Social Change, not Dehumanization:
Using Language and Emotion Productively in Our Conflicted World
This post is a reflection on how we often inadvertently dehumanize others as we seek to portray our world through language, especially when discussing divisive issues. Instead of contributing to this dehumanization, however, we can conscientiously use language and emotion as a recourse against violence. Except in perhaps the most extreme situations (if at all), I do not believe that we can act or speak violently toward others whom we truly view as fully human, individuals of intrinsic value similar to ourselves.
Language is important because it shapes who we are; the language we use slowly influences the person we are becoming. Negative or aggressive language changes our personality over time. Consider, for example, the man who impersonated a slave owner for a historical program called Follow the North Star at the Conner Prairie open-air museum in Indianapolis. The yelling and insults he utilized in that role began to undermine his previously gentle, caring demeanor, even when he was not at work.
Continued exposure to, or use of, insulting and biased language leads us to view others as either allies or opponents, without seeing them as full human beings. This type of engagement, of course, dehumanizes others and reduces them to a viewpoint or policy with which we either agree or disagree. It seems we often bemoan how in the world today we frequently talk past one another, without listening in good faith to differing viewpoints. I believe this lack of communication occurs because we focus on others as representing opinions, rather than as people. When we effectively forget or ignore that we are dealing with other humans inherently equal to ourselves, we become most concerned with our own viewpoint triumphing. Others “deserve” to be insulted because their worldview is in some way deficient.
Considerate language, on the other hand, enables us to maintain a fundamental respect for others. We can identify the underlying concerns that motivate different viewpoints and work together for acceptable solutions. I am aware that in many cases, adequately addressing and reconciling all underlying concerns is impossible. However, even in situations when we cannot morally accept another person’s belief or action, we can still value their intrinsic worth as a fellow human being. We can see them first and foremost as a person.
The dehumanizing effects of insulting language may seem obvious, but what about the other words we use to portray our world? I would argue that categories we use to group people–nationality, race, creed, gender, political affiliation, economic status, profession, etc–are similarly dehumanizing because they reduce individual humans to particular characteristics that mark the group to which they belong. I refer to the ‘group’ most immediately being referenced in any specific context; as people, of course, we occupy an infinite number of shifting affiliations.
Categories, unlike insults, cannot just be avoided, for they are linguistic tools that allow us to make sense of our surroundings. Indeed, categories can be useful means to research and map the world, and they allow us to identify–and hopefully remedy–disparate privileges and rights between groups. At the individual level, our affiliation in certain groups may give us a sense of belonging and/or notably mark our identity. Categories, therefore, are not necessarily negative, and we may choose to embrace group monikers as essential elements of ourselves.
At the same time, categories dehumanize when we use them carelessly, passively, without actively remembering that no category fully encompasses the individuals of whom that category is composed. A corollary of this point is that we cannot assume we know something about an individual based only on our knowledge of their membership in a group. Most groups are so vast, with such diversity, that even baseline statements have occasional exceptions. Definitions, such as income designations, that we apply to mark off groups may be momentarily useful in particular contexts, but the information they convey is superficial and ephemeral. We do not really know what any individual person believes, thinks, feels, or does solely because they, whether through self-identification or imposed definition, fall into any given category.
So, how do we ensure that we don’t dehumanize others as we read about and describe our world?
I suggest cultivating attitudes toward others founded on embracing our shared humanity. We can remind ourselves frequently that members of ‘x’ group are complex, individual people, whose views, actions, and histories may or may not align with those typically associated with the group. Even when we use categories, as we often must, we can be aware of their limitations; we must conscientiously negate their power to eclipse individuals. With these periodic mental checks, we acquire an underlying awareness of the human beings who populate our world, and we nurture our ability to recognize others as equally human. This attitude will ensure that our default mode of interaction is respectful and loving.
Most of all, I think a humanistic perspective can best be achieved by actively wishing good on those with whom we disagree. This can be difficult, especially if we consider people whom we truly believe to be doing harm in the world, such as influential politicians whose policies we despise, perpetrators of violent crime, or the leaders and members of ISIS. However, we immediately humanize our opponents if we authentically desire their well-being. Everything we would like in our own lives–joy, peace, love, self-realization, meaningful relationships, generic “good things”–we can desire for others. Not in a self-congratulatory, condescending, patronizing, or conditioned way (“You are very wrong/blind/self-deluded, but because I am enlightened and a better person, I will still wish you well. I hope you come to a better understanding of the issue”), but with genuine desire for the person’s well-being (“You are a human being, just like me, and you have your own convictions, aspirations, trials, and joys, just as I do. I think your beliefs on ‘x’ are fundamentally flawed, and I will do what I can to promote my own ideas, which I believe to be better for society. Regardless, even if you never agree with me, I sincerely hope life treats you well, and I wish you happiness”).
This is not to wish for the success of policies, viewpoints, or actions that we oppose, but to desire another’s good at an inner, fundamental level. This practice can also lead to humility as we remember that, for someone in the world, we also represent a person with detestable ideas or actions on whom it is nearly impossible to wish well-being.
With an awareness of others’ inherent worth as human beings–which one might characterize as a true, unconditional love of neighbor–we can then strive for our actions and speech to correspond appropriately. We might reflect on the messages we communicate as we speak, write, and share media. We can choose carefully what we read, and how we portray others. The more we expose ourselves to or utilize dehumanizing language, the more likely we are to act accordingly, perhaps even with violence toward those with whom we disagree. The less likely we are to work together constructively to seek and implement actual solutions that improve society. Conversely, if we view people as fellow human beings and not merely as members of an ‘other’ category, we can respond to conflict and disagreement with compassion.
My argument may raise ethical concerns; members of under-privileged or oppressed groups have historically, perhaps personally, been denied the compassion, equality, and inherent humanity for which I am advocating. Am I asking them to extend these same attitudes and ideals to all, including those who have historically or individually perpetrated injustices? Ultimately, I am. I believe that the only true way to minimize injustice in the world is to embrace the idea that everyone, even one’s opponents, are equal human beings. Otherwise, we are perpetuating dehumanizing viewpoints and language that will lead to further violence or oppression.
Lest my perspective appear too naive, as a passive “turn the other cheek” or a simplistic “two wrongs don’t make a right,” let me hasten to say that everyone should feel compelled to actively fight for justice in our social structures, laws, and relationships. Humanizing people who commit injustices does not displace advocacy to improve the world. I am not arguing for complacency, nor am I suggesting that all opinions are equally valid. Rather, I emphasize that all people are equally people regardless of their beliefs, however harmful or deplorable when practiced. We can demand justice even while recognizing the essential humanity within all involved.
An emphasis on others’ humanity also leads us to respond to injustice and suffering with sadness, rather than anger. Much has been made of anger as a catalyst for change, but I would suggest that sadness is a more effective emotion. We can use anger appropriately, especially if we keep it impersonally focused on injustices themselves. Too often, however, our anger at a situation spills over and becomes directed at individuals associated with that situation. Sadness, on the other hand, can mobilize us to action without inciting us to lash out at others. It leads us to demand more of ourselves as we ask,”What can I do to help?” “How can I alleviate this suffering or promote societal change?” “How might I be inadvertently contributing to this or other injustices?”
Sadness propels us to self-reflection, collaborative action, and compassionate service. Whereas anger often leads us to blame or impose change on others, sadness places responsibility on our own shoulders. It compels us to alleviate our fellow human beings’ suffering.
I am reminded of the story of a mother who, angered that her children had left the door open, slammed it closed. Only later did she realize that she had crushed a toad who had been sitting in the doorway. The mother’s anger seemed justified, for her children had not obeyed her specific instructions to close the door, but as a result the toad lost its life. This story does not contain the seriousness of many real-life issues and situations, yet it demonstrates that anger used to redress valid, authentic grievances may inadvertently do harm. In his article about literature’s ability to teach compassion, Gary Saul Morson reflects that “nothing makes us less capable of empathy than consciousness of victimhood. Self-conscious victimhood leads to cruelty that calls itself righteousness and thereby generates more victims.” If our cause leads us to stereotype and belittle others, than we too are perpetrating injustices. We must address societal wrongs passionately, visibly, and effectively, but let us do so in a way that recalls that every individual involved is a human being.
Although we think of violence as the terrible events we see on the news, most violence occurs quietly in our everyday lives. It does not even take the form of explicit insults or aggression. Rather, we sow the seeds of violence within ourselves whenever we assume knowledge of a person and then judge accordingly; whenever we dismiss a group of people as ‘flawed’ or ‘deficient’ in some way because they view the world differently; and whenever we, fueled by righteous indignation at how we or others have been wrongs, reduce others to opponents or enemies. Let us, instead, create a foundation for communication, cooperation, and genuine change by actively seeing and portraying the humanity of everyone even as we fight the injustices around us.