Whether it’s the Holocaust, the Rohingya genocide, or any other mass atrocity, language has been used as a weapon to dehumanize victims, allowing seemingly non-violent people to commit violence. While some may think the use of dehumanizing language is reserved only for genocide, subtle acts of dehumanization occur all the time, often for political purposes.
Dehumanizing someone means to deprive them of human qualities, personality, or dignity. Dehumanization is often used in war or conflict, pushing people “to overcome the very deep and natural inhibitions they have against treating other people like game animals or vermin or dangerous predators.”
Today, discrimination, hate crimes, and violence against Asian Americans are on the rise. From harassment online, to stabbings, to deadly shootings, Asian Americans are under attack. These attacks are fueled in part by a rise in dehumanizing language targeting Asian Americans, oftentimes blaming them for the spread of the coronavirus. Use of words and phrases like “Chinese virus,” or “kung flu,” by former President Trump in news conferences or in tweets to more than 80 million followers had a direct impact on the lives of Asian Americans.
Russell Jeung, a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate and a professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University had this to say about the connection between dehumanizing language and attacks against Asian Americans:
“There’s a clear correlation between President Trump’s incendiary comments, his insistence on using the term ‘Chinese virus’ and the subsequent hate speech spread on social media and the hate violence directed towards us.”
There was an Asian American mother who with her child was called “Chinese virus” and spit on. There was a different Asian American woman who was bumped into by a woman who told her, “You’re the reason the coronavirus is here,” and then proceeded to spit on her and pull out some of her hair. There are countless other examples of people internalizing dehumanizing language and then using that language both as a verbal weapon and as motivation to physically attack Asian Americans.
Dehumanizing language can be found anywhere, on our social media feeds, on cable news, or even in personal conversations. Whether dehumanizing language is used by political leaders to assign blame to China for the coronavirus, absolving themselves of responsibility, or to rile up supporters on the issue of immigration, the use of dehumanizing language in politics is dangerous.
“Who do these Democrats think they are… ‘We want power. So we’re going let the illegals in. And, you know, if they kill a few Americans, you know, you’ll deal with it. What we want is power.’ And you know what? That is going to, in the end, defeat [Democrats] as well it should.”
The undocumented immigrants described in this conversation are depicted as if they were dangerous killers who threaten the lives of everyday Americans. Using the words “illegals” and “kill a few Americans” do nothing but spread fear and paint all undocumented immigrants not as people but as killers.
Jeanine Pirro dehumanized undocumented immigrants. While her comments may or may not have directly led to violence against undocumented immigrants, they pushed a narrative that undocumented immigrants can and should be viewed as less than human. Such dehumanizing language is having direct effects.
Hate crimes and violence against Latinos has been rising steadily for many years. According to FBI hate crime statistics, after experiencing a decline in hate crimes against Latinos in 2014 and the years preceding, the number of recorded hate offenses against Latinos nearly doubled from 376 in 2014 to 676 in 2019. The number of victims also grew from 389 in 2014 to 693 in 2019. Violence against Latinos reached a terrible level in 2019 when “the overall number of reports of hate-motivated killings hit its highest level since data began being collected in the early 1990s…”
While a direct, causal connection has not been made, the rise of hate crimes against Latinos correlates with Donald Trump’s time as president. When Donald Trump ran for president, he made immigration a focal point of his campaign. In his announcement speech he included dehumanizing language referring to Mexicans directly, but Latinos and undocumented immigrants more generally. He said:
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Donald Trump recognized that fear sells and fear over undocumented immigrants could be tapped to secure his political goals, so he employed the use of dehumanizing language.
Oftentimes, dehumanizing language acts as a seed which when planted grows into hate and fear. When political actors use dehumanizing language to score cheap political points they are merely fear-mongering with the hope that scared voters send them to office. Candidates and politicians may get their reward, but the American people are left divided, scared, and hateful.
Political actors should be responsible to the country, leaving its people safer and more unified when chasing political goals. Dehumanizing language may seem like a valuable political crutch to lean on, but its effects are both direct and diffuse, only leading to greater fear and violence.
To protect those targeted by dehumanization, individuals must speak out. To prevent violence from being directed at individuals belonging to a distinct group or race, work must be done before the violence starts. Easy starting points for some could be to speak out when someone uses the phrase “Chinese virus,” or calls undocumented immigrants “illegals.” Call out these comments when you see them in-person or online. Once we remove dehumanizing language from our lexicon, we can begin to see people as people and work to stop the seeds of hate from being planted.