Friday, 5 April 2013

Immigration, benefits and the words to say it all

Now Kathleen Carroll may not be a household name, but she’s done something that deserves a lot more publicity.

She’s a Senior Vice President with the Associated Press. Yesterday, she announced a decision to drop the words ‘illegal immigrant’ from AP’s vocabulary. On what grounds? That ‘illegal immigrant’ is a label that applies to an entire being whereas what is actually illegal is a behaviour. 

Kathleen Carroll, speaking out. Which she does rather well
So she proposes that instead of talking about the millions of illegal immigrants in the US, we talk of the millions of people living illegally in the US. The phrases are pretty much of the same length, but hers shifts the focus from the person to the illegal activity. In other words, it’s a restatement of a truth recognised by humanity and in particular by its religions for centuries: hate the sin, not the sinner.

Now I’m not keen on political correctness and I’m glad it’s been tamed in recent years. On the other hand, I like even less those who were so quick to attack it: too often they seemed to me to be denying the power of words, a power it
’s dangerous to ignore and which Kathleen Carroll seems to have grasped fully.

There was an excellent illustration of the misuse of that power this week. George Osborne, slated to be the former 
British Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2015, has had an agitated week. It saw the start of major reductions in benefits which could cost the poor close to £1000 a year in income, while this weekend tax cuts come into effect which will give, among others, bankers paid over £1 million a year an increase of £54,000. The gift comes just as a new report establishes how the ‘recklessness’ and ‘incompetence’ of the top bankers at HBOS drove that august organisation to bankruptcy and a taxpayer-funded bailout worth £20 billion.

So it was instructive to see Osborne pick on the other big story of the week, the sentencing of Mick Philpott for setting fire to his house and killing six of his children. Osborne pointed to the case as a glaring example of the debilitating effect of the benefit culture.

Now I’d be perfectly happy to see all arsonists who kill six children denied benefits, except for the board and lodging they can receive in jail.

Of course, we all know that only one person would be affected. But Osborne’s denunciation of the welfare state subtly communicates the idea that anyone on benefits is tainted, that they’re on a slippery slope that leads to kids burned to death in their beds.

It’s the same phenomenon that Kathleen Carroll pointed to: an ‘illegal immigrant’ is a tainted person meriting contempt or even hatred; but that ‘hard-working father and generous neighbour who happens to be living here illegally
 suggests something much less easy to dismiss.

Carroll outlined her views to the BBC, which went on to interview Sir Andrew Green of a group called Migration Watch, where ‘watch’ is, I suspect, the kind of thing you do from behind a twitching lace curtain.

Notice that ‘Sir’ in his name: the man’s a knight. Although I usually regard such titles as pretty empty, in his case it fits a treat – I’ve seldom heard someone take a position as benighted. 

He just couldn’t get his mind round the subtle distinction Carroll was making. Instead, he retreated into his stockade of platitudes, talking about people who’ve broken the law and who should face the consequences, about how we shouldn’t adopt a form of language that waters down that fundamental truth. Seeing the complete man or woman and not just the offence? Out of the question.

I was inclined to write him off as what I’ve always thought him to be: a mindless bigot. But that wouldn’t be right, would it?

So let me just say that Sir Andrew Green is a knight of the realm and a man prepared to put his head above the parapet in defence of his principles. By voicing mindless and bigoted views.

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