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Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: An Overview (Part I)

Posted by Gary Labels: ,

William Brennan wrote an excellent and insightful book that draws out 8 main themes used in hate speech. He covers these 8 themes as they've been used in reference to blacks, Native Americans, victims of Soviet and Nazi oppression, women, and children. I highly recommend his book, Dehumanizing the Vulnerable, with a solemn warning. The first two thirds of the book depict the uses and destructive effects of hate speech, and it made me want to break down and cry. Once I felt nauseous. The examples he gives are chilling, and they only scratch the surface.

Brennan does a wonderful job of supplying historical examples of how the different themes were used, but he doesn't always do a thorough job elaborating on the themes themselves. I intend to correct that. I supply one or two examples for each theme, but my focus is simply to help give a clear picture of the themes. This note is meant to expand on the book rather than summarize it. I will do a specific post on women and one on the unborn in the following two weeks, so I'm downplaying reference to that for now. This note will not be joyful, and it is twice as long as my last major note, just to warn you.

1. Barely human. Brennan explains this category very well. He says of this theme: "although they are acknowledged as official members of the human species, it is an ambiguous and questionable status that is subject to constant scrutiny and endless qualifications. The image consistently projected is that of hopelessly flawed human beings whose lives are so insignificant that they can be exploited at will, or so devoid of value that their very existence is placed in severe jeopardy."

Also under this theme is the idea of deficient humans. Defective models. Damaged goods. Today, retarded persons and the handicapped are at serious risk for this categorization. I have had over ten surgeries in my life. I was born with fairly serious heart problems and if I had not had a loving mother, I could have been aborted. But I am human. I am worthy of life.

In Nazi Germany, sick people were ostracized. For my low physical stamina and potentially life-shortening or life-threatening heart problems, I would have been seen as a burden. My eye problems don't help things, either. People would look at me incredulously as if it was terribly inconsiderate for me to continue drawing breath. Nobody would care that my intellectual development more than compensates for my former physical problems. Perhaps for none of these reasons -- perhaps simply because I am lefthanded -- I would be sent to a concentration camp.

2. Not human. This category creates further distance and hostility. Anyone convinced that a group of people are "not human" cannot possibly have any emotional bond with those non-humans. The author notes well that calling someone even barely human still conveys some shred of humanity, and that is a dangerous thing if you wish to inspire hatred and discord.

In 1907 Hitler said, "Wherever I went, I began to see Jews, and the more I saw, the more sharply they became distinguished in my eyes from the rest of humanity." By 1923 this spiraled down to an assertion of nonhumanity: "The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but not human."

3. Animal. This theme does double duty. At times people may be compared to lower animals in order to make their lives seem insignificant, and thus rationalize their victimization. The other use is to classify someone as a dangerous beast, either to be subdued (blacks; women) or hunted down and destroyed (Native Americans; Jews).

It was said that the Negroe was a beast of burden. Uncle Tom's Cabin affirms this imagery. Negroes were bred like pedigreed animals for strength and stamina, but not brains. This stereotype about blacks persists to this day, and is patently false. Due to the slow maturation rate of humans, it would take considerably longer to selectively breed humans than it takes to breed cattle or household pets.

4. Parasite. Biologically speaking, a parasite is a creature that has a one-way dependency on another creature, and does not in any way compensate its host. I am not satisfied with Brennan's treatment of this category, because he just leaves the "parasite" image at the biological definition. To the contrary, referring to a person as a parasite evokes an image of a malicious creature. Deceitful. Sneaky. It relishes the thought of draining your blood. It's not just innocently trying to survive, it is actively and sadistically contemplating the joy it will experience at causing you to suffer.

The difference between this image and the previous is that the "animal" category labels someone as an unreasoning beast that needs either a firm-handed master or destruction; this category brings to mind a cunning and tricky animal that is inherently evil.

A character fitting this archetype of "tricky parasite/predator," as I understand it, is Tolkien's Shelob, the giant she-spider. Though she often relied on webs to capture prey, she would creep around and stalk particularly tasty morsels for the thrill of surprise and direct combat. Frodo in this clip was one such victim. Spiders uniquely form a middle line between parasite and predator, and Shelob encompasses both the "dangerous beast" and the "tricky parasite" because she mixes brute force with cunning and guile.

Note especially when Sam strikes one of her good eyes in 2:30. She tries to make him lower his guard by exaggerating the handicap and pretending to be more hurt than she actually is.

It would be very easy (though incredibly inaccurate) to try and make a metaphor of that youtube clip. Frodo is the unsuspecting average German, and Shelob is the sneaky Jew. Loyal Sam is Adolf Hitler, and the Light of Galadriel (the glowing thingy) is Nazi teaching. Now, these connections have nothing to do with the clip, but Nazi propaganda could easily lift this clip from its context and use it as an illustration. Especially with the heroic line, "Let him go you filth. You will not touch him again."