Humanity

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NaBloPoMo 2018: What I’m Learning

I have festered all day drafting this post in my head.  Procrastinating.  It’s still a jumble, so I’ll give it my best shot:

Donald Trump is a human being.  As much as I want to hurl epithets and lob rotten tomatoes at the television every time his face appears, or take a sledgehammer to whatever device I hear his voice on, I know these are unproductive responses to the emotions he triggers in me.  Breathe.  Must. Do. Better.

Ever since the 2016 campaign started in June of 2015, three and a half years ago already, I have felt an almost daily rage like nothing in my life yet.  I’m happy in some ways to report that it has not improved—I have not normalized this aberrancy of an administration.  But the constant animosity is not good for my health.  And the escalating divisions and vitriol between various groups of people, ever more visible on phone cameras and instant video, erodes our humanity every day.  I think I’m also increasingly sensitive to it all now.  On one hand I’m glad because awareness of humanity, and opposing those who diminish it, is good.  But again, it costs me.

Donald Trump is the personification of dehumanization (oh, the irony).  Some may feel this is an exaggeration, too strong a word to use.  It is not.  He is a hardened master of this insidious craft, and we are each capable of the same, whether we admit it or not.  It starts with making people abstractions—by seeing them, even very subtly, as less than whole people with feelings and needs equally important as our own.  Simon Sinek discusses it eloquently in his book Leaders Eat Last; you can read an iteration of his thoughts in this interview.  He describes CEOs like Jim Sinegal and Bob Chapman who, in hard times, gave employees raises and decreased workers’ hours, respectively, rather than laying anyone off.  I learned during a lecture, though I cannot find the citation (Boehm, 2015?) that only 17% of healthcare CEOs take the well-being of their employees into account when making decisions.  Sinegal and Chapman sacrificed some numbers to save people, Sinek says.  Too many leaders sacrifice people to save the numbers.  Turning people into abstractions is both akin to and a step toward dehumanizing them.

I have a friend who used to criticize people, ideas, or things by saying, “That’s (he’s) so gay.”  He would deny his negative attitude, deny that he was using ‘gay’ as a derogatory term.  He would also deny that he was biased against homosexuals.  I believe he would never treat anyone badly because they were gay, let alone commit any kind of hate crime.  But ‘being gay’ was a negative abstraction to him.  It was abnormal, something to be derided and shamed—to be scorned.  His objection to the idea of homosexuality made homosexuals, as a group in his mind, less than.  I think we all do this more often than we know.  I wrote about it last year, describing how doctors in different medical specialties talk about each other in pejorative stereotypes.  We dehumanize each other every damn day.

Brené Brown describes this clearly in her book Braving the Wildnerness:

Dehumanization has fueled innumerable acts of violence, human rights violations, war crimes, and genocides. It makes slavery, torture, and human trafficking possible. Dehumanizing others is the process by which we become accepting of violations against human nature, the human spirit, and, for many of us, violations against the central tenets of our faith.

How does this happen? Maiese explains that most of us believe that people’s basic human rights should not be violated—that crimes like murder, rape, and torture are wrong. Successful dehumanizing, however, creates moral exclusion. Groups targeted based on their identity—gender, ideology, skin color, ethnicity, religion, age—are depicted as “less than” or criminal or even evil. The targeted group eventually falls out of the scope of who is naturally protected by our moral code. This is moral exclusion, and dehumanization is at its core.

Dehumanizing always starts with language, often followed by images. We see this throughout history. During the Holocaust, Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen—subhuman. They called Jews rats and depicted them as disease-carrying rodents in everything from military pamphlets to children’s books. Hutus involved in the Rwanda genocide called Tutsis cockroaches. Indigenous people are often referred to as savages. Serbs called Bosnians aliens. Slave owners throughout history considered slaves subhuman animals.

Again, you may think that I over-exaggerate here.  What’s the big deal, you say, when surgeons say internists wear flea collars (stethoscopes)?  Or when Trump calls Mexicans criminals and rapists?  When he calls women dogs, Miss Piggy, and Horseface, you say, it has no real effect.  Sociology begs to differ.  It is a slippery slope from thoughts to words to action, and Donald Trump has poured oil on the Slip ‘n’ Slide by the bucketful.  Don’t believe me?  How else could we countenance forcibly separating toddlers from their parents when they arrive on our doorstep, fleeing violence and seeking asylum, sending the children across our country and deporting the parents, with no intention of ever reuniting them?  If that’s not dehumanization I don’t know what is.

Once again, Brené Brown says it much better than I:

Today we are edging closer and closer to a world where political and ideological discourse has become an exercise in dehumanization. And social media are the primary platforms for our dehumanizing behavior. On Twitter and Facebook we can rapidly push the people with whom we disagree into the dangerous territory of moral exclusion, with little to no accountability, and often in complete anonymity.

Here’s what I believe:

  1. When the president of the United States calls immigrants animals or talks about grabbing pussy, we should get chills down our spine and resistance flowing through our veins. When people call the president of the United States a pig, we should reject that language regardless of our politics and demand discourse that doesn’t make people subhuman.
  2. If you are offended or hurt when you hear Hillary Clinton or Maxine Waters called bitch, whore, or the c-word, you should be equally offended and hurt when you hear those same words used to describe Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, or Theresa May.
  3. If you’re offended by a meme of Trump Photoshopped to look like Hitler, then you shouldn’t have Obama Photoshopped to look like the Joker on your Facebook feed.
  4. When we hear people referred to as animals or aliens, we should immediately wonder, “Is this an attempt to reduce someone’s humanity so we can get away with hurting them or denying them basic human rights?”

When we engage in dehumanizing rhetoric or promote dehumanizing images, we diminish our own humanity in the process. When we reduce immigrants to animals… it says nothing at all about the people we’re attacking. It does, however, say volumes about who we are and our integrity.

Dehumanizing and holding people accountable are mutually exclusive. Humiliation and dehumanizing are not accountability or social justice tools, they’re emotional off-loading at best, emotional self-indulgence at worst. And if our faith asks us to find the face of God in everyone we meet, that should include the politicians, media, and strangers on Twitter with whom we most violently disagree. When we desecrate their divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our humanity.

So I resolve to stop participating in the erosion of humanity.  When I hear dehumanizing language from anywhere, especially among my own tribes, I must resist the urge to respond in kind.  I will look for opportunities to call it out.  It is so damn hard, I feel so often like a pressure cooker waiting for the valve to release.  So I must practice patience, kindness, mindfulness, deep breathing, and all of the habits I reviewed here yesterday.  I must find it in myself to always hold another’s humanity as sacred as my own, even (especially?) the people I despise the most.  It will be a lifelong exercise in discipline and agape love.  As the Obamas teach us, we must stay Fired Up, Go High, and Be the Change.  I can do this.  Donald Trump is a human being.