Confronting Dehumanizing Language: Impact, Consequences, and Responses
Dehumanizing language is more than words — it’s a dangerous force eroding empathy and fueling discrimination in society. From political discourse to everyday interactions, its repercussions echo through history and impact our present.
Understanding Dehumanization’s Impact:
During the Holocaust, dehumanizing language targeted Jews and other groups, stripping away their humanity. Our words, absorbed and spoken, hold immense consequences. The Holocaust is only one example of how dehumanizing language is used to erase individual identities and create a dichotomy of “us” vs “them.”
4 Reasons Why Dehumanizing Language is Dangerous
- Erosion of Empathy: Dehumanizing language diminishes our ability to empathize with others. By characterizing individuals or groups as less than human, it becomes easier for people to distance themselves emotionally and morally, creating an “Us vs. Them” mentality.
- Normalization of Discrimination: The use of dehumanizing language contributes to the normalization of discriminatory beliefs and behaviors. When people are consistently portrayed as subhuman or as a threat, it becomes easier to justify discriminatory policies, exclusionary practices, or even violence against them.
- Long-term Repercussions: Dehumanizing language can have long-term consequences, creating a legacy of animosity and mistrust between different groups. History has shown that dehumanization has played a role in some of the worst atrocities, as it creates a psychological justification for inhumane treatment and violence.
- Impact on the dehumanized group: Groups that are consistently dehumanized can often internalize this messaging leading to mental health crisis.
3 Ways to Respond to Dehumanizing Language
- Recognize it: Dehumanizing language is any language that reduces human beings. This could look like calling people animals or vermin, saying someone is crazy or insane, or calling someone alien or illegal. These are all forms of dehumanizing language.
- Question why it’s being used: What is the person or group using the dehumanizing language looking to achieve? Why do they want to dehumanize someone or a group of people. Who does this division serve?
- Call it out: Individuals and institutions need to have a zero-tolerance policy for dehumanizing language. Call it out among friends, family, political figures and the media.
Dehumanizing language corrodes compassion within our society, fueling discrimination and division. Recognizing and challenging it aligns with our mission—to reject hatred, promote understanding, and inspire change.
Helen Turner is the Director of Education for the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum.