About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
I see immigration and immigration laws much the same way I see languages and dictionaries. You see, people tend to think of dictionaries in one of two ways: either as prescriptive or as descriptive. In the prescriptive mode, a dictionary tells us how we ought to use and spell words, it is the language police, in a sense, keeping languages from degenerating into meaningless chaos. In the descriptive mode, however, dictionaries simply record word usage and spelling, and as such they change over time to reflect how living languages evolve.
In reality, dictionaries should be seen as performing both roles, but on different time scales. In the short run it does make sense to point out that such and such usage or spelling is wrong, meaning that society at large – at the moment – is using a certain word (spelled in a particular way) with certain meanings, and to scoff at it and say “that's what you say, but it's all a matter of convention” is silly. Languages may be largely about conventions, but without such conventions we wouldn't be able to understand each other.
By the same token, however, in the long term dictionaries should be considered descriptive tools. Languages evolve, and it is simply useless to cling to old spellings or meanings while the rest of society has moved on. Once again, the overarching goal is to maintain continuity in our ability to communicate, and as lovely as Shakespearian English may be, it simply won't do to walk around uttering “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, Which we ascribe to heaven” (from All's Well that Ends Well, the very title of it being another example of outmoded language!).
What does all of this have to do with immigration? It seems to me that immigration is similar to languages in the sense that in the long term it is an unavoidable feature of human societies, while in the short term it ought to be limited or otherwise regulated, in order to minimize the likelihood of social chaos, or at least of great stress. Immigration laws should be set up accordingly, with the aim of regulating and legalizing the process in the short term, but not with the futile objective of maintaining racial, ethnic or cultural “purity,” whatever that means.
In practice, therefore, I tend to be rather unsympathetic to illegal immigrants (remember that I am an immigrant myself, though I did go through the various hoops set up by the US government to get into this country). Yes, they are motivated by awful situations at home and by the general human desire of finding a better life for oneself and for one's children. Yes, of course they should be treated humanely and given medical assistance when needed. But no, it wouldn't make sense for any country to simply open its borders, cultural, social, and economic consequences be damned. After all, one of the duties of a government is to protect its citizens and afford them the best possible opportunities. In the US, the education and health system, for example, are already strained (largely because of political myopia, but that's another issue), and simply to suddenly make them accessible to millions of illegal immigrants makes very little sense for the people who are already here and struggling not to fall further behind. (In a very close parallel, that's why I'm against unrestrained immediate globalization, despite its obvious long term benefits and likely historical inevitability.)
There is another connection between immigration and languages, this one more obvious and direct, as well as particularly controversial. I have little sympathy for people who come into a country and avoid learning the dominant language, even having their children be taught in public schools in their ancestral tongue (at the public's expense, of course). This doesn't mean that one should abandon one's heritage and become completely assimilated either. I have always been disturbed by the metaphor of America as a “melting pot,” with its implication of loss of individuality. I rather think of the US at its best as a tossed salad, where the bits retain their unique characteristics, and the ensemble tastes good precisely because, not in spite of, the variety. However, nurturing one's heritage (and hence language) is a matter for parents to pursue at home, not for schools or governments to adjust to or impose. Just as teaching kids your own brand of religion (or lack thereof) is up to you, not to public schools or legislative action. Religion, after all, is as continuously evolving as languages are.