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Bad Words: Modeling Rehumanizing Action Against Dehumanizing Talk

Is language an area that deserves attention in the quest for the protection of human rights? This question was addressed by pro-life feminists at the Life-Peace/Justice Conference in Pittsburgh this October. The panel was made up entirely of women, and regardless of whether women (as one thoughtful observer wondered before this closing keynote discussion) are more receptive to the subtleties of words, it is certainly true that they, amongst other groups of human beings, have been particularly jarred and jabbed by words that demean, mis-label, and dehumanize them.

What does the revolution look like?

Rosemary Geraghty, the New Media Coordinator for Rehumanize International and the panel moderator, remarked at the opening of the keynote: “We’re now going to talk about bad Words. And when we say bad words, we don’t mean curse words…we mean words that dehumanize.”

As Rehumanize’s Director of Outreach & Education, I briefly introduced the Bad Words Project. The Bad Words Project, recently launched by Rehumanize, visually and linguistically illustrates the history of language used as a tool of violence. I began with a quote:

“To their murderers, these wretched people were not [human] individuals at all.” (one prosecutor at The Nuremberg Trials)

I went on to say

Let that sit for a moment. Because while people can be very resilient about language, our words form society and culture; they have impact on the people around us just as our ability to model proper use of language and call human beings valuable has an impact [...]...But if we use other language, or if we are silent when others people use dehumanizing language…”

The Bad Words Project has a card which, in text laid out in honeycomb form, runs the gamut historically, showing instances of genocide and severe injustice, and linking them to the authorities or cultural language used at the time about the people killed or attacked.

From slavery (and Dred Scott) to Roe v Wade, the quotes beside the euphemisms, and the echo of the lives lost and maimed, visualised in accompanying images, are startling and chilling.

Also on the panel was Rachel MacNair, the Vice President of the Consistent Life Network and a social psychologist who has intensively studied the psychological causes and effects of violence. She discussed some of the psychological underpinnings of this deadly use of language, and what a “rehumanizing revolution” might look like. MacNair described the chilling Milgram Experiments, in which people were asked to administer higher and higher electric shocks to fellow human beings -- and overwhelmingly did. The exception to this pattern was when experiment participants saw someone else across the room refusing to obey the order or arguing about the ethical reason. In those situations, participants were much more likely to refuse to obey the order themselves. As MacNair commented, “You see, when we provide a model it is remarkably effective [in changing outcomes] in these situations.“

But what do bad words, and dehumanizing language, really look like in terms of outcome? Why do we use this kind of language?

Reviewing the behavior known as “moral disengagement,” MacNair concisely summed up the definition used in social psychology: “The process of convincing the self that ethical standards do not apply to oneself in a particular context. This is done by separating moral reactions from inhumane conduct and disabling the mechanism of self-condemnation.”

People do this in various ways, but two of the most common ways are ignoring the violence (this is especially noticeable in how abortion has thrived in the so-called civilized world) or discounting the victim, as described in William Brennan’s book called Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Words Take Lives. This book explains how people have been dehumanized in the past by being depicted as inanimate objects or waste products.

Again, MacNair mentioned abortion, as well as war, in the context of depicting our fellow humans as less-than human so as to justify our violence against them. She also highlighted the realization of Supreme Court justices, in Brown v. the Board of Education, that racism had done serious violence to Black American psyches. An experiment was presented to the court where young black children had choose between a white and black dolls, and the children overwhelmingly demonstrated blacks choosing white babies.

If that’s the process of dehumanizing, how do we move forward? asked Rosemary and her co-moderator, Gina D’Amore.

Perhaps the Bad Words project is a start. Perhaps, as Rosemary insightfully questioned later in the keynote, “I think it’s important to look within ourselves, at our use of language and the kind of words we use: [we should be] actively humanizing instead in of dehumanizing. Even the way we talk about the preborn. “IT.” It? No, IT is a girl. She’s a girl, she’s a baby.” The way we talk definitely makes a difference...that’s what we’re going to argue today.”

The subject was well worth a long discussion, and the keynote by these human life advocates and pro-life feminists was both humorous and practical throughout. If you want to read the transcript, it can be found online ( ), but let me close with this:

It is so important that the words we use reflect reality. When they don’t, we do damage to ourselves, and to our fellow human beings, and we create a culture where it is societally acceptable to kill. We must never be so tired or so self-involved that we allow our fellow human beings to be called rubbish; less-than... We must never use words to dehumanize, or accept euphemisms for violence.

Because these dehumanizing terms are bad words. Because a real curse word is a word that causes harm to someone or means to harm someone…and that’s what these words are. Words that justify violence against our fellow human beings are always, and will always be, bad words.


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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