June 13 2024

The Dangers of Dehumanizing Language: Insights from Interreligious Studies

by Jennifer Howe Peace, Andover Newton Theological School

protestors in Paterson NJ

Image: Interfaith March in Paterson, New Jersey, in response to the Trump administration's executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. February 5, 2017.

Given the belittling rhetoric that characterized the last campaign cycle and the Twitter-driven rancor of contemporary discourse, it can be tempting to either dismiss it all as political spin or tune it out because of the sheer volume of unsubstantiated claims and disturbing caricatures. As scholars and members of the American Academy of Religion, one contribution we can make to mitigate the white noise and reactivity of our current political culture is to help focus public attention on key issues relevant to our expertise that might otherwise disappear in the never ending flow of fast-paced news cycles.

In this vein, an area that deserves serious attention is the proliferation of dehumanizing language cropping up in public discourse and at the highest levels of government. As a professor of interfaith studies at Andover Newton Theological School, where I’m responsible for training ministers in formation, I draw resources from my field of study to talk with my students about the dangers of dehumanization—a potent step in peeling back the moral conscience that protects our most cherished values about how we are to treat each other. Language that deprives people of human qualities, attributes, individuality, personality, or spirit is a threat to the fabric of our civic life. As scholars of religion, we have a particular role to play in identifying patterns of thought, dangerous stereotypes, and problematic sources of influence on our national ethos—particularly when they touch on our area of specialty—religious practitioners and traditions.

The tendency to dehumanize individuals, lumping them into groups, comparing them to diseases, infestations, monsters or other malignant nonhuman threats, is not the exclusive practice of the political right or the political left. In 2016 Rep. Hank Johnson (D., GA) compared Jewish people living in disputed territories in Israel to “termites”and Michael Flynn, a retired US Army Lieutenant General and registered Democrat who had a short-lived appointment as National Security Advisor in the current (Republican) administration, described Islam as a cancer.2 It is easy to slip from disagreeing with a policy or a practice to demonizing a people. But this is a line we must recognize and resist crossing.

A New York Times article from February 1, 2017, with the headline, “A Sinister Perception of Islam Now Steers the White House,” written by Scott Shane, Matthew Rosenberg and Eric Lipton, heightened my concern about a resurgence of such language.3 The focus of the article is on the distorted views of Islam held by many of President Trump’s advisors, particularly White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon, and then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (who was still advising Trump when this NYT article was written). The article mentions organizations and figures associated with Bannon and Flynn who share a deeply divisive “us/them” narrative about Islam and Muslims.

Among the many troubling attitudes and associates influencing Trump’s policy towards Muslims, a profile of Frank Gaffney Jr. stands out. Gaffney is founder and president of the Center for Security Policy, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as an anti-Muslim hate group. Gaffney, who, as reported in the NYT article, was a frequent guest on Bannon’s Breitbart radio program, argues that a “stealth Jihad” is underway by everyday Muslims in mosques and student associations in the United States. Gaffney is quoted as saying, “They essentially, like termites, hollow out the structure of the civil society and other institutions, for the purpose of creating conditions under which the jihad will succeed.”

This is where I paused in my reading of the Times article and began thinking about my role as a citizen and a scholar. One of my ethical commitments and a hallmark of interreligious and interfaith studies, is an emphasis on the importance of safeguarding the religious identity of others, particularly those from minority traditions.4 Gaffney’s comment and the possibility that this attitude is not only tolerated, but in fact dominant in the ideology of advisors to Trump, are significant threats to this value. As Asma Afsaruddin, a professor of Islamic studies at Indiana University and chairwoman of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, who was cited in the Times article, warns, “The White House is a huge soapbox…The demonization of Muslims and Islam will become even more widespread.”

We know from studying history, politics, and religion that dehumanizing language can have dire consequences. Scholar and professor of historical theology Beverly Eileen Mitchell unmasks the systematic dehumanization at the heart of both White supremacy and anti-Semitism in her powerful book, Plantations and Death Camps: Religion, Ideology, and Human Dignity. Mitchell defines the “sin of dehumanization” as “defacement” and writes: “The absence of empathetic imagination—the inability to see members of the “pariah” group as being like oneself—is the psychological foundation for participation in dehumanizing a fellow human being.”5

A new wave of brain science is adding to our understanding of the neurological dimension of this phenomenon. Neurologist David Eagleman reports on work by Lasana Harris of the University of Leiden in Holland. Harris looks for changes in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), a region of the brain that “becomes active when we’re interacting with, or thinking about, other people—but it’s not active when we’re dealing with inanimate objects, like a coffee mug.” Showing pictures of people from different social strata to volunteers while measuring their brain activity, Harris “finds that the mPFC is less active when they look at a homeless person. It’s as though the person is more like an object.” Considering this study and his own experiments related to the neurology of empathy, Eagleman sees a chilling link to the history of genocide: “Genocide is only possible when dehumanization happens on a massive scale, and the perfect tool for this job is propaganda: it keys right into the neural networks that understand other people, and dials down the degree to which we empathize with them.”6

Comparing Muslims to termites comes straight out of the propagandist’s handbook. Similar rhetoric was used by Nazi propagandists preparing the conditions for the Holocaust when they compare Jewish people to rats or by broadcasters in Rwanda in the lead up to the genocide there in 1994 when members of the Tutsi ethnic group were described as inyenzi (cockroaches). Similarly, as Eagleman notes, the main Serbian news network, Radio Television of Serbia, perpetuated false and negative stories about Bosnian Muslims and Croats including one “unfounded story that Muslims were feeding Serbian children to the hungry lions of the Sarajevo zoo.” It is much easier to incite violence and mobilize crowds when your enemy is portrayed as an unfeeling monster or an immoral infestation.

In the wake of the Holocaust, the United Nations created a new crime under international law to prosecute those responsible for “direct and public incitement to commit genocide” (Article III (c) of the Genocide Convention). This was the charge leveled against Julius Streicher during the Nuremberg trials because of his role as publisher of Der Stürmer, an anti-Semitic German weekly. It was also the charge applied to three Rwandans—one who owned a tabloid that published vitriolic articles against the Tutsi and two who founded an incendiary radio station that demonized and called for the death of ethnic Tutsi.7

This is all about degrees—the language we use for and about each other can seem harmless on one level. But our language reflects patterns of thinking and creates categories of us/them polarization that religious leaders have long decried. In his book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls the impulse to divide people into good or evil, “pathological dualism,” a mindset that can fuel violent action.8 Pope Francis warned against this tendency, during his presentation to the US Congress in September of 2015:

There is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization, which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you as a people, reject.9

Interreligious studies provides some tools and strategies for rejecting the temptation of this simplistic reductionism. With its emphasis on dismantling stereotypes, building authentic relationships across lines of religious difference, highlighting moments of interreligious cooperation, and sharing stories that build an appreciative understanding of diverse traditions, we can contribute to cultivating a national ethos that rejects polarizing rhetoric. Educational models that emphasize the importance of getting to know each other across lines of difference (face-to-face) can counteract the “defacement” Mitchell names as the result of “the sin of dehumanization.”

Rejecting policies that target religious groups, such as the Trump administration’s travel ban that singles out Muslims majority countries, is an essential part of upholding and protecting the rights of religious minorities. However, in tandem with protests in airports, city squares and courtrooms, I see it as my obligation as an educator and scholar of religion to think about the sources of the attitudes informing such policies. Pointing out patterns of thought and the familiar tropes that fuel this (and related policy moves) will help us uncover and debunk destructive ideologies. We must actively call out, protest, and reject any rhetoric that reduces individuals or communities of people to insects, infestations, or any other “less-than-human” beings. This kind of language cannot be dismissed as harmless figures of speech. It corrodes our capacity for empathy and compassion and is a weapon in creating the conditions that fuel mass atrocities.


1 Rep. Johnson is quoted as saying: "There has been a steady [stream], almost like termites can get into a residence and eat before you know that you’ve been eaten up and you fall in on yourself, there has been settlement activity that has marched forward with impunity and at an ever increasing rate to the point where it has become alarming," Johnson later apologized for these remarks. Adam Kredo, “Congressman: Jewish Settlers Are Like Termites,” The Washington Free Beacon, July 25, 2016, accessed on July 26, 2017 at: http://freebeacon.com/politics/congressman-jewish-settlers-like-termites/

2 Flynn, who has called Islam as a whole a "cancer" in the past, made the comments during a speech to the Ahavath Torah Congregation in Stoughton, Massachusetts. Video of his speech is available on YouTube and was reviewed by CNN's KFile. "We are facing another 'ism,' just like we faced Nazism, and fascism, and imperialism and communism," Flynn said. "This is Islamism, it is a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people on this planet and it has to be excised." Andrew Kaczynski, “Michael Flynn in August: Islamism a ‘vicious cancer’ in body of all Muslims that has to be excised,” CNN Politics, November 22, 2016, accessed on July 26, 2017 at http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/22/politics/kfile-michael-flynn-august-speech/index.html

3 Scott Shane, Matthew Rosenberg, and Eric Lipton, “A Sinister Perception of Islam Now Steers the White House,” New York Times, February 1, 2017, accessed July 26, 2017 under the alternate headline, “Trump Pushes Dark View of Islam to Center of U.S. Policy-Making,” at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/01/us/politics/donald-trump-islam.html?_r=0

4 For more on my definition of interreligious/interfaith studies, see the Surjit Singh lecture, “Spiritual Other/Spiritual Self: Models of Transformative Interfaith Work,” presented at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA 2013. Accessible at: https://vimeo.com/61125666.

5 Beverly Eileen Mitchell, Plantations and Death Camps: Religion, Ideology, and Human Dignity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 11.

6 David Eagleman, The Brain: The Story of You (New York: Pantheon Books, 2015), 154–156.

7 “Incitement to Genocide in International Law,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007839 accessed on July 26, 2017. For a powerful exploration of propaganda and the tactics of dehumanization that can also be used as a resource in the classroom, there are a broad range of excellent resources on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website including: https://www.ushmm.org/propaganda/

8 Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (New York: Schocken, 2015).

9 Pope Francis’ full address can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBM7DIeMsP0

Jennifer Howe Peace is associate professor of interfaith studies at Andover Newton Theological School and founding codirector of CIRCLE (the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education). She is the founding cochair of the Interreligious and Interfaith Studies Program Unit at the AAR. Her current writing project is a co-edited volume with Eboo Patel and Noah Silverman called Towards a Field of Interreligious/Interfaith Studies due out from Beacon in 2018.

She is working with multiple cosponsoring organizations to launch a new Association for Interreligious/Interfaith Studies at this year’s AAR Annual Meeting in Boston. For details and to register for the lunch and workshop on Friday, November 17, 2017, click here.