The Significance of Dehumanizing Rhetoric

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:

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This image was published in Life Magazine in 1944 under the heading, “A Wartime Souvenir.”
A young woman’s fiancé sent the skull to her with the note, “This is a good Jap – a dead one picked up on the New Guinea beach.” The photo does not appear to have generated much controversy.
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This particularly hideous image encourages American soldiers to imagine Japanese people as bugs to be exterminated.
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The foreign and non-white enemy as rapist is not dehumanizing in quite the same way, but was a reliable way to create hatred and fear in a white supremacist society
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Monkeys and gorillas are ever-popular comparisons for those who want to deny the humanity of others.

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.

History Matters

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French anti-Semite Charles Maurras (AP)

The traditional double meaning applies to today’s title: these are matters of history, and history is important. Here is a quartet of recent stories from around the world illustrating the point that human beings are blessed—or doomed—to remember the past. That makes the ongoing project to remember well, with empathy and critical thinking, a crucial part of responsible citizenship in every society.

The New York Times reports on a remarkable recent discovery in Alabama:

Lorna Gail Woods had heard stories of the Clotilda since before she could speak. In the evenings, her grandmother would hold her on the porch and tell her the tale of how her great-great-grandfather came to Alabama on the last known slave ship to come to the United States.

They were brought by force, her grandmother would tell her, by an American businessman who just wanted to win a bet. Her great-great-grandfather Charlie Lewis was the oldest of 110 slaves bought in West Africa, chained in the hull of the Clotilda and sailed across the Atlantic to the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta in Alabama in 1860. But after the slaves were unloaded, the crew burned the ship, and its wreckage was never found, so many people doubted the story.

“My grandmother would tell us the story so we wouldn’t forget and so that we could continue to tell the story,” Ms. Woods, 69, said over the phone in a warm, Southern cadence.

On Monday, the story that Ms. Woods’s family — and many like hers in Africatown, the historic neighborhood of about 2,000 on the shores of the delta just north of Mobile — had passed down for more than 150 years became much more real.

On that day, Ben Raines, a reporter for AL.com, published an article in which he told of discovering the charred wooden remains of a boat believed to be the Clotilda. A team of archaeologists who visited the site said that based on the dimensions of the wreckage and its contents — including charred timber, iron drifts — the remnants were most likely those of the slave ship.

In Poland, new legislation has raised old questions about the Holocaust:

JERUSALEM — Legislation in Poland that would outlaw blaming Poles for the crimes of the Holocaust has prompted swift and furious condemnation from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Israeli lawmakers across the political spectrum.

The measure, which passed in the lower house of the Polish Parliament on Friday, would make it illegal to suggest Poland bore responsibility for atrocities committed on its soil by Nazi Germany during the occupation in World War II.

“The law is baseless; I strongly oppose it,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement on Saturday. “One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied.”

Mr. Netanyahu said he had instructed the Israeli ambassador to Poland to meet with the Polish prime minister and express his disapproval.

The bill, which would need approval from Poland’s Senate and the president to become law, sets prison penalties for using phrases such as “Polish death camps” to refer to concentration camps set up by the Nazis in Poland.

This is controversial in part because the Nazis found willing collaborators across Europe, including in Poland. The French ought to know this too:

The name Charles Maurras evokes the darkest currents of the French past: strident nationalism and obsessive anti-Semitism. This, after all, was a man who advocated denying Jews citizenship because — to him — they could never be anything but traitors.

Despite this legacy, the French government included his name in the 2018 edition of the National Commemorations, an annual project to mark the anniversaries of notable figures and events. Maurras, for instance, was born in 1868, 150 years ago. In the text, he is described as an “emblematic and controversial figure.”

Following swift, sharp fallout over the weekend, Françoise Nyssen, France’s minister of culture, announced Sunday that the entire press run of the 2018 commemorative books will be recalled and reprinted without mention of Maurras. Her decision, she said in a statement, was meant to “remove the ambiguity” that was “likely to divide French society.”

For many, however, there was no ambiguity in the first place.

“Maurras was until the end of World War II the most prominent anti-Semite in France and the Number One enemy of liberal democracy,” said Zeev Sternhell, an expert in the history of French fascism and an emeritus professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in an emailed statement.

“He was the intellectual leader of French hard nationalism until the end of Vichy. It was no accident that he had been sentenced to life in prison,” Sternhell said, referring to the French regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany in World War II.

Meanwhile in East Asia, tensions between Japan and South Korea continue over Japan’s atrocities during the Second World War:

The presidency of Donald Trump has triggered an unprecedented collapse of Brand America and sets the bar exceedingly low for global leaders. Yet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump’s closest if not only friend among them, deserves special scrutiny for his recent refusal to apologize to South Korea over the horrors endured by tens of thousands of women treated as sex slaves by the Japanese military during the 1930s and 1940s.

There is a “been there, done that” aspect of South Korean-Japanese relations. These frenemies have never reached a mutually acceptable understanding of their shared past. Today true reconciliation has become even more elusive due to democratization in South Korea. Until the 1990s, South Korean authoritarian governments kept history caged, avoiding historical controversies in order to maintain good relations with Tokyo, which supplied them with significant economic assistance in tacit compensation for the indignities and abuses suffered under Japanese colonial rule (from 1910 to 1945). But the advent of freely elected governments unleashed smoldering popular resentments, and Koreans demanded recognition of what they endured. Politicians responded by tapping into these unresolved grievances for political gain.

Japan has changed, too. The rise of revisionists such as Abe, who embrace an evasive and exculpatory view of history, complicates Tokyo’s relations with Seoul. Japanese conservatives also play the history card to whip up their base, and Abe has been at the forefront of this movement to restore pride in the nation by whitewashing Japan’s Asian rampage (1931 to 1945) and trying to recast it as a war to liberate Asia from Western imperialism. At least 15 million Asian ghosts haunt that outlandishly rosy reinterpretation.

At the end of 2015, under pressure from Washington to get over history so that the three allies could upgrade ties, Tokyo and Seoul concluded an agreement aimed at resolving the festering “comfort women” issue. Although touted as “final and irreversible,” this diplomatic deceit was doomed not only because the public overwhelmingly rejected it but also because it lacks empathy toward the victims.

We look to the past for identity and meaning. But too often we forge our sense of belonging at the expense of others. Nationalist parties around the world, including the GOP here in the U.S., are forever worrying that hand-wringing about past misdeeds will tear at the national fabric and weaken our resolve. On the contrary, refusing to seek reconciliation and restitution makes future conflict more likely. Power fused to narratives of national righteousness does not make societies good; it makes them cruel and stupid.