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Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: An Overview (Part II)

Posted by Gary Labels: ,

It's simply too much to try and define all eight categories of hate speech within one post. As heavy as it is on the heart, let's continue.

5. Disease. A disease is a threat that must be eradicated. This image of a disease or cancer is most commonly a political metaphor to justify extermination. Although infrequently used of those who do have a certain disease (AIDS) or are mentally handicapped, often this dehumanizing language is aimed at perfectly healthy human beings whose only "defect" is being unwanted.

The Native Americans didn't have much resistance to European diseases. Smallpox was especially a bane to them. When Europeans started coming into contact with them, the Native Americans contracted European diseases and in some sense looked pretty weak to settlers because of that. So, the settlers deemed them inferior on the assumption that they were always struggling with those diseases and were always carriers of contagion.

6. Inanimate object. This category likewise does double duty. Sometimes this is a step down from the insignificant animal subcategory, making the victims even less significant and therefore even easier to exploit. Sometimes objectifying people makes the cyanide pill of mass extermination a little easier to swallow.

The Nazi and Soviet regimes both used those they oppressed as experiment subjects, both alive and dead. Organs were harvested. The Soviets mixed the bones of the dead in concrete. People consigned to concentration camps and on the way there were called "transit material," that is to say, they were a "shipment of cargo used for industrial purposes." The bodies of gassed Jews were likewise called "pieces" that needed to be incinerated.

7. Waste product. The phrase "scum of the earth" comes to mind. This epithet is quite common, I can most readily remember this in association with the poor. They are "white trash." It is because of our depraved disposition to referring to the poor as "trash" that God emphatically commands protection of the poor in both the Old and New Testaments.

When people tried to immigrate children from Britain to Canada during the Industrial Revolution, some Canadians opposed it. Despite the fact that Britain exploited children for labor in unspeakable ways, Canadians were not willing to help out, because the immigration of these poor children was "a wholesale dumping of moral refuse on [Canada's] shores." One should not abhor the exploited for being physically or emotionally scarred by abuse. Detest the abusers instead.

8. Non-person. This is perhaps the worst category of all. Personhood is a legal and psychological category that (theoretically) transcends humanity itself. This category exists apart from eugenics and is based on an idea of rating the value of a person by measuring how much they can contribute to society.

Corporations are persons before the law and can sue. Ships, if they have had a maiden voyage, are persons before the law also. The rationale is grounded in the immense amount of money and resources that go into the construction and stability of a company or a ship. Some would argue for personhood on behalf of rivers and forests, thus allowing naturalists to advocate on their behalf in court. Some even would give animals varying degrees of personhood. And yet, certain bioethicists consider the elderly and disabled as nonpersons so we can kill them off because they are not cost-effective.

And what about the children? The premise of Brennan's entire book is that the same objectifying language is used today to dehumanize our own children. In a world where some people define ships and corporations as "persons," where people put forth a philosophical theory of robots with personhood (a la Isaac Asimov's Bicentennial Man)... in this sort of "progressive" world, our own children are not persons before the law.

In conclusion, all of these designations reinforce violent behavior and create a hostile environment that encourages others to join in the oppression of the vulnerable. It's a vicious cycle, and if we're going to stop it, we're going to need humanizing language. We will need to expand the appreciation for groups that are currently despised, and restore their human dignity through speech that affirms their value and advocates on their behalf.

I highly encourage you to get this book. The knowledge contained in this book is difficult to bear, but it is a necessary burden. If you are interested in matters of social justice, this is a must-read.


  1. Sammie

    I don't mind. It was good to hear. Good post, btw. It's so easy to think we're innocent with dehumanizing remarks. They're just remarks, right?