Words for People

I’ve been thinking about language that dehumanizes. By dehumanizing language, I mean words (and, by extension, images) that refer to people as something that’s not human: an animal, or something else in the natural world, or a body part, or something manmade or fantastical that conveys subhumanness. Rat. Rock. Ass. Monster. When this kind of language lines up with my view, I may consider the words tolerable, appropriate, justifiable, accurate, necessary.
Even if I don’t use the words myself, I may nod my inner head when someone else does. Someone I agree with. Someone who sees the world as I see it, the right way.
Yesterday I found myself nodding my inner head in a friendly conversation with a neighbor when a certain dehumanizing metaphor was used. I understood where the sentiment came from—this was one of the good guys speaking.
On Facebook, I’m tempted to click Like on name-calling posts that I resonate with even as I despise name-calling in posts I disagree with.
I’m calling myself out here as a hypocrite.
This universal inclination to apply nonhuman words to our fellow humans chills me when I see it in others. It chills me even more when I see it in myself. “But that language is justified in this case,” the argument goes. It’s accurate in this case. Those people really are [fill in the beastly word], and they deserve to be called that.
My soon-to-be-born grandson will absorb my words and the attitudes they convey. He will absorb what everyone around him says. What will our words teach him about people?
I get why humans dehumanize each other. We’re scared, we’re angry, we want to survive, we’re convinced that we’re right.
You might hear this rightness (“but I am right”), in this moment as you read, in your own response that’s formulating. There’s nothing wrong if you do. That’s the way humans operate. You get to be human.
Maybe you’re nodding your inner head, struggling in this inquiry with me. Or maybe you’re hearing me saying something Polyannaish and prescriptive, like “Be nice to everyone” or “Everyone’s good at heart” or “Even if it’s Hitler, go off into the sunset holding hands.” You might be wanting to reveal to me the ugliness in the world and all the reasons that it’s imperative that we call some people the [nonhuman thing]s they are.
Consider the context I’m coming from. It’s not a rosy-world context. The questions I’m asking myself don’t fix things any more than name calling does. How do we proceed when civility, which requires mutual respect, seems to be impossible? How shall we choose to speak and write and think about people who hate and rape and murder and destroy?
There are lots of ways to respond to these questions. Among the things I can do is take a stand for my own humanity. I can choose to talk and write and think about people as people. And I can encourage others to do the same.
[First posted on Facebook January 9, 2021.]

3 thoughts on “Words for People

  1. [Elisabeth Grabner, a subscriber to this blog, tried to post a comment here and couldn’t log in. Instead, she emailed me the following note today.

    As I was reading this entry, a funny thing happened – I misread the word “scared” as “sacred.” And it hit me that actually this is part of the whole matter too.

    With this post you remind me that I often nod in silent agreement also, and that dehumanization is only a tiny step away, or often just concealed. And that I cannot easily take myself out of the equation.

    Somewhere I read that you can choose to either be right – or to be connected. I think that in these challenging times one of the challenges lies in seeing first and – if possible – restoring the connection, as we are all of us in this – together. And at the same time I am certain that it is important to speak out and to be clear about our beliefs.

    I have no answers to your questions. Thank you for the questions, though! They open up a window.


  2. [Larry Kunz similarly asked me to post this comment on his behalf. I’m looking into resolving the issue with logging in.

    Hi, Marcia. I kind of agree with you. Metaphor is one of the most effective arrows in the writer’s quiver. Surely “Hitler was a monster” leaves a stronger impression than “Hitler was a very bad person.” Also, I wonder if you’d object to positive metaphors — so-and-so is an angel, or a ray of sunshine — in the same way?

    That said, a metaphor loses its zing when it’s overused. And the examples you’ve cited — rat, ass, monster — have been overused to the point of being cliches. That, I think, is where the dehumanizing happens. And, as you say, the careful writer surely can do better.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.


  3. Thank you to both Elisabeth and Larry for the thoughtful replies.

    Larry, to your question (Would I object to positive metaphors in the same way?), good point. You’ve got me thinking more deeply now. Here’s what comes to me. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using metaphors for people. For example, I wouldn’t think twice about saying, “She’s a dynamo.” Depending on the context, even using a so-called slur can be empowering if the speaker is claiming the term to rob it of its shaming power. And there’s a place, for example, for political satire (cartoons, Saturday Night Live skits, etc.). So I don’t mean to demonize (dehumanize!) people for using any particular words for people.

    The plea is more subtle: to pay attention to the language we use, or that we applaud, and catch ourselves when we think or communicate about people in ways that seem accurate to us in an emotional moment and that reduce them to something worthy of hatred, anger, vengeance, violence. At least ask ourselves the question, Is that the language I want to choose? Do my words move us toward the society I want to see?

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