The Art of Dehumanization and How It Is Used to Manipulate Us

I got a text about a week ago. I rarely get these messages, because I’ve either already given my opinion without being asked or my friends are scared of what will come out of my mouth. I’ll lay out the situation as clearly as possible.

Friend: “I want your opinion on something.” (That is what the beginning of a regrettable conversation with me looks like.)

Me: “Ok. Fire away.”

My friend went on to share that they were watching a news report, which featured Smith College, who is raising money to provide a scholarship to illegal immigrants. This school is a private women’s college (from Massachusetts) and was looking to support immigrant students who wished to attend their school by creating a private scholarship. My friend asked me if I thought it was fair that these people (illegal immigrants) should get this kind of opportunity. I said that I didn’t see any problem with a private entity doing what it wants to with its own money (which I also thinks is a key part of “charity” in general).

So I turned the question back to them, and asked if they had a problem with it. Their answer surprised me. “They (immigrants) aren’t even citizens. So why should they get more benefits?” This began a brief back and forth about the struggle to get citizenship, as well as the difficulty in accessing our education system. This spiraled into a brief sermon about how fortunate we both were to have a white middle-class upbringing here in the States. My sermon evolved into a lecture about how sad it is that the middle-class and poor are constantly being put against one another. Finally, I was looking to seal a “win” for what had become an argument, so I laid on the pathos and said that this school is doing a good thing because they are looking to raise money to help “people.” Undeterred, they said, “I still don’t agree with it. We should want to help each other before we help everyone else.”

Then my head exploded.

I was so angry. I raced to Google to dig up some information about the ridiculous amount our government has spent on things that are either not people, American citizens, or a combination of the two(which if you didn’t know, is A LOT OF MONEY). I bombarded my friend with all of the information I had to make them feel guilty for their momentary resentment of the less fortunate. As the smoke in my brain began to clear, I began to question why my friend felt that way. Why would they say these things?

So I began to look back through the texts, and as I did a few key words began to jump out at me. “Illegal.” “Citizen.” “Immigrant.” It struck me that the reason we could talk this way about people, is because we were using words that are designed to dehumanize. We have been subtly trained to talk about issues using vocabulary that removes the humanity from a discussion, so we can focus on data and “logic.”

Whoa. I was taken aback. I would never use these words to talk about people I knew, or even strangers whom I’ve met. I would never (but may start to) text my roommate, “Citizen, what time do you like to go to the bar?” And I would never have spirit (either bold or cruel enough) to say to someone who I think is an immigrant, “Excuse me. Are you one of the illegals?!” This language is intentionally used to steer our perspectives to a pre-determined conclusion.

Think about it. When you hear the word “illegal” does that give you a positive feeling? For me, I think of a thief stealing my things. When I think about a “citizen”, I imagine a blend of Mayberry with ancient Rome. Friendly people meandering down Main Street in their togas, probably on their way to vote or rescue a kitten from a tree. When I think of an immigrant, I think of someone who is displaced. I see a faceless traveler, who is looking for a new place to belong. (I know it is a bit romanticized, but it is my imagination, so I’ll do as I please!) That image gets very distorted if I combine “illegal” and “immigrant.” I feel distrustful. My shoulders slightly tighten as if I was expecting to get hit. The power of words is amazing.

This isn’t the first time I’ve used or seen words used to dehumanize people. I dabbled in education for a while, and as I worked with high school students, I was encouraged by my employers to avoid calling them “kids.” “They’re ‘students’ or ‘youths’, but not ‘kids.'” I understand the reason behind it: The intention behind this dehumanization is to avoid the implication that anything inappropriate could happen. A teacher may be in jeopardy with our PC culture, if they say, “I love my kids!” I get it. The job isn’t to become invested in their lives. Primarily, the job is to teach them and facilitate their learning. Caring is just an option.  Teachers must walk the line between caring for students, and their success, and acting inappropriately.

Another example of our ability to dehumanize one another is in times of war. I know this maybe cliché, but it is as clear as an example can get. I remember playing my first World War Two game (Medal of Honor). I was stoked to pick up that BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) and shoot some of those damn Nazis. And that was the message. “Nazis are the enemy. Evil. Dangerous. Shoot them to save the day!” I ate it up. Then I watched one of my favorite movies of all time, Saving Private Ryan. I hated the Nazis before the opening trailers had finished. When Private Jackson plugs the Nazi sniper through the scope, I could have sung “The Star Spangled Banner” right then and there. Google some of the war posters from the time, and you’ll get the idea. They want you to be afraid of the enemy, proud of your troops, and willing to sacrifice your lifestyle in order to “win.” Nazis didn’t have families. They were (still are?) the most evil people who ever roamed the Earth. Why wouldn’t we want to kill them?

It is simpler that way. It is easier to kill or abuse something you are afraid of, or don’t value as your equal. I know the Nazi example is cliché, and brings a flurry of emotions (hate most likely). So much emotion, that I have to take a paragraph to address it. Were there truly evil people in the Nazi regime? Of course. I will say that I think a lot of them were not. They were scared, desperate, and easily manipulated. Just like us. And like us, once they started down a dark path, they rationalized that their society had already gone too far to turn back.

I want to avoid going down a similar path. After writing this, and reflecting on the way I speak, I’ll catch myself saying and hearing dehumanizing words. I’ve been conditioned to use them, and think nothing of it. I think we all have. Whenever we hear dehumanizing language, there is an agenda behind it. We are hearing those words for a reason; and it is our job to discover what those reasons are. This is why it is so important to question everything we hear. Who is saying this to me? What do they stand to gain if I believe them? What are they trying to get me to think, feel or do?

When we dehumanize others, we have to give away a little bit of our own humanity as well. I understand that social issues like immigration are extremely complex and textured, but that is why I think it adds insult to injury when we attempt to simplify the discussion by using dehumanizing words and terms. Have a hard conversation. Use the data and information at your disposal to craft a solution. Always keep in mind that you are working with and for people.

We’re all just people. Let’s talk and act like it.

Just a thought.


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