Sunday, June 28, 2015

Resisting Hate-bait: Guarding against the tendency to dehumanize "the enemy"

I've seen it -- and have been appalled by it -- in political rhetoric, where opponents are said to "slither" (snakes aren't human, and are venomous into the bargain), or speakers to opponents' groups are portrayed as "throwing red meat" (as if to dangerous animals, again: not human, and dangerous). I've seen it in certain groups' rhetoric against Jews, teaching their children to regard them as "pigs" (again not human, and filthy). It's interesting that the animals to which "the enemy" is compared tend to be cold-blooded, or dangerous, or filthy. Not every animal comparison is meant as an insult; someone might be compared to an animal that is majestic or loyal or cute with no insult intended. But if the comparison is to an animal perceived as ugly, stupid, dangerous, or dirty, it is likely that the comparison is intended to dehumanize.

Why dehumanize the enemy? In the political realm it's not just cruelty, it's strategy for marginalizing individuals or groups. Animals aren't smart or rational enough to have considered opinions; they don't deserve the dignity of conversation. You don't have to justify why you won't listen to an animal. It's a waste of time, and dangerous, too. You don't have to justify the fact that animals don't have rights. And, more darkly, you don't have to justify killing animals; they aren't human. That has happened now and then in human history. And it begins with treating people like dangerous, stupid, or dirty animals.

Here I want to talk about how our culture starts very young, in teaching children to dehumanize others. It flies under the radar too often, and here I want to start simply by making people aware of the problem. Notice how a famous children's author cues her readers which characters they are supposed to hate by referring to the characters in sub-human terms -- that, is, by dehumanizing them. The animal comments are often even less subtle than having them perform animal actions like slither or snarl or waddle.

Some early introductions from book 2 of a series:

  • Aunt Petunia was horse-faced and bony.
  • Dudley was blond, pink, and porky. 
  • Uncle Vernon sat back down, breathing like a winded rhinoceros ...

From book 3:

  • Aunt Petunia, who was bony and horse-faced
  • Uncle Vernon snarled
  • Dudley came waddling down the hall

From book 4:

  • her lips pursed over her horse-like teeth 
  • ."You," he barked at Harry. [Vernon again]
  • Dudley was crammed into an armchair, his porky hands beneath him

In book 5, I expect we could look up the introductions of Harry's relatives again, though the new villain of the book might add some insight as to how an author dehumanizes a character, and does it in a way calculated to cause revulsion:
He thought she looked just like a large, pale toad. She was rather squat, with a broad, flabby face, as little neck as Uncle Vernon, and a very wide, slack mouth. Her eyes were large, round, and slightly bulging. Even the little black velvet bow perched on top of her short curly hair put him in mind of a large fly she was about to catch on a long sticky tongue. 
The character of Dolores Umbridge is almost entirely hate-bait, one of the characters introduced in order for the audience to despise them, and to be glad when something bad happens to them. Even Voldemort is given a more sympathetic backstory than Vernon Dursley or Dolores Umbridge.

An author can tempt -- or manipulate -- hatred from her audience. One of the standard tools for doing that is to dehumanize a character. And of course it's just fiction. That doesn't make it one bit smarter to accept hatred as part of how we react to people.


John Flanagan said...

This is something everyone does, including the writer of this commentary. As Christians, we are to guard our hearts, mind, and speech, but all of us without exception violate this admonishment from time to time. How do you not dehumanize an enemy who comes into your town like ISIS and begins beheading innocent people, killing and raping? There is a limit to our own ability to not dehumanize such egregious violence and the perpetrators. Of course, I get your point, but it is as useless to complain about our tendency to hold certain things and people in disdain......and I seriously doubt even you can keep your emotions under control either at times.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi John

It's never going to be about whether I can keep my emotions under control, or whether you can, or whether JKR can. It's about the scale for how we react in general -- if we're becoming hypersensitive to evil in others and desensitized to evil in ourselves, whether we're using evil in others as an excuse to mirror it in ourselves. Here's the first place that it matters: if we give the full "dehumanization" treatment to Uncle Vernon or Dolores Umbridge, where do we have left to go when we meet someone with more serious "evil issues"? If we've maxed out our scale already, we find ourselves reaching for the next thing. Which is always worse.

I'd hope to reset the scale. Especially if I have trouble with it, and you do, and JKR does, and (as you say) "this is something everyone does." If we don't dehumanize someone for a trivial thing, we will in fact be slower to escalate beyond reason.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

"If we don't dehumanize someone for a trivial thing, we will in fact be slower to escalate beyond reason." - Good advice.

Sean said...

I wonder if we might read Rowling's characterization here not as hate-bait but as revealing the truth that our sins make us, in some sense, less fully human.

Of course, there's an important difference between recognizing that sin dehumanizes and actually encouraging people to see others as less than human. The former might lead to repentance, but the latter is evil.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Martin - Thank you for the encouragment.

Hi Sean - I think we can understand that our sins make us less fully human; it's important to resist the urge to apply that to anyone besides ourselves. It's such a short road to seeing someone else as a toad.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Joe Hinman said...

great point,and needsmaking.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Joe, good to see you again. I left a comment over on your blog.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Amillennialist said...

The intent of the author must be considered.

Did John the Baptizer dehumanize those whom he referred to as a "brood of snakes"? Did the Son of God dehumanize those whom He called "white-washed tombs"?

We should be patient and kind -- the way we want others to treat us -- but when dealing with actual evil, something with a little more edge to it is sometimes necessary.

God bless you.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi 'Mil

I do expect that J the B dehumanized people by calling them snakes. And Christ went for the "dead" angle with white-washed tombs.

How often do we look for a way to give vent to our edge? Are we looking to find that justification for when we can deem it necessary to cross the line? Look how often the news outlets cater to stories that are chosen because they give us justification to cross that line. How often in fiction and storylines are the conflicts chosen because they give justification for crossing that line. It's a temptation, to be unkind. Are we that confident of our ability to deal with actual evil without mirroring it? It's a problem area for people in general.

The problem is real: When "patient and kind" doesn't work [did we see it as a tool?], then what? Lead us not into temptation ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF