The Rise of Dehumanization
Treating people as less than human can lead to violence and genocide. As societies abandon basic standards of civility, we must guard against dehumanization.
Today’s societies are becoming more and more polarized. In our world, political discourse increasingly involves seeing those with opposing views as enemies who must be stopped at all costs. The rhetoric we see in the media shows people often referring to their political opponents as something less than human.
Consider some recent examples:
- September 2016: Senator Harry M. Reid called President Donald Trump the GOP’s “Frankenstein monster.”
- June 2017: Eric Trump said about Democrats attacking his father, “To me, they’re not even people.”
- March 2018: Bill Maher called Devin Nunes a “rat-like creature” and then went on to refer to Republicans as “treasonous rats.”
- May 2018: Roseanne Barr called former White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett a product of Planet of the Apes.
- April 2018: The cover of the April edition of the New York magazine depicted President Trump as a pig.
- August 2018: President Trump called his former adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman a “dog.”
- October 2018: Louis Farrakhan, Nation of Islam leader, joked in a speech that he was not an anti-Semite, but “anti-termite.”
In one study, partisans were asked to rank members of political parties on an evolutionary scale. The scale ranged from apelike creatures at the lower end to humans at the higher end. The study found 77 percent rated their political opponents as “less evolved” than those in their own party.
Some view these examples as nothing more than harmless name-calling, while others see it as a disturbing trend and a slippery slope. According to psychologist Allison Skinner, using such language can “influence how we think about and treat people.” She believes this type of speech “dehumanizes”—that is, “removes from a person the special human qualities of independent thought, feeling for other people, etc.”
Part of the danger of dehumanization is that it erodes normal empathy that people should have toward human suffering and can lead to violence. History shows that violence often results from dehumanizing rhetoric.
Probably the most famous example of dehumanization occurred in Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. The Nazis’ propaganda and brutal policies labeled the Jews (and other groups) as an inferior race and referred to them as disease-carrying rats. Their view of the Jews as subhuman was how they justified the atrocities they committed. After all, it’s morally wrong to kill people, but acceptable to exterminate rats.
The man who prosecuted many of the Nazi war criminals, Telford Taylor, said about those the Nazis killed: “For the most part they are nameless dead. To their murderers, these wretched people were not individuals at all. They came in wholesale lots and were treated worse than animals.”
Part of the danger of dehumanization is that it erodes normal empathy that people should have toward human suffering and can lead to violence. Dehumanization also occurred in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide that resulted in the brutal murders of 800,000 people in one month. In the years leading up to the genocide of the Tutsi population, the Hutus called the Tutsi “cockroaches” and “snakes.”
An issue of Kangura (a Hutu Rwandan newspaper) had the headline, “A Cockroach Cannot Bring Forth a Butterfly.” It depicted the Tutsis as cockroaches who camouflaged themselves to commit crimes in darkness.
A 2014 United Nations report showed that genocide is not a single event but a process that takes time. The report states that “the Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers and the Rwandan genocide did not start with the slayings. It started with the dehumanization of a specific group of persons.”
How can future genocides be prevented?
The Golden Rule
A 2018 article in the secular Psychology Today magazine recognized the value of the Golden Rule as the opposite of dehumanization.
The Golden Rule was spoken by Jesus Christ: “Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). Jesus taught that we should treat other people as we want to be treated ourselves. Mean-spirited name-calling does not align with Christ’s instructions on how we are to treat other people—even those we disagree with. Peter wrote that we should “show respect for all people” (1 Peter 2:17, Amplified Bible).
To learn how to apply this law in your life, read our article “The Golden Rule.”
Mankind: a special creation
A major, but often ignored, factor leading to dehumanization in our modern times is the Darwinian theory of evolution. It directly challenged the biblical truth that mankind is a uniquely special creation, made in the very image of God Himself (Genesis 1:26-27).
Rejecting the idea that humankind is a special creation has dire consequences—as history proves. Yet despite mankind’s rejection of the truths in the Bible, God has a plan to intervene in the affairs of men to set up His government on earth (Daniel 2:44). In this Kingdom, humans will be taught their inherent God-given value, and all will be invited to be part of God’s family (Ephesians 3:14-15; Hebrews 8:11).
Until that day comes, we can make our small sphere of influence better by recognizing the value of every human being and practicing the Golden Rule—especially with people we may not agree with.