Choosing our words carefully has the power to head off hatred before it starts.
Some bad words are worse than others, and some are actually the first in a chain of abuses that lead to widespread violence. I’m talking about dehumanizing language. Our choice of words doesn’t seem like much of a big deal, but it’s actually a concrete step that every one of us needs to take to uphold human dignity and make the world a safer place.
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The non-profit organization Rehumanize International devotes a segment of its work to raising awareness of just how bad these bad words are. It’s called the Bad Words Project. They focus on groups of people who have been historically stripped of their human dignity — among them, African Americans, Native Americans, Jews, the disabled, and the unborn.
These groups of people, all of whom have been treated as less than human to varying degrees, have all had certain treatment in common — the language used about them. Drawing from William Brennan’s Dehumanizing the Vulnerable, the Bad Words Project gives a breakdown of how eerily similar the word choice gets:
“In the eyes of the law … the slave is not a person.” (VA Supreme Court, 1858)
“An Indian is not a person within the meaning of the Constitution.” (American Law Review, 1881)
“The Reichsgericht itself refused to recognize Jews … as persons.” (German Supreme Court, 1936)
“A [person with] Downs is not a person.” (The Atlantic Monthly, 1968)
“The word person does not include the unborn.” (US Supreme Court, 1973)
The site’s examplesgo on and on.
But before the individual’s personhood is stripped from them, there are other common red flags that it is going to happen. The same groups, and more, have been referred to with language that paints them as animals, parasites, objects, and sub-human, over and over.
Why this pattern? Why are targeted groups of people stripped of their humanity by the very language we use?
Brene Brown, in Braving the Wilderness, talks about why dehumanization is so tempting:
“Most of us believe that people’s basic human rights should not be violated — crimes like murder, rape, and torture are wrong. Successful dehumanizing, however, creates ‘moral exclusion.’ … The targeted group eventually falls out of the scope of who is naturally protected by our moral code.”
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The Bad Words Project agrees, saying that dehumanizing language “creates a psychological separation, which makes it easier to allow or commit violence against them.”
Essentially, we’re not pure evil. We don’t like to hurt other human beings intentionally. But if we can convince ourselves that somebody is less human that we are, it’s much easier to justify our discomfort and hatred. I started taking this seriously when I learned that dehumanizing language is literally on the list of the 10 stages of genocide.
Language is a big part of the problem, so here’s my challenge to myself, and I hope you’ll join me: To stop using words for people that are ever applied to animals, objects, or anything other than human.
That doesn’t just mean to watch how I insult people. Obviously, descriptors like “pig” or “insect,” or certain four letter words, are way out of line. But what about referring to somebody as an “asset” or “resource”? What about referring to a person on state assistance as a “parasite”? What about calling your enemy a “monster”? What about calling a sick person by their illness — “He’s a schizophrenic,” instead of “He has schizophrenia”?
It may seem like I’m splitting hairs, and maybe I am, but a lot is at stake. The language we use may not be able to stop the large-scale violence that’s happening globally, but if we each take it seriously, we can head off some of the hatred before it begins, by refusing ever to degrade human beings by our choice of words.