There’s a Dark Political History to Language That Strips People of Their Dignity

Residents of Baltimore, Maryland, seen here, were the object of dehumanizing language from President Trump.  REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Residents of Baltimore, Maryland, seen here, were the object of dehumanizing language from President Trump. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Dehumanizing language often precedes genocide.

One tragic example: Extreme dehumanizing language was a strong contributor to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. As I have written, the Hutu majority used a popular radio station to continually refer to Tutsi tribal members, a minority in Rwanda, as “cockroaches.”

As support for this characterization grew among Hutus, it essentially stripped away any moral obligation to see Tutsis as fellow humans. They were just vermin that needed to be eradicated.

Students of 20th century history will also recognize this pattern of dehumanizing language in the lead-up to the genocide committed by the Turks against Armenians, where Armenians were “dangerous microbes.” During the the Holocaust, Germans described Jews as “Untermenschen,” or subhumans.

On July 27, President Trump tweeted that Baltimore was a “"disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” and “No human being would want to live there.”

The Baltimore Sun charged back with an editorial headlined “Better to have a few rats than to be one.”

I’m a scholar of conflict management. This back-and-forth got me reflecting on how extreme, dehumanizing exchanges like this can escalate into destructive outcomes.

President Donald Trump.  AP/Carolyn Kaster

President Donald Trump. AP/Carolyn Kaster

Insults and conflict

The goal of my research in hostage negotiation and divorce mediation is to help police negotiators and court mediators shift out of a charged situation into problem solving.

Generally, when people respect one another they have a fairly easy time problem solving. But when one person challenges the other’s identity with personal insults, both parties forget about the problem-solving task and focus only on what I call “identity restoration,” which means trying to save face and restore personal dignity.

This shift pushes them into a charged conflict that can quickly escalate.

After all, many studies over the last several decades have reinforced the finding that a human being’s group identity is their most prized possession. People craft their identities to fit into a core group – as a member of a family, a profession or a tribe, for example – that is vital to our social standing. In some cases, such as adopting the identity of a U.S. Marine, for example, group belonging may be necessary to personal survival.

Most of the time identity challenges are fairly minor and easily ignored so that problem solving doesn’t get off track too quickly. A boss might say at a meeting, “Weren’t you supposed to have that report ready today?” A quick defense of one’s identity as a competent professional for that company and the matter is dropped and we’re back to work.

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Conflict and Escalation

When the challenges are more severe, the identity defense becomes fiercer. Voices get raised, emotions swell and people become locked in a spiraling conflict, which is characterized by a sustained attack-and-defend cycle.

Hostage negotiators and divorce mediators are trained to shift dialogue away from identity threats and into problem solving by isolating divisive issues and coming up with specific proposals to address them.

Unfortunately, if there are no controls over language escalation, and parties start making references that can be interpreted in extreme, dehumanizing terms, they may come to believe that the only way to restore their identities is by physical domination.

Words no longer work. When parties cross over this very thin line, they fall into an identity trap with little hope of escape until the violence ends.

While I don’t expect the conflict between the president and Baltimore to escalate into actual violence, these kinds of exchanges can make it more acceptable for followers to use this kind of language.

When the President encourages crowds to chant, “Lock her up,” and “Send her back” at rallies, or describes a city as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being” would want to live, it sets a climate in which using lethal, dehumanizing language seems normal. That is simply dangerous.

WILLIAM A. DONOHUE is a distinguished Professor of Communication at Michigan State University.


Who is JR?

Not much is known about the semi-anonymous artist who calls himself "JR." We know that he is young—flirting with age 30—French, and presumably has a name involving the letters "JR." But not much else is known about the enigmatic past of the artist who has emerged on the world stage as the most lauded street artist since Banksy.

When people hear the words "street art," they immediately picture graffiti: spray-painted images, slogans, or "tags," illegally marked onto the side of derelict urban buildings. This idea of street art must be abandoned when examining the oeuvre of JR. While it is true that JR began as a traditional street artist, using aerosol spray cans to paint on buildings around his native Paris, his artwork and his vision drastically changed when he discovered a camera that had been lost on the Paris metro. He began to document his artistic escapades, and those of his friends, and eventually abandoned traditional graffiti for something more easily duplicable: photocopies of the pictures themselves. Thus began the principle act of JR's craft, the pasting of large copies of his photographs on the sides of buildings. As with most street art, this started out as an illegal act, and one that mainly took place on the sides of run-down urban structures.

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But then something happened: JR's art started to capture things that were extremely relevant to the general public, and capture them in extraordinary ways. His exhibitPortraits of a Generation spanned the 2006 youth protests and riots, a turbulent period in recent French history. It would've been easy for JR to capture scenes of burning cars, looted stores, or angry teenagers holding weapons; the essential stock photographs of a small-scale revolution, material that would surely gain him some acclaim and media attention. But JR did the opposite: in a time where there was rhetoric about the pervasive lines drawn by race and class in modern French society, JR chose to challenge the paradigms and media representations of the rioting youth. He visited friends in housing projects and captured them in a way the media had not, and perhaps had chosen to not: black French youth making funny faces, teenagers of Middle Eastern origin crossing their eyes at the camera— images that were unexpected, light-hearted, honest and, above all else, human.

JR blew up the photos to huge formats, and pasted them on the walls of the most bourgeois areas of Paris. It was all very illegal… at first. But there was something unmistakably powerful about JR's art: these were giant images of individuals previously viewed to be dangerous thugs, but here they were: kids, fooling around, unthreatening. JR's images worked to diminish the tension inherent in interactions between Parisians in the mainstream and in the margins. And then something happened: his images were wrapped around the buildings of the Paris City Hall. And then JR's street art became "official." Although he would have continued even if it hadn't.

From Paris, JR began to work on the largest canvas on earth: the world itself. His work has taken him all around the globe, from his famous Face 2 Face exhibition where he posted pictures of Palestinians and Israelis face to face in a number of Palestinian and Israeli cities and on the Wall itself; to the most dangerous favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, or the space above the High Line in New York City. His work captures the faces of the world's marginalized groups and populations: women, the extremely poor, the indigenous. He takes those who are often off the radar and makes them a large and profound part of the everyday experience of cities. His art does more than turns heads, it changes perceptions.

JR’s work has won wide international acclaim, even winning him the 2011 TED Prize. At first put off at the notion that he was supposed to save the world, JR sighed when the mandate was clarified: change the world, not save the world. “Oh, alright,” he said. “That’s cool.” In a TED Talk later in 2011, he continued by saying, “Art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things, but to change perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world.” And his art really has.

Calah Singleton recently graduated from Yale, where she majored in Political Science. Her interests include urban studies, international development, and learning new languages. 

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