top of page

Bad Words: How Our Language Can Normalize dehumanization and License Violence

by Herb Geraghty

What exactly are bad words?

The first things that probably come to your mind are a couple of four letter expletives. While

those kind of words are certainly rude to say in a number of contexts, they really aren’t so bad,

and they’re not my focus here. The “bad words” I’m talking about are the ones that seek to


These often take the form of slurs. Slurs are used by people with certain privilege to intentionally

other and dehumanize those below them on the social hierarchy.

What is perhaps even more insidious than these intentionally dehumanizing slurs though, is

language that dehumanizes unintentionally -- This is because even well-meaning people may get

caught up in it.

But let’s take a step back -- why does this matter? Who cares if our words dehumanize? Aren’t

they just words?

Well it matters for two reasons. The first is that the words we use shape our perceptions. By

using dehumanizing language, we negatively shape the way we view groups of people. We begin

to view them as “subhuman”. As studies have shown, when we view someone as less than us, it

creates a psychological separation which makes it easier to commit violence or to permit

violence against them. (1)

Consider history. What are ways that whole groups of people have been subjugated under the

law? Examples that spring to mind include: slavery, the Holocaust, genocide of the indigenous

peoples of the Americas. In all of these cases and more; before mass violence could be

perpetrated against these groups, dehumanization had to occur. When we examine some of the

different ways human beings have been dehumanized, certain parallels become apparent.

The Nazis referred to the Jewish people as “parasites” and other animals -- a rhetorical move that

American media condemned while then turning around and themselves calling the Japanese

“yellow vermin” to justify things like immoral internment camps, desecration of Japanese

soldiers’ bodies, and even eventually the mass murder of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (2)

In fact, two days after hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children were killed by the

American military with the atomic bombs, our President, Democrat Harry S. Truman, defended

the decision when he said, "the only language they seem to understand is the one we have been

using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him like a beast. It

is most regrettable but nevertheless true.” (3)

Flash forward to today, how many of us have heard pro-choice people say that, “the fetus is just

a parasite on a pregnant woman’s body”? Or despite the mountains of evidence that immigrants

actually contribute to and improve the economy (4), have heard them referred to as parasites or

dangerous animals; this is similar to the invention of the term “welfare queens” to paint poor

typically black mothers as undeserving burdens, parasitic on the system.

There is a common thread -- instead of viewing people as human beings first, there is often

incentive to see them as only tools for financial gain or loss.

This is abundantly clear when one looks at the abortion industrial complex, who claim to be

necessary because they’re there to help people facing crisis pregnancies; when in reality,

organizations like