“And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things.”
If I learned absolutely nothing else in high school English (disclaimer: I learned a lot in high school English), I DID learn that words have meaning and thus the potential to shape the world. I haven’t always applied this knowledge for good, but it’s always been in the back of my head.
Thus I have to look askance at President Trump’s tweet of June 19th, quoted below:
Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 19, 2018
There is a lot of interesting rhetoric going on in this tweet, but the specific bit I would like to call your attention to is in the second sentence, where he writes the phrase “pour into and infest our Country”. The verb “infest” is commonly used to describe vermin, such as insects and rats. However, Trump is not using it to talk about vermin, he is using it to talk about people. To employ such a verb against people is language that is used to dehumanize people and see them as subhuman. As time goes on, if a certain segment of humanity is seen as subhuman (or not human at all), one may find oneself willing to let them die — or worse, killing them outright.
In short, it is the beginning of a call to genocide. Nazis reduced Jews to vermin, as well, and Hutus reduced Tutsis to ‘trees’ and ‘cockroaches’ in the Rwandan genocide. Both language choices made it easier for the former party to not see the latter party as human when it came time to kill them.
The above is an example of Nazi propaganda. This one is rendered in Polish and aimed at Polish Christians. It reads, very simply: “Jews are lice; they cause typhus.” This is another point to the word ‘infest’. We exterminate vermin because they are a health hazard to human beings. Also, the other verb in that phrase, ‘pour into’ has connotations of things that just keep coming, almost like ants. Hmm.
What the Nazis did, what the Hutus did, and what Trump is doing here is called eliminationist language, and it’s not acceptable. It’s not acceptable to turn a human being into a lesser creature or an object, ever. Once you start thinking this way, once you accept this worldview, it’s not hard to leap from one set of humans to another, forgetting their humanity and eventually your own.
I don’t care if you think Donald Trump is the best thing since Sputnik, this sort of language is attempting to create a worldview. We’ve seen what lies at the other end of that worldview — suffering, violence, death, and cold, callous indifference. Don’t ever go there.
[This essay was adapted and expanded from a Facebook post I made earlier this week. Also, if you liked this post — or even if you didn’t — you might like my post “On Patriotism“.]
Image header: CC-BY-20 Steve Johnson; Poster image courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.