Dehumanizing language is permeating American politics

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This has been especially true in times of war. The Nazis notoriously considered the Jews “vermin.” Referring to the Japanese in World War II, British Field Marshall Bill Slim called them as “ruthless . . . as ants,” and other Allied commanders referred to the Japanese at various times as sheep, rats, hornets, and rabbits. Before the Rwandan genocide in 1994 that killed nearly 1 million people, Hutu propagandists regularly characterized the Tutsis, the country’s largest ethnic minority and the primary victims of the genocide, as “cockroaches.” The official daily newspaper of the Palestinian Authority has carried cartoons depicting Israelis as crocodiles, and just a few months ago former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, described Palestinians as “horrible, inhuman animals.”
At a political rally in Ohio a few weeks ago, Donald Trump declared that migrants are “not humans . . . they’re animals.” This was nothing new. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee had previously called unauthorized migrants “animals” breaching the country’s borders in a 2018 Cabinet meeting at the White House. Trump is hardly the first to denigrate humans in this way — declaring humans to be animals is a trope that political leaders, especially ones who flirt with autocracy, have employed for centuries to rally negative sentiment against other people.
Using such dehumanizing language is always dangerous, not just in times of war. It’s particularly inflammatory in an era like ours characterized by polarization and what historian Steven Hahn has recently called “powerful illiberalism” in the United States.
A few years ago two researchers wrote in The Washington Post about two studies they had conducted to determine how willing everyday people were to use dehumanizing language against others. The authors showed a representative sample of Democrats and Republicans an image of human evolution from pictures of apelike creatures through Neanderthals to modern humans, scored from 0 to 100. They then asked respondents to rate the members of their party versus those of the other. A full 77 percent rated their political opponents as less “evolved” than members of their own party.
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Next the researchers showed 1,438 randomly chosen citizens pictures of a July 4th party run amok with broken chairs, panicked participants, and even injured people. When told the party was held by a group of Republicans and asked to agree or disagree that “these people are like animals,” Democrats agreed more often with the pejorative figure of speech. When the researchers told them the revelers were Democrats, they agreed less often. The opposite was true of Republicans.
Dehumanizing language has been weaponized for centuries to justify everything from slavery to mass killings — if you regard your opponents as little more than animals, it’s easy to believe that they are pedophiles in disguise or agents of the “deep state” out to destroy you. At a time when mind-boggling challenges like climate change and gun violence require all hands on deck, such reinforcement of polarization makes it almost impossible to imagine reaching a compromise or forging consensus.
It’s a common human temptation to regard people who are “different from us” as having less robust claims to decent treatment. There’s good evidence that dehumanization isn’t just a semantics problem. Willingness to dehumanize others is strongly associated with Trump-era policies like the Muslim travel ban and the zero tolerance border policy that resulted in separating children from their families.
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Democracy depends not just on free elections or an independent judiciary. It requires adherence to a set of norms that undergird those institutions. At the heart of a liberal democracy is the shared assumption that the same rules apply to everyone. This is what we might call the “cosmopolitan ideal” — the notion that, though you and I may differ in certain ways, such as race or gender identification or income level, at the end of the day our shared human dignity mandates that everyone’s vote counts equally, that justice is even-handed, and that authority is constrained in its use of violence against its citizens.
Goodness knows the United States has often failed to abide by these liberal norms, but if we do not even share the premise that we all are humans, the odds of adhering to them is in danger of breaking down entirely. Animals have no claim to an equal vote. They aren’t entitled to equal justice (at least for now). It is not a coincidence that those groups of people who have historically been most vulnerable to ill-treatment and the denial of rights are also those groups to which animal nomenclature has been frequently applied. To the extent that democracy is in peril and illiberalism ascendant, anything that diminishes our common humanity adds to the hazards.
William F. Schulz is the former executive director of Amnesty International USA and author of the recent book “Reversing the Rivers: A Memoir of History, Hope and Human Rights.”

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