Last summer, as protests were in full swing and the media was giving close attention to issues of racial injustice, one video in particular burdened my heart. A young teen had recorded herself sobbing and screaming obscenities and hatred toward her parents for their (alleged) racism. She felt so deeply the pain of hatred inflicted upon people of color, that her solution was to hurl that hatred right back at those she blamed for perpetrating it. While retaliation seems to have become the norm in our society, it will only serve to continue the cycle of injustice. No matter what the issue—whether racial conflicts, political opposition, or philosophical differences—we need to avoid the dangers of dehumanizing the “other” side.
What is Dehumanizing?
“Dehumanizing” is viewing, referring to, or treating other people as inferior, less-than, or sub-human. Dehumanizing rejects the biblical truth that all were created in the image of God, instead elevating oneself (or one’s own group) above others.
Enslaving, oppressing, or categorically wiping out a people group viewed as “lesser” by those in power is clearly dehumanizing to those on the receiving end.
New York Times’ bestseller Brené Brown argues that “dehumanizing always starts with language.”
Therefore, calling others “rats” or “pigs” or “savages” or “parasites” is also dehumanizing…and can lead to dehumanizing behavior.
If we consider just for a moment the major atrocities of history, we will find dehumanization at the core of those events.
Dehumanizing Others Starts with Ignorance But Can Lead to Atrocities
Our language—both the spoken and written word—betray our gut feelings about people who look, believe, or live differently than we do.
I recently read Lois Lenski’s book Indian Captive to my daughter. This novel brought into focus the connection between our inner attitudes about people, our word choice when referring to them, and our eventual actions towards those people.
While the title may not be politically correct, I found this well-researched children’s novel warmly depicted the complex interactions between white settlers and people of the Iroquois nation. Based on the true story of Mary Jemison, who was captured by the Seneca in 1758, Indian Captive describes the gradual change in the white girl from fearing the natives to trusting them and choosing to remain with them.
I thought the author did a splendid job portraying the goodness—the humanity—of the Seneca. Adopted into their tribe, Mary (aka Molly) experiences hardships and sometimes harsh treatment, but as she learns to understand the people, she learns to love them, as well. The book is filled with wisdom she learns from their viewpoint.
Words Betray Feelings
Like many people in early American history, Mary learned from her family to fear “the hated, wicked, dangerous Indians” (Lenski 8). Captured by a band of Senecas and Frenchmen, separated from her family, and adopted into the Seneca village, Mary Jemison suffered the effects of the war between the white men and the natives. However, her experiences with the Seneca, though traumatic at first, give her insight into the people that her family and neighbors knew nothing about.
Years later, an English captain came to the village to talk with the chief and ask the Seneca to side with the English against the French. He came talking of friendship and treaty. Yet when he saw the blond-haired girl dressed in Seneca clothes, his language betrayed his disdain for the woodland tribe: “A little wildcat already! An untamed savage, growing up like a wild beast in the forest! Does she bite and scratch, too?” (Lenski 264).
The captain offered money to the chief for Molly so he could take her to live with people of “her own kind” where she would be “happier.” In contrast to the flippant offer of the English captain, the chief answered, “The Seneca do not sell or exchange captives.” He explained, “After adoption, the captive is a full-blooded Seneca….We will part with our hearts sooner than with this child” (Lenski 266).
Words Betray Ignorance
When offered a chance by the English captain to go back to her “own kind of people,” she ponders the choice, having known both ways of life.
The Captain tries to convince her, using dehumanizing language to paint a stark contrast between the life she would lead with white people versus the Senecas. He calls the Seneca “ruthless” and “cruel, relentless, wicked and savage people,” “revengeful and not to be trusted.” He accuses them of letting her grow up “an untamed savage, like a wild animal in a forest” (Lenski 294).
By contrast, he offers to take Molly to a “civilized” white family where she would have the comforts of a good home, good education, and good manners. “Surely you would prefer to be a cultivated lady rather than a savage!” he admonishes her (Lenski 294).
As Molly’s thoughts tumble, she realizes how good the people have been to her and how much wisdom and skill they have taught her. She also realizes how little this gentlemen would understand of her heart. In the end, Mary chose to stay with those who understood her rather than those who looked like her.
The captain viewed the Iroquois disdainfully through the eyes of pride and expectations set by European society. Molly learned to view the natives through the goodness, wisdom and knowledge she saw exhibited in their lives.
Willingness to Learn Reduces Prejudice
The pioneers of American history viewed the native peoples as “wild,” “savages,” “filthy” etc. Instead of taking time to learn and understand their ways of life—to see the order, the wisdom, and the justice of their system, they dismissed them as uncivilized at best and as a danger at worst.
These prejudicial views came from a limited exposure to and only partial understanding of the native peoples. They saw lifestyle and actions on the surface, which compared to their own, may have seemed filthy, savage, or wicked. But if they had taken the time to learn the native tribes’ languages and ways, the white settlers, like Molly, may have learned to see past the surface differences to the goodness and wisdom with which they lived. And in doing so, they could have better interpreted the violence done by the natives to the Europeans, and perhaps worked to avert it.
What the “pale-faces” viewed as “savage,” “wicked,” and “cruel,” the natives viewed as justice.
At one point in the book, the Chief explained the Seneca rationale for taking captives: “The pale-face people come in mighty streams from over the great waters….They kill our men, they kill the animals the Great Spirit has given us for food and clothing….They have no respect for the forest…They build houses where our lodges once stood. They come, not as friends, but as enemies, taking from us things that are rightly ours….We fight for our very life” (Lenski 91).
How different could have been the outcome if the settlers and the natives could have taken the time to communicate and learn to understand where they other was coming from and what their intentions were! Perhaps the massacres of the white settlers could have been avoided. Maybe the native tribes would not have been forced off their land and onto reservations. (This is greatly oversimplifying a complex situation, but I hope you see my point that starting with a willingness to understand the “other” could have led to different outcomes.)
False Superiority Leads to Atrocities
How many other times in history have our sense of superiority (and everyone else’s inferiority)—because of judging from a distance—brought about terrible atrocities? Here are a few, and I know you can think of many more:
- The African slave trade
- The Holocaust
- Genocide in Rwanda
Our language matters. Our attitudes matter. Each influences the other.
Given the right circumstances, our language and attitudes can swell into aversion, and then hatred that leads ultimately to oppression and even genocide.
But we are civilized! We are educated. We are tolerant. We know better now. We would never dehumanize fellow human beings. We fight to end oppression.
But do we?
Dehumanizing Others Is Hypocritical
All of us can easily condemn slavery, genocide, and other atrocities that have been committed throughout history.
But then we also need to humbly evaluate our own language towards others with whom we disagree. Do we question their intelligence? Do we scorn their belief system? Do we automatically assume the worst about their motives?
In trying to save the lives of the unborn, do we advocate violence against abortion doctors?
In calling for an end to police brutality, do we call officers “pigs”?
Whatever the issue, it’s easy to dismiss or label an entire group (as I wrote about in The Humanity of the “Other Side”). But if we allow ourselves to get to know individuals on “the other side,” we will find human complexities in their situations, in their thinking, and in their responses. Just like the complexities we allow ourselves.
Hypocrisy on Social Media
There has always been some form of dehumanizing behavior throughout history. In the 21st century, however, Brené Brown says, “social media are the primary platforms for our dehumanizing behavior.”
In my observation, people who are otherwise good, loving people can get caught up this dehumanizing behavior when calling out wrong behaviors or attitudes in others on social media platforms. Others’ use of degrading language (for example) is not an excuse for us to treat them as less than human. Otherwise we continue the cycle.
With today’s modern technology, our unwise words, labels, and slander spread faster and further than ever before. May we be wise and kind as we interact and influence on these platforms.
Dehumanizing Others Scorns Their Creator
Recognizing the presence of a Creator, and our position before Him as the created, humbles us: “…at the name of Jesus every knee should bow….” (Philippians 2:10). Therefore, the use of dehumanizing rhetoric is an arrogant elevation of ourselves as superior over those we dislike or fear, AND over the God who created us all.
We need to remember that all, including the other side, bears the image of God. (My husband wrote about this in “Which Lives Matter? Recognizing God’s Image.”)
So God created man in his own image,Genesis 1:27, NIV
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
The Bible is very clear about our treatment of fellow humans. We all know that murder is wrong. But our words and attitudes matter, too.
He who mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker….Proverbs 17:5a, NIV
Jesus had even sterner words:
But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, any who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ Will be in danger of the fire of hell.Matthew 5:22, NIV
Our words go hand in hand with our attitudes, and both lead to our actions:
Addressing the favoritism we tend to show, James wrote,
…have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?James 2:4, NIV
Again, Jesus had this to say:
But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.Matthew 5:44-45, NIV
In our cries for justice, are we living out the humanity we call others to embrace? Or do we turn around and dehumanize the ones we accuse of dehumanizing others? Dare we repeat history, simply reversing the sides of power and oppression?
How much better to step away and rise above!
It is right to call out those who mistreat, slander, or dehumanize other fellow human beings. But unless we model right behavior towards others, we run the risk of being hypocrites.
Whether calling out leaders or voicing frustrations against their followers—treat them as valuable humans so we don’t devolve into repeating the atrocities of history.
We would do well to remind ourselves of these teachings:
Remind the peopleTitus 3:1-2, NIV
to be subject to rulers and authorities,
to be obedient,
to be ready to do whatever is good,
to slander no one,
to be peaceable and considerate,
and to show true humility toward all men.
Lenski, Lois. Indian Captive. New York, Scholastic, 1941.