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In honor of MLK: The power of hate speech (and why to not use it)

Posted by Gary Labels: ,

Although I will not be addressing civil rights, this post on nonviolence is in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

How is it that a human being can open fire on another human being? The truth is, most of us just don't have it in us to do so. That's because there is a natural block in the human mind that forbids us -- our conscience will stay our hand from firing at another human being.

Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman wrote a book on warfare called On Killing. In it, he explains how soldiers in early American wars often fired at an upward angle, intentionally missing the enemy soldiers. The military had to use psychological strategies to train soldiers to get around this block against killing other people.

Part of the strategy involves what psychologists call operant conditioning, which is more or less the punishment vs. reward training strategy that we use to learn anything. Instead of firing at moving clay discs ("pull!"), target practice now featured a man-shaped bulls-eye with a points system similar to that of archery. There is no doubt in my mind that the clay disc targets are harder to hit, though whether that makes for better accuracy training is debatable.

The trick is, this no longer was about accuracy. It introduced a rewards system for firing, and accustomed would-be soldiers to the idea of shooting at man-shaped objects (such as flesh-and-blood men). Physically, they got used to the idea of shooting at people and got rewarded for doing well at it. This is one part of overcoming the natural block most people have against killing.

Several, including myself, oral sources I will not name, and researcher Rachel McNair would argue that another element of this training is linguistic in nature. In linguistics, we learn that words have both content and framing. Content is what a word says, and framing tells you how you should feel about it. Example:

Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary killed.
Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary murdered.
Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary executed.

These all express the same content. The difference is the framing. The first example is a neutral observation. The second implies that it was not morally or legally justifiable, and the third implies that it was morally/legally just.

Now, apply this to the military. If you can't shoot at people, then you can at least shoot at "the enemy." This collective singular "the enemy" (almost never "enemies") allows you to visualize them as an obstacle to your objective. What's your objective? Surviving this hellhole and getting back to your family! Once you get this mentality going, you can overcome the natural restriction against killing. If God forced that door closed, then we can open a window.

Once you dehumanize and objectify with language, it's easier to shoot them. Shooting people is unthinkable without psychologically being desensitized to it, but shooting objects is fine. Objectify people, and that's already half the battle!

Another means of objectifying enemy soldiers is to use racist language. Once racism takes over, atrocities are quite possible, as Aiden Delgado will testify. Examples of military use of racist slurs:

Gook: military word for Filipinos/Koreans/Vietnamese used throughout various wars.
Hajji (also "Haji" or "Hadji"): the current slur of choice for Iraqis and Arabs in the War on Terror. See also "sand nigger."
Chink: a term used originally of Chinese, but then later of Vietnamese soldiers.
Jap: originally a harmless shorthand for "Japanese," but eventually it became offensive after its use in World War II. See also "nip."
Kraut: a term for Germans as sauerkraut-lovers. Used especially by US troops in World War II. The British preferred the term "Fritz" in the early war, and then "Jerry" later. See also "Boche" and "Nazi" (which is short of "National Socialist).

But deep down, we all still know that killing other people is wrong. Soldiers are trained to be desensitized to shooting enemies, but they are not trained to be desensitized to seeing friends die. Soldiers who survive life-threatening situations together develop a bond of camaraderie that is incredibly strong. Since you got through some life-threatening situations together when you can't believe you're still alive, you can't believe three days later that your friend is dead. Extensive therapy is the only way to distance yourself from the event emotionally.

This is crucial to understand. Nearly everyone is naturally unable to actually kill another person except in heat-of-the-moment self-defense (even then, we hesitate). The military partially reprograms you to be desensitized to the act of killing another person -- but then also teaches restraint to not become an indiscriminate homicidal maniac. You learn how to shoot, but also learn when or when not to shoot.

But since you cannot dehumanize your allies (because they're your source of emotional support and camaraderie), you still realize the wrongness of war when allies die. This trauma is why war is hell. Soldiers may come home, but they may never really come back. Today people expect us to "support our troops" because war is hell. Yes, but my problem is that people don't realize that hell starts at training. If people were aware of this, they would be less likely to be involved in the military.

In short: although soldiers can, through brainwashing, circumvent the restriction against killing other people, their minds still register that killing is wrong when their allies die. The only reason they can cope with dealing out the damage is by emotional/physical distance (avoiding hand-to-hand at all costs!) and by dehumanizing the other soldiers as "the enemy." You can't kill people, but you can kill gooks, sand niggers, japs, and nazis. Once you introduce racist language, you can kill others because you frame them as objects of contempt.

Words hurt people. They really do. They shape our thoughts and influence how we treat people. Watch always how you speak of others, and never let hate speech turn another person into an object of scorn in your eyes.