I ended up with three small children for a short period of time -- never mind how, these things happen when you’re out and about in Boston. “Can you find the rehumanizing idea in that?” I asked, grasping for something as they started to hare off into the street. (Because they were Mulan, Moana, and a Pokemon looking for treasure.)
All of them about four, the oldest stopped. “Re-hoo?” she said.
The other two came back. Moms were in deep conference about broken transportation, and tourism. I hiked my laptop higher on my shoulder, and dropped my bag full of outreach signs behind my heel.
“What is it?” said the other girl.
“It’s something in a story, or in life, that … hm. Think of it like this: When someone treats you like something you’re not, or calls you by a name that’s not true, what should you do?”
“Tell them the truth!” bellowed the smallest.
“Why would they do that?”
Good question. But that’s not what I said, “Good answers -- so if your name is --”
“What if someone called you Sam?”
She made a face.
“What if someone called you cockroach?”
The smallest was the loudest, again. “SLUG ‘EM!” she bellowed. (She was also playing the Pokemon in the previous game.)
Yes, and No, I told her -- I agreed that the injustice was a deep one, and that slugging could be used in defense if she were physically attacked. But obviously cockroach struck all of them as a very dehumanizing epithet.
So we started looking for parts in their favourite stories where people were called bad things, untrue things, or got restored and saved by someone calling them by what they really were.
The bad guys in Pokemon (Team Rocket) call Ash a “twerp”. (“But he’s a friend. And a boy.”) It was a bit of a stretch for them, but I brought up that Mulan was pretty much called a “dishonor” ...and we remembered that her father and the Emperor then honor her, calling her “daughter” and “hero”. In Moana, the evil monster is, well, called a monster. “But it was really an owie!!!!” shouted the smallest one -- I never got her name.
“Charlie Brown,” Galina added. “The tree and Charlie Brown.”
How? I asked her, puzzled. She sort of floored me by saying they were both wilty and called stupid, but they just needed love.
“That’s it!” I high-fived her. “Rehumanized. And tree-ized.”
“I,” said the little one again, “AM NOT A COCKROACH.”
“Exactly,” I said, “You’re a human, and a girl, and rehumanizing is calling you what you are.”
“I know what I am,” she said.
I loved this kid.
The third, the quiet one, asked quietly if she could be Moana too. I told her that was a great idea: they were both girls, both probably brave.
But then the moms came back, having decided on an Uber out of the city, and a pick up by cousins, and I think a tow for the vehicle; and I don’t know why they let me or asked me to keep an eye on their little ones, but I got to do my job in a unique and incomparably delightful way that afternoon, talking about rehumanizing through stories with very small humans...all on the way to what I thought was the event downtown.
But it reminds me that this is my job, and our job, every day in our communities: to listen, to engage and learn, to rehumanize wherever we go. The culture of death and dehumanization does not stop blaring its message of desolation, isolation, and deception.
Because of the stories we tell -- the language we use -- our society sanctions abortion, discrimination, racism.
And those are the truly bad words in our vocabulary.
Can you find the rehumanizing language in the movies and stories you see and hear each day? Can you pick out the absolute affront of being called a “cockroach” (or a clump of cells, a felon, a POW, an object, disabled…)? Feel it.
Listen to the clear common sense of the human child who knows they are human, and knows it is complete injustice to be called, or treated as, anything else.