by CJ Williams Director of Outreach & Education
“But what does that refer to?”
The young man looked thoughtfully down at the stickie-backed label in his hand. It read yellow vermin.
“I don’t know…” he said, “I’d guess rats. But…”
We were both standing in front of a Darth Vader-height banner, honey-combed with images of -- he squinted at it despite the close distance, and I turned to look again too at the images of human beings. Humans in orange jumpsuits. Humans in utero. Humans in later age and humans with diverse facial features and skin tones.
“I suppose I should say who does it refer to,” I said. He chuckled.
This was the March For Life Expo, and the banner, and stickie-badge, were the first public display of Rehumanize Int’l’s Bad Words Project, an outreach tour that uses research and interactive tools to demonstrate how language is always at the root of dehumanization, and dehumanization at the root of our justification for violence.
All that is to say, this young man was trying to pin-the-tail on the object of this epithet, so to speak. The interactive part of the tour takes quotes from history, quotes typically from an authority or widely accepted news source of the time, which dehumanize whole classes of people through language.
“Yellow vermin,” muttered the young man, “I dunno. Sick people? Jews?”
But it was the date and context -- appended to the quote -- that gave us the hint: WWII, United States Press.
“The Japanese!” he said.
“Boom!” I high-fived him -- an awkward high-five as we both felt the juxtoposition of celebrating in light of an action that denied thousands of Japanese Americans their rights & property for years during the second world war.
An abrupt and chilling realization made us both pause then: Becuase he was Japanese descent.
More muffled, we shuffled through the stickie-badges and quotes: parasite quote on a human fetus, parasite, parasite… the next category of cards then...deficient human...then animal. He got most correct. Jews. Incarcerated inmates. The elderly. The differently abled.
By the end, he -- and a small crowd of curious others -- had an entirely new perspective on the mechanism by which a whole nation can kill without compunction. “So this is how abortion happens,” said a woman.
I’m not sure that it is the only way. But using bad words about any human being -- words that literally curse and kill by mislabeling and dehumanizing -- is a foundational act in the act of violence. When we see human, we have an incredibly difficult time harming that human. When we see, or more aptly, say inhuman, we have an incredibly easy time harming and killing that no-longer-subject. For we have made them objects.
This act of dehumanizing speech is subtle and moves through our society as easily as it slips over our lips. Raghead. Clump of cells. Parasite. Animal. Retard. Vegetable.
Making the act concrete, conscious, and visible from a historical perspective is what Bad Words does -- and this act makes the sneakiness surface level, no longer subterranean, giving us the chance to say no to dehumanizing, no to violence, and yes, yes, yes to the intrinsic value of each human being, calling them by their true name: human, valuable, good.
It was eye-opening to see eyes opened at the Expo, to see reactions to this outreach tour; and although somewhat more illustrious people got a look at it too while we were in DC, the responses of the people, from DC and across the nation, were most interesting. After all, our society begins with the individual and the community; and our government’s power is still derived from these people who -- horrified -- confronted the small spoken slips that slip the carte blanche over societal killing of human beings.
Governments follow the people. Actions follow words. Bad words kill; and truth creates a human-centered eco-system and society.