Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Words Dehumanize Me


Let’s start this post with a game.  Match the class of human beings to the word used to dehumanize them:

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 2.50.09 PMAnswer Key: 1. (E); 2. (B); 3. (A); 4. (F); 5. (D); 6. (C)

Depriving people of human qualities, i.e., dehumanization, legitimizes violence and can lead to unrestrained violence with no guilt. This is what occurred with many of the examples above:

  1. 800,000 to 1 million Tutsis were murdered in the Rwandan genocide;
  2. Six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust;
  3. 8,000 Bosnian Muslim (“Bosniak”) men and boys were murdered in Srebrenica and between 25,000-30,000 Bosniak women, children, and the elderly were forced to leave Srebrenica (not to mention that 100,000 people were killed in total via ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian war);
  4. 5 million Africans[1] were shipped to North America, South America, and the Caribbean as part of the slave trade;
  5. 120,000 Japanese-Americans were relocated to internment camps during WWII; and
  6. Between 1.7 and 2 million Cambodians were murdered by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

Dehumanization does not only occur during wartime. It is happening right now in the United States. A study conducted during last year’s primary election campaign found that many Americans “blatantly dehumanize Mexican immigrants and Muslims.”  The study included surveys designed to measure the extent to which Mexicans and Muslims are dehumanized by survey-takers and how people respond to those feelings.

As one example, the authors presented American participants with the “Ascent of Man” diagram and had each participant place groups of people where they thought they belonged on this scale. The participants placed Muslims and Mexican immigrants significantly lower on the scale than Americans generally. As a whole, the study uncovered “high levels of prejudice and dehumanization” towards both Mexicans and Muslims.  (Vox has a really great article on this study if you want to read more about it.)


Examples of Dehumanization

The Anti-Defamation League published a few examples of “key tactics” immigration opponents use to distort the debate over immigration:

  • Describing immigrants as “third world invaders,” who come to America to destroy our heritage, “colonize” the country and attack our “way of life.”  This charge is used against Latinos, Asians and other people of color.
  • Using terminology that describes immigrants as part of “hordes” that “swarm” over the border. This dehumanizing language has become common.
  • Portraying immigrants as carriers of diseases like leprosy, tuberculosis, Chagas disease (a potentially fatal parasitic disease), dengue fever, polio, malaria.
  • Depicting immigrants as criminals, murderers, rapists, terrorists, and a danger to children and families. (Note: this article was written in 2008 – eight years before Trump’s infamous “Mexicans are rapists” speech.)
  • Blaming immigrants for eroding American culture, institutions, and quality of life and impacting our environment and natural resources.

Specific Dehumanization of Mexican Immigrants

 I am sure you have seen these more recent examples of dehumanizing Mexican immigrants:

  • The President of the United States calling attention to crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, when various studies show that immigrants commit crimes at much lower rates than citizens do;
  • The President of the United States saying, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
  • Immigrants are living off of welfare (and hence stealing from the American people);
  • Immigrants are stealing Americans’ jobs; and
  • Immigrants refuse to learn English or assimilate.

The most common way to dehumanize Mexican immigrants is to refer to them as “illegal immigrants,” “illegal aliens,” or (most cringe-worthy) “illegals.” Insert expected response: “I’m tired of this ‘political correctness.’ These ‘undocumented immigrants’ came here “illegally” so they’re ‘ILLEGALS’!’”

That’s not entirely true. Using the word “illegal” incorrectly presumes that all undocumented immigrants entered the United States illegally, which is not the case. Many undocumented immigrants legally entered the country on a valid work or travel visa, but failed to leave when their visa expired. Unlawful presence is not a crime. While it is a violation of federal immigration law, the violation is punishable by civil, not criminal penalties. Improper entry in the United States, however, is a misdemeanor under federal criminal law, punishable by no more than six months of incarceration and up to a $250 fine for each unlawful entry.

Moreover, using “illegals” as a noun implies that a human being is perpetually illegal. A human being is being classified as being illegal as opposed to the actions of that individual. A 2010 study found that the term “illegal alien” evokes greater prejudice against Mexican immigrants because the term is associated with “increased perceptions of threat.”

Dehumanization of Muslims

We have all heard the following description of Muslims:

  • Dangerous animals
  • Savages
  • A comparison of Syrian refuges to rabid dogs[2]; and
  • Terrorists, while ignoring that Muslims suffer the most from terrorism.

Effects of Dehumanization

I am not suggesting that we are on the verge of genocide, as in the examples above. What I am suggested is that viewing Mexican immigrants and Muslims as sub-human, even subconsciously, makes it easier to support recent immigration policies, such as the recently amended Muslim ban and the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants. The study mentioned above found as much. The participants of the study who viewed Muslims in particularly animalistic terms were more likely to see them as a threat, and support such policies as “restricting their entry into the United States.” Similarly, viewing Mexican immigrants in that light was associated with very strong support for anti-immigrant policies such as a border wall. Other research has similarly found that people who hold negative stereotypes of ethnic groups like Latinos are more likely to support restricting immigration.

Dehumanization and the underlying fear of the unknown may lead to violence without guilt and targeting the following innocent people:

  • In 2015, three UNC students were murdered by their neighbor because they were Muslim;
  • Also in 2015, a Muslim teen was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school because his English teacher thought the clock looked like a bomb;
  • Earlier this year, another schoolteacher was (thankfully) fired after tweeting, “Why deport [immigrants]? Just kill them. She followed this lovely sentiment with “Or can just put a bullet in their head immediately.”;


  • There have been mosque attacks in the United States, Cape Town, and Quebec this year alone, and it is the beginning of March;
  • And most recently, three men of Indian origin were gunned down in two separate incidents by unconnected shooters who yelled variation of “Get out of the country!” before firing. These men were shot, not because they were Muslim, but because they are brown.

How to Combat Dehumanization

We do not know what else is to come. Trump made a lot of promises during his campaign that were directed against undocumented immigrants and Muslims. Along with the mass deportation and Muslim ban, he also spoke of a “Muslim registry,” and we also heard discussions of revised internment camps.

If you support these initiatives, you need to ask yourself why. Are your feelings towards Muslims and immigrants based on fact or have you fallen victim to dehuminizing propaganda?

We can all combat dehumanization in the following ways:

  1. Become associated with people who are different than us. Experts say this is the number one way to overcome dehumanization.
  2. Change the language we use to talk about immigrants.
  3. Do your own research to answer your own questions like “Is illegal immigration a crime?”, and “What is the current vetting process for refugees entering the United States?”

Above all, don’t buy into the propaganda and always keep the human aspect of people who are different than you in the forefront of your mind.  And remember this quote:

Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habits.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.

[1] Ben Carson recently referred to these slaves as “immigrants.” Samuel L. Jackson (and anyone with a brain) disagrees.  (Ben Carson has since “clarifiried” his position.)

[2] Another Ben Carson “gem.”

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