On this day, July 1, 1962, the Belgian-administered region of German East Africa was granted independence. From the Belgian support of the racist “Hamitic” origin theory of Tutsi superiority to the creation of two states with Hutu majorities (rather than more homogenous nation-states), sadly the seeds of the Rwandan and Burundi Genocides were already sown.
Belgians defined “Tutsi” as anyone owning more than ten cows (a sign of wealth) or with the physical feature of a longer nose, or longer neck, commonly associated with the Tutsi; the physical distinctions were explained by postulating a partial descent from Hamitic peoples of the Horn of Africa or even European Caucasians.
Thirty years later, in 1992, Leon Mugesera gave the most famous speech in Rwandan history. Mugesera was an official in President Habyarimana’s MRND Party (Movement Révolutionnaire National pour le Développement). In his speech at a party conference in Gisenyi, Mugesera called on Hutus to kill Tutsis and to dump their bodies in the rivers of Rwanda… To send them back to Ethiopia where they came from….
Shereen Marisol Meraji recently had a new episode on her podcast Code Switch and interviewed a neuroscientist, a sociolinguist, a philosophy professor, and a historian about the use of term animal and animal metaphors to describe people.
Now, there is this Godwin’s Law; it says that the longer a conversation goes on, the more likely someone will be compared to Hitler or Stalin. Let’s just get that out of the way right now. The fact is that Hitler used derisive language to describe people. Does that make Hitler unique? No. Does that make anyone who uses derisive metaphors of animals, am I calling that person Hitler? No. But the fact of the matter is that language matters. Skilled orators can inspire people, but it is much easier to use code language to galvanize a mob.
In the podcast, Meraji and historian Ibram X. Kendi discuss the history of referring to enslaved West Africans as animals and beasts….
And David Livingstone Smith, a philosophy professor, who wrote “Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, And Exterminate Others,” he continued the discussion and reminded listeners of that famous “nits make lice” by John Chivington (a Methodist minister on top of everything else!).
The podcast also mentioned how, in WWII, the Japanese were referred to as devils, when the genocide-committing Germans were not? I wonder why?
There is a history of interconnection between White Privilege and the language of dehumanization…
On March 21, 1861, Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens spoke in Savannah, Georgia, and referred to the new Confederate government whose “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Another example that just saying something is a philosophical or moral truth doesn’t make it truth. But, perhaps more to the point, repetition will convince many people of a truth, even if it’s not…
Like on April 20, 1968, when British MP Enoch Powell delivered his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech in which he recounted the belief that, within “15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” Incidentally, Powell’s district in Parliament is now represented by Eleanor Smith, a daughter of Barbadian immigrants who, as a young girl, was taunted after Powell’s speech.
And then, there’s John Blake’s recent piece on the “M-Word.” US Senator George Allen, cruising to a re-election victory in Virginia in the summer of 2006” as Blake writes, and the 18 words that ended his political life: “So welcome, let’s give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America, and the real world of Virginia,” Allen said to an Indian-American in the mostly European-American crowd.
“Jimmy the Greek,” lost his job when he said that blacks were superior athletes because of breeding from slavery
Trent Lott resigned as Senate majority leader in 2002 after he seemed to suggest that the United States could have avoided “all these problems” if it had remained segregated.
Blake argues that overt racist speech went underground in 1968, the year that MLK, Jr. was gunned down and the year that George Wallace shouted Segregation Forever.
But now overt racist speech, dehumanizing language, and the language of violence is all back. Yes, there are pundits and politicians from both parties using violent language now, but it is clear who brought the language mainstream again. Arguing otherwise is simply the diversionary tactic of the Godwin Law Inverse.
The inverse of Godwin’s Law is a false declaration of victimization designed to immune our selves from responsibility. It goes like this, “Can you believe it? THEY’RE calling me/us/Trump Nazis! Nazis killed millions of people, I can’t believe THEY’RE insulting the memory of the Holocaust victims.”
It’s a logical conceit to protect the speaker and anything he or she might say, from criticism. The conversation then becomes about the accusation (inferred or otherwise) and not about the content of the offensive language in the first place.
Just last week, on June 24, 2018, Ed Henry of Fox News’ had a segment on TV with the onscreen banner which read “PUNDITS CALL TRUMP SUPPORTERS RACIST, NAZIS.” During the segment, Trump’s deputy campaign manager told Democratic strategist Joel Payne, who is African-American, that Payne was “out of your cotton-picking mind.” Yup, he said that. While, as I said already, the onscreen banner said, “PUNDITS CALL TRUMP SUPPORTERS RACIST, NAZIS.”
David Bossie, the Trump surrogate did apologize. I even have the feeling he didn’t realize the loaded-language which he had used. Rosanne Barr was held accountable, the Netflix Exec. But….
Ronald Reagan has been called the Teflon President, but I think its time to pass that baton to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Donald Trump has mainstreamed insensitive language, conspiracy theories, and replaced fact-based journalism with self-serving opinions of perceived reality.
The Donald’s Art of the Deal is the art of making destructive language fashionable while remaining beloved by his base, perhaps even beloved because of the dehumanizing discourse. After all, it wouldn’t resonate if it wasn’t already in so many of us already, right?
Blake concludes his piece by suggesting that the increase of dehumanizing language could be a new norm. Let us hope it is not, let us hope we will not become desensitized to it like violence and inappropriate language in music, movies, and TV.
In my book, This Day in Donald: The 140 Character President, I wrote, “Words matter. Language is a neutral reality; it can be used to hurt or to mend, to shame or to love, to tear down or to raise up.” The book is a collage of tweets, speeches, and statements by the 45th President of the United States and weaves together an overview of the how the 45th President of the United States chooses to communicate, represent himself, and represent the Office of the President. Each entry catches his choice (and indeed the current American capacity) to tear down others and his propensity to equivocate moral and personal condemnation of persons with whom he disagrees with on policy.
Yes, Leon Mugesera called for Tutsi’s to be killed and sent up river. Other Hutu extremists called Tutsis “cockroaches” that needed to be stamped out. Presumed racial superiority and hate, whether it be Hutu, Nazi, or White American must be relegated to history. Otherwise, if we embrace the language of dehumanization, we are replacing US President Abraham Lincoln with Confederate VP Alexander Stephens, replacing Bobby Kennedy with George Wallace, and replacing US Representative Tom Lantos, who survived the Holocaust, with the former White House strategist, Steve Bannon, who said to wear the label of “racist” as “a badge of honor.”
On March 15, 2016, I posted the following parody of Martin Niemoller’s famous poem on Facebook and submitted it to the Providence Journal. I received back an email from Ed Achorn, the editor of the Journal, arguing that the parody if invalid since no one has yet ‘come for the Mexicans.’
The New America?
In America, they came first for the Mexicans,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Mexican;
And then they came for the Muslims,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Muslim;
And then they came for the African-Americans,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t an African-American;
And then they came for me . . .
And there was no one left to speak for me….
We have lost the understanding that at the other end of each sound bite, text, tweet, email, and phone call, at the other end there is a person. It is not about “The” Blacks, “The” Jews, “The” Gays, “The” Muslims, “The” Liberals, “The” Democrats, “The” Republicans, or “The” Conservatives. It is about, and always should be about our fellow Americans and, indeed, our fellow humans.
There is still time to reject racist rhetoric and return to respectful discourse.
And the time is now.