Coarse words and new thinking

The use of foul language to describe immigrants from certain regions provides an opportunity to examine our own preconceptions – and to seek the facts.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois questioned Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee Jan. 16. The senator asked Secretary Nielsen about her recollection of coarse language being used at an Oval Office meeting on immigration.

Words matter because they express thoughts. As is often pointed out, coarse or profane language usually represents an outburst of emotion, not careful reason. It’s a mode of thought not conducive to calm and effective problem-solving.

The president of the United States recently used coarse language while discussing important legislation regarding immigrants with members of Congress.

That incident was unfortunate and beneath the dignity of that high office. But more than the need to maintain propriety or adhere to social norms was at stake.

The best lesson here may come in the form of self-examination. It’s a good time for everyone to ask themselves if they are nurturing unfair or inaccurate images of people from any racial, ethnic, or religious group. 

In this instance the offensive term (there remains disagreement on the exact word or phrase used) expressed a derogatory and dismissive view of the people of Haiti and African countries. 

Sometimes, attitudes change with new information. A recent analysis of immigrants to Canada, for example, shows that those from Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America – regions that President Trump said he would like to see fewer immigrants from – are more likely to be employed and receive less government assistance than those from so-called Norway countries (Northern Europe, including Scandinavia).

These “less desirable” immigrants are also on average better educated than native Canadians (27 percent with a college degree in contrast with 18 percent of native Canadians), concludes Arvind Magesan, an associate professor of economics at the University of Calgary, who based his research on 2011 census data (the latest available).

In the US adult immigrants from Africa were more likely than native-born Americans to be college educated (41.7 percent to 28.1 percent), according to an analysis based on 2009 data by the Migration Policy Institute. In addition, “16.7 percent of [immigrant] Africans reported having a higher degree than a bachelor’s, compared to 10.2 percent of the native born and 11.0 percent of immigrants [in general],” the report concludes.

In an informal survey of this past Sunday’s sermons at churches around the US, The Washington Post found religious leaders reminding their congregations of this opportunity to correct their thinking.

“There were some controversial words spoken this week about the value of people. Talk of others who are not deserving. Let me be clear: These words are not of Christ,” the Rev. Chris Danielson told St. Andrew United Methodist Church in West Lafayette, Ind., according to notes made by a parishioner. 

In the Bible the disciple Nathanael asks skeptically “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” when he first hears about Jesus. “Can anything good come out of these [African] nations?” Mr. Danielson asked his congregation. “You better believe it, and boy do they have gifts to give.”

If words such as these are now heard more frequently, the furor over the use of foul language in the Oval Office may yet yield a blessing.

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