Why does dehumanizing rhetoric matter? And what is the significance of large numbers of people being unable to recognize it when it occurs? This is a brief reflection on these two questions.
The point of dehumanizing rhetoric is that it prepares us to treat people in ways we wouldn’t ordinarily treat them. There seems to be an innate human aversion to inflicting grievous harm on other humans. This is why soldiers have to be psychologically trained to kill. Dehumanizing rhetoric and imagery distributed through media to a mass population is one way to dull our innate aversion to harm. It prepares us to intern, enslave, kill, exterminate the objects of the dehumanizing rhetoric.
The examples are, by now, cliché. But no less true. The Americans did it. The Nazis did it. The Hutus did it. Words—the simple and awful power of the tongue—really can make it easier to kill human beings.
One particularly potent example from 20th century American history is the Pacific Campaign during World War Two. As John Dower showed, Japan and the United States encouraged their civilian populations and soldiers to think of the enemy as sub-human. While Germans were often imagined as normal people led by an evil ruler, the Japanese, as a group, were imagined as bestial, unthinking, and worthy of collective punishment. Many scholars believe these attitudes contributed to the American decision to practice more brutal aerial bombing of Japan than of Germany.
Here are some telling examples of how the American public and American soldiers saw the enemy during World War Two:
In general, these depictions do not seem to have been controversial in the United States. Japan was the enemy and there was a war to be won.
There are many people who might cringe at these images and yet fail to realize that Donald Trump is trafficking in the same game. Last month, Trump said:
We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in—and we’re stopping a lot of them—but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.
There was a big debate then about whether he was talking about MS-13 specifically or immigrants in general. Those arguing for the more narrow context were missing the point: Trump’s constant invocation of danger, threat, crime, and rape is designed to make us see MS-13 in our mind’s eye when we hear the word “immigrant.” It is designed to make us see an undifferentiated group worthy of harsh treatment rather than individuals worthy of normal human concern.
That’s why Trump tweeted this week:
Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13.
You know the connotations of the word infest. This is why Trump tweeted earlier this year about immigrants “breeding.” Rabbits breed. Humans make love and raise children.
The problem with Trump’s rhetoric is not that it’s rude or intemperate. It is evil, because it treats human beings as less than what they are. Each of us is created and loved by God. Each of us has infinite value. Donald Trump denies these truths with his words and actions, and encourages you to deny them too.
I had a conversation with someone a few days ago who didn’t know that Trump is engaging in dehumanizing rhetoric and racist behavior. I choose my words here carefully. I do not say she supported it. I say she was unable to recognize it for what it was. What is the significance of this?
Millions of people don’t know that Trump is engaging in dehumanization. They are being formed by it without conscious understanding of what is happening. That makes the effect even stronger. And it means that masses of people have come untethered from a crucial dimension of reality. Would these people support an American genocide? One hopes not, but the point is that they are already unconscious of dehumanization, already unable to discern reality around them, so there is no telling when or if they will ever come back. God help us.