As the country and the world become even more divided along political, religious or national lines, language is increasingly used to dehumanize its targets. Language itself is being weaponized so as to condition people to consider the targets of that language as less than human.
This allows for the justification of committing any number of unethical, immoral or even atrocious acts toward them.
Let’s take a step back just for perspective.
In the military, you may hear terms like “acquire the target” used to describe the process for taking aim with your guns at a person or a group of people. This helps the soldier or the fighter pilot or the gunner to temporarily think more clearly about the mission at hand as opposed to the more fundamental human dynamics at play. It provides a sort of suspended reality in the heat of battle.
In these situations, military personnel must be able to execute their assigned duties with the greater good in mind and without any hesitation. This requires a laser focus on mission and trained behaviors. The language of the military reflects this.
Out in the civilian world, however, it’s a little different. We have the responsibility to see each other as humans first in all situations and contexts. Yes, we may be customers, employees, students, investors or go by whatever job title we may have. But at all times a sense of humanity cannot be lost, or we fail in our own mission in life.
This makes the current trend toward dehumanization as a public relations or communications strategy even more concerning.
All you need to do is read or watch the news to find examples. How often do we hear one group of fellow Americans referred to as “extremists,” “fascists” or “Nazis?” This is the weaponization of language that serves to dehumanize its targets so as to justify any action the speaker wants to take against them.
This is nothing new. E.B. White, once wrote at the height of the 1948 presidential election, “It is getting so a fascist is a man who votes the other way. Persons who vote your way, of course, continue to be ‘right-minded people.’”
It’s one thing to engage in idle name-calling, and another to effectively frame the target of your labeling as deserving of denial of basic human rights, due process, or access to daily life.
For this reason, I would caution not to trust anyone who is quick to call someone else a term that dehumanizes. This is a sign of a morally suspect communications strategy at play. One that seeks to dehumanize and then justify inhuman acts that you would never consider doing to an actual human being if you paused to think about it. Yet under the spell of this new, dehumanizing terminology, you find yourself favoring deplorable acts targeted at someone who has been effectively dehumanized for you.
As consumers of media, we have to be better than this. As professional communicators, there is just no excuse.