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The Cruel Practice of Using Language to Dehumanize Others

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Did your parents ever say to you, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can never harm you?”

Mine did and, well, it turns out they were wrong. Words hurt and may do great harm in a person’s life.

Depending on who is doing the name-calling, the use of demeaning language to describe others, to name them in a derogatory way, is but a first step that may ultimately lead to suffering and death.

Much of our nation’s history illustrates the truth of this claim.

For instance, in order to control slaves and sell them as property, it was necessary to present them as less than human. This was done with cruel violence, but also by means of demeaning words.

Describing slaves using animal images and other slurs, American slaveholders successfully stripped people of color of their dignity and humanity.

Even the U.S. Constitution initially embraced this sentiment by legislating that African slaves were only three-fifths persons.

Our history offers other examples. Native Americans were subjected to a cruel sort of verbal dehumanizing.

Calling them savages and portraying them as animal-like in their fierceness, these proud people were gradually diminished to the point that they could be herded onto reservations and given treaties not worth the paper on which they were written.

We could continue with other examples – Irish, Italian and German immigrants all received racial nicknames intended to demean them.

This activity was greatly intensified for German and Japanese Americans during World War II.

And not just in America. Richard L. Rubenstein, in his book “After Auschwitz,” describes how German and Polish Jews were systematically stripped of their humanity by means of racial slurs and socially demeaning acts.

Because Jews were portrayed as sub-human, it became possible to have hundreds of thousands of Jews carted off in cattle cars to a fate not even worthy of the animals to which they were compared.

Sadly, the practice is still with us. President Donald Trump seems to have a knack for giving his opponents demeaning nicknames – “Little Mario,” “Lying Ted,” “Pocahontas” and so on.

But the truly egregious slurs the president reserves for people of color, especially Latin American immigrants. The titles are legion – illegals, rapists, drug lords, human traffickers.

Obviously, this activity goes on. But these words describe what people do, not who they are.

And when these names are imposed on an entire group of people, a slow and steady process of dehumanizing takes place that makes it easier to deprive persons of legitimate human rights.

Lost in the barrage of slurs is the sad reality of desperate people fleeing poverty and persecution who come to our borders seeking asylum and sanctuary from the horrors of their homeland.

The dehumanizing continues when the children of refugees are separated from their parents.

Nothing says “not human” quite as effectively as taking children away from their parents. This steady draining away of their humanity leaves immigrants and their children vulnerable to abuse.

Even those who criticize such inhuman circumstances are berated as somehow not quite human.

They are described as “wanting rapists and drug dealers” to enter America. How ludicrous. Emptying the opposition of their humanity and portraying them as monsters means they don’t have to be taken seriously.

There are some thorny issues of faith and ethics facing our nation today, especially for Christians.

It should come as no surprise that Jesus understood the direct connection between hateful, demeaning speech and death (Matthew 5:21-22).

As it turns out, Jesus was not talking about some form of metaphorical death, but actual death.

Emptying human beings of their essential worth as persons makes it easier to dispose of them.

The death camps in Poland and Germany, the Trail of Tears in the U.S. and the awful legacy of racially motivated lynchings make this sad truth all too clear.

There are other examples. For instance, former inmates are referred to in terms that seem designed to keep them from fully re-entering human society.

Epithets such as “ex-con,” “skels,” “jailbirds” and the like, often coupled with the loss of voting privileges, stamp “not quite human” on their foreheads.

Many former inmates live their lives after incarceration shackled by the worst moment in their lives – even after their debt has been paid.

Jesus comes again, kicking the legs out from under our many prejudices. “I was in prison, and you visited me; I was sick, and you took care of me; I was a stranger (immigrant), and you took me in.”

Of course, Jesus gave us the ultimate method for protecting the humanity of all God’s children when he said, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Sticks and stones can break our bones. But the way we treat our fellow human beings has the power to break their hearts and destroy Jesus’ dream of community – a beloved community where all people are valued and loved.

James L. Evans

James L. Evans is a retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published 5 books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies" (Abingdon Press (2011).