Sunday, July 6, 2008

Douglas Bruce's Name-Calling in the Debate on Immigration

Douglas Bruce, a Republican member of the Colorado House of Representatives, April 21, 2008, made this statement during a discussion about a temporary guest-worker program [st st st st]:

"I would like to have the opportunity to state at the microphone why I don't think we need 5,000 more illiterate peasants in Colorado."

Bruce was promptly criticized for what he said. But he stood by his statement, offering this defense:

"I looked up 'illiterate' in the dictionary and it means somebody who is lacking in formal education or is unable to read and write ... I don't think these people who are planning to come over here and pick potatoes or peaches are likely to have much of a formal education. I looked up the word 'peasant.' The word 'peasant' means a person who works in agricultural fields."

Bruce is trying to argue that he cannot be criticized for referring to the guest workers as "illiterate peasants" because there are non-derisive definitions to those words that do, in fact, correctly apply to the guest workers.

But both of these words are ambiguous, having more than one definition. And some of those definitions ARE derisive. "Illiterate" is ALSO defined as "lacking culture"; "peasant" is ALSO defined as "an uncouth, crude, or ill-bred person". It's simply insufficient for Bruce to try to defend himself by appealing to only ONE of the technical definitions.

I don't think we do well to seek the worst interpretation of what someone says, or to instantly assume that someone is using "code words" or euphemisms to make bigoted or offensive remarks. But I also don't think Bruce would ever refer to U.S. citizens who work on farms -- for example, citizens whose families have worked on small farms for generations -- as "peasants". And Bruce offered no evidence for thinking that guest workers were illiterate in any sense of the term -- non-derisive or otherwise.

If Bruce wanted to make a legitimate point, he could have used language that was unambiguously inoffensive: "I don't think we need 5,000 more agricultural workers in Colorado." But, instead, he chose to use words that he wouldn't use to refer to U.S. citizens because they could be easily construed as derisive name-calling.

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