Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | March 6, 2007

Words matter

Words matter.

That’s why political correctness is such a scourge. If you can frame the conversation, you can, to a large degree, influence the outcome of a debate.

Words matter.

That’s why the Bush Administration tried to convince the media, Americans and the rest of world not to use the clear, easily understood term “civil war” to describe the situation in Iraq. They prefer the obfuscating term “sectarian violence.” After all, if it’s a civil war, people might wonder why American soldiers are in the middle of it.

Approximately 150,000 United States soldiers, including my niece, are currently in Iraq. They deserve an honest assessment of the situation. Our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews are policing a civil war. Let’s make rational decisions based on reality. We owe at least that much to those who are poised to sacrifice life and limb on the orders of the commander in chief.

Words matter.

That’s why a Florida legislator wants to ban the use of the term “illegal alien” on state documents to describe people who are in this country in violation of our immigration laws.

“I personally find the word ‘alien’ offensive when applied to individuals, especially to children,” Florida State Senator Frederica Wilson said. “An alien to me is someone from out of space.”

Then why isn’t Wilson trying to ban the use of “resident alien” to describe foreigners legally living in the United States?

Because she’s trying to frame the debate using the bullying tactic of political correctness.

According to the Bradenton Herald, Wilson prefers the terms “undocumented immigrant” or, stunningly, “undocumented citizen,” a term that completely alters the debate, instead.

Words matter.

That’s why Gilroy Teachers Association President Michelle Nelson and outgoing Gilroy Unified School District Superintendent Edwin Diaz are pushing to make it politically incorrect to call pay based in part on performance “merit pay.” They prefer the term “alternative compensation.”

It irks the heck out of me.

When Nelson and Diaz met with The Dispatch editorial board to outline their “alternative compensation” exploration effort, they emphatically and repeatedly sent the “don’t call it ‘merit pay’” message.

They made the same point to the reporter who wrote The Dispatch’s article on the topic.

“It is not merit pay,” Nelson told Christopher Quirk. “When you say merit pay, everybody immediately shuts down.”

“When people hear merit pay, people assume that it’s based on some arbitrary measure of performance,” Diaz said. “The difference with alternative compensation is, I think, it’s broader.”

Who are these “everybody” and “people” that they’re talking about? Their inaccurately broad groups do not include me or most folks outside of the public school system.

Diaz is right that alternative compensation is a broader term than merit pay; it’s so broad that it is nearly devoid of meaning.

With alternative compensation, the debate is framed so loosely that resulting plan could not be based on job performance at all but still be alternative compensation.

I wonder if that’s the goal. Regardless, that’s not in the best interest of Gilroy students, parents or taxpayers.

In bygone days, when country doctors made house calls and accepted chickens or vegetables in lieu of cash for treating patients, they were accepting alternative compensation. It was not merit pay.

What the GUSD and GTA are exploring is a bonus program based in large part on how well teachers do their jobs.

In other words, merit pay.

Like most parents, my kids have had some fabulous teachers who deserve double-digit raises every year. School districts ought to work hard to keep these teachers; other teachers ought to emulate these teachers; and parents, who informally evaluate teachers among themselves, already lobby to get their kids assigned to these teachers.

But, like most parents, my kids have also had some truly awful teachers who don’t even deserve their jobs, let alone step and column automatic raises each year. When I listen to public school administrators describe the cost-prohibitive bureaucratic process required to fire bad teachers, I cringe for all the students who will have to continue to suffer in these teachers’ classrooms.

Exploring merit pay is a step in the right direction. I hope the effort continues. I’d like to see a similar effort in the Morgan Hill Unified School District, where my kids are students.

But: Words matter.

Imprecise, inaccurate terms hinder honest debates, clear-eyed assessments and rational decisions, whether the issue in question is the civil war in Iraq, illegal aliens or merit pay.



  1. […] Florida Representative Frederica Wilson, D- Miami has decided to hold up any progress in Congress because they will not allow her to wear a hat inside the House of Representatives. She […]

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