Looking For Love In the Immigration Debate

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

From the August, 2007 edition of The Valley Scene

Back in the early 1970s communication scholar Wayne Brockriede (Brock-reedee) wrote about the ethics of public argument. He argued that much of what passed for public debate in America featured destructive patterns of argument that make civil resolution of controversial issues almost impossible.

Brockriede developed a model of three types of argument based on two distorted forms of human interaction and one based on what argument ought to be. The distorted types are “argument as rape” and “argument as seduction.” What we ought to be striving for, according to Brockriede, is “argument as love.” In the so-called immigration “debate,” rape and seduction sadly seem to be the norm.

Argument as rape relies on fear appeals, threats, verbal aggressiveness, and depersonalizing of others. This kind of argument, unfortunately, predominates on cable television talking head shows and virtually all of right-wing talk radio. The argumentative rapist sees his opponents as not merely wrong but debased, inhuman, and worthy of being bullied.

The struggle over immigration played out in mass media over the last year has been high on argumentative rape strategies, but this is hardly unique in American history. As noted by author Peter Quinn: “The debate has waxed and waned over the last two centuries. What hasn't changed is the temptation to substitute shrillness for commonsense and depict the most recent newcomers as lepers, terrorists and parasites whose very presence subverts our economy and threatens our democracy.”

What was new in the most recent battle over immigration was the manner in which the 24 hour TV news cycle, blogs and other Internet sources turned the matter into a struggle over images instead of ideas. Reasoned discussion over the most fair and practical way to handle the plight of 12 million human beings took a back seat to politically charged images of border crossings, Mexican flags, and rallies characterized as “anti-American.” Add those images to the daily right wing radio bashing of undocumented workers and their advocates and we were left with a climate of fear, anger, and resentment that made Congressional passage of meaningful reform difficult if not impossible.

While the right wing guff on immigration may rightly be characterized as argumentative rape, so-called liberals and other “leftists” were not much better. On immigration, the Left tends to fall into argument as seduction. Seductive arguers rely on deception, incomplete evidence, and ingratiation to make their case. They “feel your pain” at the same time endorsing policies that might actually make it worse.

On immigration, a shocking number of so-called left "progressives" in and out of the US Congress can be found supporting the "guest worker" program endorsed by George W. Bush and corporatist Congressional Republicans. The rhetoric of "guest worker" is seductive to the liberal base because it sounds compassionate and caring. Journalist Thom Hartmann was one of the few liberal voices that saw past the false hopes created by such rhetoric:

There is nothing compassionate about being the national enabler of a dysfunctional oligarchy like Mexico . . . Mexico (and other "sending nations") need not deal with their own social and economic problems so long as we're willing to solve them for them - at the expense of our middle class. Democracy in Central and South America be damned - there are profits to be made for Wal-Mart!

Similarly, there is nothing compassionate about handing higher profits (through a larger and thus cheaper work force) to the CEOs of America's largest corporations and our now-experiencing-record-profits construction and agriculture industries. To condemn people to lives of low wage work on behalf of megafarms and multinational corporations is hardly progressive. To pretend otherwise is to substitute a façade of caring and compassion for a real program of social and economic justice that would include (for starters) dismantling the North American Free Trade Agreement while pushing for international living wage standards.

Equally seductive are the attempts of local officials to make it look like they are “doing something” about immigration in the absence of action from Washington. Green Bay City Council President Chad Fradette made headlines when he pushed through the "City of Green Bay Citizen and Legal Immigrant Protection Act.” Steve Herro of the Justice for Immigrants Committee noted, correctly, that Fradette’s ordinance still requires federal action for the city to determine the legal status of an immigrant. Says Herro, “For city officials to claim that they have successfully addressed immigration issues with this ordinance is deceptive to the public.”

The immigration debate needs some argument as love. That means respect for the humanity of all parties involved. That means courage to examine our own biases. That means exposing and rejecting arguments based on fear, ignorance, and deception—even when such arguments make us feel noble and generous.

As regards public policy, love requires guaranteeing the basic civil rights of the immigrant. As said by the late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan: “Whatever his status under the immigration laws, an alien is surely a ‘person’.... Aliens, even aliens whose presence in this country is unlawful, have long been recognized as 'persons' guaranteed due process of law by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments”.

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh and holds a seat on the Oshkosh Common Council.