beauty, goodness, and certainly not about honoring the rights of those who are different from us.
Social media lends itself well to both flaming and framing wars, but we are wise to not let this be the norm for discourse in our learning communities in particular. As much as our learning communities are incubators of democracy, we should protect them as places that do not silence those with whom we disagree, but by truly modeling civil discourse. Shaming people into silence or agreement with our agendas and rebranding the phrases of “the other” as non-existent will not serve the greater goal of civil discourse or living and honoring people with differences. Our grand and persistent experiment in the United States risks becoming, once and for all, a failed experiment, if we do not embrace the value of honoring people who have very real and significant differences among them. My hope is that our learning communities have the courage and wisdom to recognize and embrace this more than most in society.