Thursday, May 17, 2018
Speaking about undocumented immigrants, the President of the United States said on Wednesday: “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”
Many commentators have noted the parallels between this dehumanizing language and Nazi propaganda describing Jews as rats, a deliberate tactic to numb the wider populace to the Nazi's inhumane treatment of Jews and other groups. Importantly, as Bryan Resnick points out in Vox, dehumanizing language has an effect even on those who are not disposed to such views. Resnick quotes Adam Waytz, a psychologist at Northwestern University, who concludes that “it’s extremely easy to turn down someone’s ability to see someone else in their full humanity.” And once that happens, people are more ready to accept actions that harm these individuals.
In the Trump era, dehumanizing language has become all too common. Trump himself sets the tone, calling some individuals names like "lyin' Ted Cruz" and "crooked Hilary," and demeaning others as "animals" who hail from "shithole" countries.
To combat the impact of this language, we have to consciously and actively resist, using alternative language that counters the de-humanization and taking actions that affirm individuals' humanity.
There are models of resistance in unexpected places. In one of his finest public moments, Senator John McCain, campaigning for president, refused to go along with efforts to dehumanize President Obama, instead asserting: "He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
The sanctuary policies that Trump so abhores but that have been adopted by communities around the country are also effective counter-measures, since they further the recognition of immigrants' humanity -- indeed, these policies are well-supported by basic human rights principles.
As the President's drive to de-humanize immigrants (and other groups from women to African Americans) continues, it is worth remembering that responding with language and actions that affirm individuals' humanity and human dignity can be an effective response that disarms insidious effect of the President's words. It is no accident that the human rights movement itself crystallized in the wake of WWII -- "human rights" is a powerful tool against dehumanization.
So blog, tweet, write, sing, create art, teach your students and your children, speak up in public and private spaces about the human rights and human dignity of every person, particularly those who are being targeted by this administration.
Take actions, large and small, to affirm individual human rights.
To be silent, to just observe on the sidelines, is to accept the insidious and harmful impact of this language.