What happens when we call people “animals”. Historical analysis of world leaders using dehumanizing language to describe groups of people as a warning against the rhetoric of Donald Trump.
Twenty-five years ago, on April 6, 1994, the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down as it was preparing to land in Kigali, Rwanda. This assassination kicked off 100 days of unimaginable horror in the form of ethnic cleansing perpetrated on minority Tutsis by Hutus.
This genocide resulted in an estimated 800,000 dead, roughly 70% of the Tutsi population. While the downing of the presidential plane touched off the violence, the seeds of the genocide were planted much earlier.
Colonialism, a revolution, and a civil war all predated the genocide by decades, but the one constant during these periods which preceded the genocide was systematic dehumanization. As part of the reconciliation process in Rwanda, perpetrators must speak with, and seek forgiveness from, the families of their victims. During one of these conversations, Abdullah, a perpetrator who participated in the slaughter of 9,000 Tutsis in one community, was asked in an interview about what inspired him to kill.
Abduallah: “School lessons taught us, Tutsis are evil… They were called cockroaches, snakes.”
Interrogator: “The example you gave, calling them cockroaches and snakes, they were your neighbors. You knew that they were good people. You knew that they were not snakes. What were you told in class and in government teachings that made you change and believe that was true?”
Abdullah: “What made me change is, they said Tutsis are invading the country to kill Hutus. So, even though I had seen them as human beings, after hearing that, Tutsis are evil snakes, that became instilled in my blood.”
Last week, a film from 2018 of President Trump referring to some people as “animals” surfaced, but was “debunked” when the wider context proved he was referring to members of the gang MS-13. Once it was confirmed that quote was “only” referring to gang members many dismissed it as perhaps ill-conceived, but not all that bad. This willingness to tolerate dehumanizing language is dangerous and can quickly bleed over from calls for public safety, to targeted violence.
Coupled with the White House statement declaring members of the violent gang MS-13 “animals” no fewer than eight times, a dangerous culture seems to be brewing in the halls of power. Official presidential proclamations of dehumanization are especially frightening when made by an administration which has advocated for human rights abuses in the form of encouraging police brutality, slaughtering the innocent family members of suspected terrorists, and engaging in torture, to say nothing of referring to parts of the African continent as “shithole countries.” Supporters of the President are quick to dismiss criticism of his words as either weakness or simply his “style,” but just as in Rwanda, when leaders speak, followers listen.
In 1943, a famine broke out in Bengal, India. The origins of this famine are manifold, but the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen lays the blame squarely at the feet of the imperial policies of the British colonial rulers. Some British officials begged Prime Minister Winston Churchill to direct food supplies to the region; he bluntly refused. Raging that it was their own fault for “breeding like rabbits” Churchill said “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” Up to 3 million Indians starved to death during this famine.
Perhaps the most well-known and extreme example of dehumanization is the Holocaust. The Nazis couched everything they did in the language of science and race, and justified their genocidal policies by referring to their victims not as people, but as animals.
In 1939, after touring Łódź, the second largest ghetto in occupied Poland, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, wrote in his diary, “These are not humans, but animals.”
In 1943, a Nazi party publication, Der Untermensch (the subhuman), quoted SS chief Heinrich Himmler describing Jews as not only animals, but a threat to human existence by saying:
“As long as there have been men on the earth, the struggle between man and the subhuman will be the historic rule; the Jewish-led struggle against the mankind, as far back as we can look, is part of the natural course of life on our planet. One can be convinced with full certainty that this struggle for life and death is just as much a law of nature as is the struggle of an infection to corrupt a healthy body.”
As the US Holocaust Memorial Museum recently told us, “the Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words.” The words which begin genocide are often words of dehumanization. The Nazis regularly invoked the language and imagery of disease to dehumanize Jews and other victims of Nazi tyranny. Jews, Roma/Sinti and other targets of the Third Reich were branded untermenschen, subhuman, by the Nazis. In Nazi newsreels, images of Jews being deported were overlaid with images of rats scurrying through gutters. In Eastern Europe the Nazis displayed posters conflating Jews with the lice that transmitted typhus. When your enemy is no longer human it becomes easier to kill them. When that subhuman enemy is a disease-carrying threat, killing them becomes a necessity.
American history is similarly tainted with the stain of dehumanization. When our country was founded in 1776 national leadership was reserved for straight, white, wealthy, landowning, Christian, men. Since then the ranks of those who are deemed entitled to full agency under the banner “we the people” has swollen, but in fits and starts.
In 1790, in response to an inquiry from the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island about the status of Jews in the nearly formed United States of America, President George Washington wrote: “the Government of the United States… gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…” A century and a half later, signs like the one above could be found outside swimming pools across the country.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to Memphis in 1968 to support striking sanitation workers he found the protesters wearing signs simply reading “I am a man.” These peaceful protesters were met by soldiers with bayonets, beaten by police with truncheons, attacked by dogs, and assaulted with firehoses… all for simply having the temerity to declare their fundamental humanity. Declaring ones own humanity was deemed such a threat to the established social order at the time our country nearly descended into a second civil war.
As a nation we cannot tolerate our elected leaders referring to anyone as anything less then human. Attempting to devalue the humanity of others will achieve nothing except lay the groundwork for more hate and violence and, fundamentally, only diminishes our own humanity.
In recent Congressional testimony, Eileen Hershenov of the Anti-Defamation League said violence by white supremacists is on the rise. “White supremacists have been responsible for more than half, 54 percent, of all domestic extremist-related murders in the past 10 years. And in the last year, that figure has risen to 78 percent of all extremist-related murders.”
Seated next to Hershenov during this testimony was Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha. In 2015, his two daughters and son-in-law were murdered in an alleged hate crime in North Carolina. Four months after those murders, a white supremacist killed nine black worshipers at a Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In August 2017, a white supremacist killed Heather Heyer, who was protesting a white supremacy rally in Charlottesville. In October 2018, a white supremacist killed nine worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue. And just last month, a white supremacist killed 50 people at mosques in New Zealand.
This spate of killings and violence is not the fault of any one individual; indeed, culpability for each crime rests with the perpetrator of the crime, but these criminals need no encouragement. The perception of the sanctioning of these crimes coming from the highest office in the land can transform dangerous rhetoric into deadly behavior.
Besides the start of the genocide in Rwanda, this past week marked another anniversary. Eighty years ago, on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, Marian Anderson, the famed contralto, mounted the steps to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC to perform before 75,000 fans. She performed there after her original venue, Constitution Hall, was denied to her. Constitution Hall was, and is, owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and the all-white organization did not open its concert hall to African Americans like Marian Anderson at the time. In response to this act of bigotry, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt both resigned her membership in the DAR and worked to find a suitable venue for the concert. Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, offered her the Lincoln Memorial, and introduced the singer that Easter morning, saying: “Genius draws no color lines. She has endowed Marian Anderson with such a voice as lifts any individual above his fellows as is a matter of exultant pride to any race.”
Behind Marian Anderson, carved in the stone walls of the memorial to our greatest President, is the text to his second inaugural address. Delivered during an actual period of national emergency, when 800,000 Americans would die during a bloody brother-on-brother civil war, President Lincoln exalted us to remember what it means to be an American, and how we should view and treat one another. Not with the words and ideas of dehumanization, but, as he said:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all… let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Liked this story?
Found it useful?
Here’s what you can do next:
(This piece was originally published on the PMP Blog!. | The author writes in a personal capacity.)