Rhetoric and Policy
Within our legislation, the use of the word “alien” has become commonplace. “Alien” is used to describe someone who is not a citizen of the United States but resides here legally or illegally. The term may seem academic, but it inherently dehumanizes the subject.
Even now, children are being ripped from their families and held in cages at the U.S Mexico border with only a mat and a Teflon sheet for comfort. The treatment of these children and families is due to the current zero-tolerance policy, which aims to prosecute all “illegal aliens” regardless of their asylum status. The widespread use of the word “alien” is a tactic used to desensitize us, to make us believe that children and families held at the border are not human. Rather, we are to conclude that these “aliens” are inhuman, and thus worthy of inhumane treatment.
This rhetoric feeds heavily into the principles of nationalism, which is defined as “identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations”.
Dehumanizing Language vs Empathy
This language doesn’t only dehumanize non-citizens, it also protects the people who use it. Who could be accused of crimes against humans, when the targets of harsh immigrations laws are not seen as human at all? It begs the question: what moral failings are we willing to tolerate to sustain a narrative that centers ourselves, and de-centers the people in need?
The Trump administration’s decision to implement a zero-tolerance policy against “illegal aliens” is heavily rooted in nationalism, which, in the case of U.S. nationalism, argues that the only “good” nation is the United States of America, and the only “good” people are citizens; therefore, anyone or anything else is “bad” and “dangerous.” Think: the Proud Boys.
This choice of language is intentional, as it dehumanizes non-citizens, describes them as dangerous, and supports the narrative that these people are not worth fighting for or protecting. After all, caging “aliens” is protective, but caging families creates unwanted empathy.
That empathy for our fellow humans runs directly counter to a nationalist agenda as when we experience empathy for caged families, we begin to develop empathy and think of our children and our families, and are more inclined to oppose the harsh policy that is, as I write, separating children from their parents at the border.
The Role of Religion
Religion helps believers digest and analyze current issues, including rhetoric and immigration. Islam guides its believers to understand that rhetoric is inherent to treatment.
A hadith relayed by Abu Hurayrah instructs Muslims, “Whoever believes in God and the Last Day should speak a good word or remain silent. And whoever believes in God and the Last Day should show hospitality to his neighbor”.
The first instruction is to speak “a good word,” which can translate to vetting rhetoric in modern times. The second commandment is to be hospitable to neighbors, which includes respect. The religion instructs believers to use good rhetoric and be respectful, both of which are lost when dehumanizing language is used.
Rhetoric and ideology are essential in understanding why words matter. The language used to describe people must be humanizing to create empathy. Without empathy, the path to mistreatment is paved.