“These aren’t people. These are animals.”
Four years and a lifetime ago, Donald Trump made these racist comments about members of the gang MS-13. The way he spoke, it was easy to believe he was talking about all immigrants from Mexico. Given what we know about the man, it’s harder to believe he wasn’t. These comments weren’t that surprising to anyone who’s heard or read one of his speeches in six years. They represented a pattern of dehumanization of anyone who Trump opposed.
Dehumanization is a form of othering that’s taken place throughout history. David Livingstone Smith is the author of ‘Less than Human,’ a book about the history of dehumanization. He writes that the Second World War was the biggest dehumanization event in history. More than 70 million people died during the war. They died through incendiary bombs, nuclear weapons, and other means. Most were civilians. The Nazis murdered more than 6 million Jewish people through systematic genocide. They murdered Black people, queer people, Roma people, and more. Livingstone writes, “The Nazis were explicit about the status of their victims. They were Untermenschen — subhumans — and as such were excluded from the system of moral rights and obligations that bind humankind together.”
Hitler long admired america’s history with ethnic cleansing. He appreciated our country’s systematic assault on Indigenous people and nations. He approved of our country’s capture and enslavement of Black people; our laws that restricted immigration on the basis of race. These policies validated and informed Hitler’s own methods in Europe. Before he could cause that much death and destruction, he needed to hide their humanity.
Dehumanization is a vicious cycle. Kteily and Bruneau studied dehumanization of Latinos and Muslims around the 2016 election. They found a link between dehumanizing beliefs and support for policies that harmed the dehumanized. People on the receiving end of those dehumanizing messages started to believe them. They internalized those messages about themselves and others in their outgroup. The study found that people who felt dehumanized also started to think of other groups as less human. It’s clear that the acts of dehumanization have wide-reaching effects. It’s also clear that each of these effects played out during the 2016 election and beyond.
In some ways, every day brings more acts of dehumanization. Even as I tried to keep my distance, I felt so close to other people at the start of the pandemic. Now, almost two years in, the despair I felt at the beginning of the pandemic has led to numbness. Given enough time, that numbness can turn into indifference.
Covid deaths now number into the millions worldwide. Unlike most pandemics, they aren’t isolated to a single unfortunate geography or demographic. Covid can spread everywhere, in every town, and on every continent. For many, people suffering through covid have faded into the background. We compartmentalize them with victims of mass shootings, laborers in sweatshops, and others.
Or, we make fun of them. The schadenfreude, as others have pointed out, is unhealthy. It’s also distracting. Plenty of people online want to make fun of Florida and Texas as if they are a monolith. But even in those states there are millions of people who are trying to do the right thing. People are masking, keeping their distance, and staying home. There are also plenty of people who believe they are doing the right thing. They could be following information or advice from a discredited or malicious source. But who’s that source? What will they gain from spreading lies?
We’re still living with covid because of a much smaller group of people. They’re making millions spreading misinformation and warning people about the vaccines. As Erin McAweeney writes, “It’s both of a question of who benefits now — a profiteering televangelist or a growing movement against vaccination — but also who profits later from the gradual erosion of institutional belief.”
how we can push back
Let’s focus first on our locus of control and then move outwards from there. The u.s. surgeon general has a guide on how to address misinformation. They recommend a series of steps that anyone can take with the people in their lives.
- Listen: try to receive what people tell you, absent of your own judgment. Often, at this stage factchecking doesn’t help. Instead, try to understand why people believe what they do.
- Empathize: acknowledge that it can be difficult to trust some sources of information. Share any times you may have fallen for misinformation.
- Point to credible sources: highlight information from sources without a profit motive. Remind them that an expert on one topic may not be the most credible about another topic.
- Don’t publicly shame: this one is tempting! I used to get into arguments on Facebook that I know for a fact never changed a single person’s mind. It only stopped when I deleted my account (great tip). Have conversations one-on-one, without trying to generate clout.
- Use inclusive language: the pandemic is a confusing and scary time for lots of people. They say to, “Avoid using phrases such as, ‘You’re just wrong. Listen to me.'” (I know this one for a fact, too).
save your vitriol for the people who deserve it
It’s easy to get mad at the people who don’t trust the vaccines. And some people know what they’re doing when they promote that ideology. We need to focus on the people with the power and influence to disrupt our lives on a global scale.
I included the toolkit above because I think it’s important to rehumanize the people in our lives. We will need their support when we start looking at the system as a whole. Pops, aka hater-of-terfs, points out that people aren’t singlehandedly creating covid variants. Individuals exist in systems, and some systems are not ready for covid to disappear yet.
The pandemic is lining a lot of pockets. It’s also hurt many of the people who often face dehumanization in american society. Companies like Pfizer make billions selling its vaccine and treatments to rich nations. Why would they want to give it away for free? Oxford University announced they would donate their vaccine to AstraZeneca. Their only ask was that they would make the vaccine freely available worldwide. After the annoucement, the Gates Foundation scuttled Oxford’s plans. They recommended Oxford sell it for a profit with no requirements to distribute for free. Why would they do this if they wanted the pandemic to end as soon as we do?
The Gates Foundation has a paternalistic, white saviorist approach to helping the world. They also stand to profit from covid in a way that regular people never could. The Community Alliance for Global Justice says the Gates Foundation is more than a white savior. The scale their white saviorism operates is more akin to a form of neocolonialism.
This is a common theme here at be the future. Every time we fight each other, we are being divided. We can’t write people off because they aren’t like us. john a. powell says it best:
“We have at least two choices. Either we can continue to demonize, denounce and cut off communication with those who don’t share our beliefs, which will produce predictable outcomes. Or we can find ways to hold on to our values while allowing the possibility of engaging with our opponents.”
This isn’t just about covid, but it’s a place to start. The people who say “we need to love each other” are right to a point. It’s not that you must love someone no matter what they do. It’s about having the grace to hear people, understanding where they are, and doing the same for them. It’s telling people how you feel and respecting them enough to ask them to do something with that. And it’s giving ourselves the space when we or they can’t do that. The wealthy spend millions and billions creating walled gardens to separate them from us. We can’t shut ourselves off from the world any more than they can.
We each must find ways to extend some humanity back to other people in the world. People ruled by capitalism are having too much fun selling kindling while the world burns. We are facing too many calamities to let them take us down one by one.