Last week, we talked about the film, Avatar, and how it is essentially an intergalactic retelling of the indigenous genocide that has happened repeatedly in society's history. Midway through writing that post, I found myself off on a tangent about language. After a half-hour of writing, I realized the whole diatribe was a separate idea that deserved to be treated in its own post, so I clipped it and saved it for this week.
The point: The language we use to talk about people can serve either to bring us together or push us apart. This othering language is clear in Avatar, but it's also present in many other spaces. I probably wouldn't have known to frame it in this way if I hadn't recently read Brené Brown's post on dehumanizing language, but now that I've seen it I notice it everywhere.
Listen to how the Colonel describes the Na'vi in the film. He uses words like savages and blue monkeys, summarizing their customs by saying, "We tried to give them medicine, education, roads, but they like mud."
The purpose of using this kind of language is to dehumanize the enemy so you feel better about doing all the horrific things you're about to do to them. In the context of the film, the Colonel needs to other the native population in order to feel justified in forcing them out of the area, destroying the land they call home, and ultimately killing them. The more he separates the Na'vi from the humans, the more the rest of the team is encouraged to do the same, and the more easily they can convince themselves their mission is acceptable - nay, laudable.
But, of course, this tactic reaches much farther than a little film from twelve years ago.
Colonizers and enslavers consistently used this kind of dehumanizing language to view those they systematically murdered and forced out of their homes as less than human. If the "Indians" were "savages," if Africans were "primitive," if these people could be seen as animals incapable of reasoning rather than strong humans with a sophisticated religious and social structure (albeit different from what the Europeans were used to) then it would be easier to conquer them using otherwise unthinkable actions.
As Michelle Maiese (quoted by Brown in the above article) says, this has the effect of making others "seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment."
The colonizers died hundreds of years ago, but this kind of othering language and imagery extends in both directions.
From biblical interpretations that dehumanize members of the LGBTQIA+ community, to Nazi propaganda that showed Jews at rats, to our former president's use of words like "dog," "animal," and "infest" to describe his opponents or immigrants, to the language used by people in some online groups like "libtards" and "lemmings," we use this language either consciously or unconsciously to separate our targets from ourselves. And it's become ever easier to do this in the age of the internet, when we can sling insults back and forth without even having to look people in the face.
This type of shorthand only serves to drive further wedges between us and the people who don't share our beliefs. In these fraught times, particularly in the USA but also in many other parts of the globe, we are in real danger of shriveling into self-contained pods with no meaningful contact, each viewing the others as less than human - thus fueling a self-feeding cycle of dehumanization and misunderstanding.
How can we get out of this dilemma? The same way we got into it: Language.
Recognize when you or someone else is using words that serve to separate another group from yours. Change your framework. Consider that most people are doing the best they can, making the best decisions they know how, with the information they have.
Seek to understand people who are different from you, and help them understand you and the experiences that have shaped your beliefs. Even if you think you know what they're all about, and even if you are certain neither of your beliefs will change, it's likely that by asking and answering questions, you'll learn more about the wide range of experiences people in this world have. Chances are good that you'll both walk away with a more human view of the other.
And this is what we need more of in this ever-evolving, interconnected world. Not more hatred and alienation.
More understanding, please. More humanity. I promise, we'll all be better for it.