Editor's note: Sally Kohn is a progressive activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. The film "Documented" airs on Saturday, July 5 at 9 p.m. ET on CNN. This article contains strong language in quotes that could be offensive to some readers.
(CNN) -- During the civil rights era, Alabama Gov. George Wallace was asked by a supporter why he was fixated on the politics of race. Wallace replied, "You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about n*ggers, and they stomped the floor."
In the 1980s, during the rise of the gay rights movement, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms accused a political opponent for supporting "f*ggots, perverts [and] sexual deviates of this nation."
Today, opponents of immigration reform attack undocumented immigrants as "illegal immigrants." Even worse, like anti-immigration extremists, some prominent elected officials use the term "illegals." Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, said, "I urge all Mainers to tell your city councilors and selectmen to stop handing out your money to illegals."
Not the same thing? Of course it is.
Once upon a time, the n-word and f-word were utterly acceptable terminology in undermining not only the basic rights but basic humanity of black people and gay people. That those terms seem radically inappropriate and out of step with mainstream culture now is only because social movements and legal and political changes have shifted the landscape. But make no mistake about it, words matter, not only in reflecting certain dehumanizing attitudes toward historically marginalized groups but in actively perpetuating and rationalizing that dehumanization.
Even now, as some people go to courts to suppress the ability of women to make decisions about their own bodies and contraceptive choices, women who stand up for reproductive freedom are being called "sluts" and "whores."
Recently, I watched the stunning film, "Documented," on CNN and posted my reactions on Twitter. The responses I got were mostly positive but some conservatives took issue with me.
For instance, someone tweeted at me: "How about you donate 100% of your $ to help poor American children & not illegals" -- as though American kids are worthy and deserving and undocumented immigrant kids are not.
Another tweeted: "Stop disease from coming into the US. Build the wall!" -- again, not a humane reaction but an us-versus-them mindset that reduces immigrants to a public health threat.
When I tweeted that I was "consistently troubled by [the] number of people who seem to feel more compassion toward puppies on the Internet than undocumented humans," among the many blistering replies I received was, "Do the internet puppies have scabies...?" Other responses compared undocumented immigrants to "invaders" and "child abusers."
Come on, people.
Is it not possible to oppose immigrant rights without resorting to attacking immigrants as human beings? The intensity of the anti-immigrant rhetoric is stunning. Even if you don't support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, can't you find some compassion for them as human beings who live on the same planet?
After all, whether you think our immigration laws are properly functioning or not, the forces of economic hardship and violence that push people to leave their home countries and the promise of a better future in America that pulls people here are the same forces that pushed and pulled on many of our ancestors.
Plus we know that American industries that rely on low-wage workers and actively lure undocumented immigrants to our country sometimes offer promises of official paperwork that never materialize.
The organization Race Forward has a campaign to get media organizations to "Drop The I-Word" in their reporting about immigration. So far, the campaign has succeeded in getting the Associated Press, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and many other outlets to stop using the word. But the pressure continues on The New York Times, The Washington Post and radio and television outlets. And the campaign around media usage is just one step toward influencing and ultimately ending the use of the word "illegal" by everyone in America.
As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
The history of the United States that anti-immigration activists profess to defend is one perpetually defined by inclusion rather than exclusion. Our notion of our nation expanded over time to include black people and women and gay people and others who were most marginalized previously.
As we celebrate the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act 50 years ago this month, we're reminded of protests in the lead up to that moment in which black men carried signs that simply read, "I AM A MAN." And as we look back on the 45th anniversary of the landmark gay liberation protests set off at the Stonewall Bar in New York, we remember protests where gay men and lesbians carried signs that simply said, "GAY IS GOOD."
Today, most people find the n-word and the f-word incredibly offensive. Let's hope that most if not all people will feel the same way about the words "illegals" and "illegal immigrants" in the not too distant future.