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.]