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 Planned Parenthood are merely profiting off of those crises, by selling
lucrative abortion services in place of any actual help. (5) That’s why according to their own annual
report, for every 41 abortions Planned Parenthood performed in 2016 they provided 1 one person
with prenatal care. And for every 82 abortions -- just 1 adoption referral. It’s why over 96% of
pregnant women who walk into a Planned Parenthood for pregnancy related services walk out
without their child, whose body is now either in a medical waste bin or getting ready to be
shipped off to the highest-paying researcher. (6) It’s why they claim they need millions and millions
of our tax dollars to prevent women’s suffering but use their SuperPAC to pour millions and
millions of dollars into influencing elections.
Profit is frequently a motivator of dehumanization and violence. It’s not a coincidence that on the
other side of the political spectrum from Planned Parenthood, we see weapons manufacturers
pouring money into electing Republicans who they believe will champion hawkish foreign policies. (7) Usually, those championing such policies are simultaneously dehumanizing the citizens
of whatever country they’re campaigning to bomb.
It matters how we talk about these issues because it affects how we see them, and on a societal
scale this vision can affect policy. Consider the greater public’s reaction to high profile celebrity
suicides. All over social media you will see eulogies for the ones who have passed, along with
calls for mental health awareness and wider access to treatment. This response is generally good;
however, I can’t help but notice an inconsistency from some of the posters.
Frequently, some of those eulogizing the deaths of wealthy celebrities are the same people
pushing for greater access to assisted suicide in our country. On the surface, this may
appear odd. However, when you dig a little deeper and view the issue through the lens of the
historical oppression and dehumanization of disabled people it starts to make sense. Very few
proponents of assisted suicide will stand behind the idea that this “right” to die should be
available to all Americans. For example, in no state can I - a relatively physically healthy 23-
year-old with depression - be treated with physician assisted suicide. Rather, the patient must
have some sort of illness or qualifying condition. It is for this reason that nearly every major
national disability rights group that has taken a position on assisted suicide opposes bills to
legalize the practice. They intimately understand that the way assisted suicide legislation has
been drafted creates a clear contrast between the rights of the disabled and ill and the rights of
the physically healthy. This reality becomes even more concerning when examining the
mountains of research that establishes that mental health issues, including suicidal ideation, are
frequently comorbid with disabilities, particularly terminal illnesses. (8) Assisted suicide, like many
acts of discrimination, relies on the idea that some lives are worth more than others, and creates a
legal double standard where some are given suicide prevention and others are given suicide
assistance in the form of a poison pill. This is just part of a long history of the sick and disabled
being treated as subhuman and being given grossly different standards of care.
Think back to the horrible case of Terri Schiavo, and the thousands of people who get referred to
as simply “vegetables.” Talking about disabled people in this manner is so ingrained in our
culture that often we don’t even notice that we’re using language that incorrectly categorizes
human beings as mere objects.
Yet another example of this type of objectification is the way some people choose to weaponize
the pronouns they use for others. Something all too common, especially online, is referring to
trans or gender non-conforming people with “it” pronouns. (9) When perpetrators do this, not only
are they not respecting how the person has asked to be referred to, they’re also refusing to refer
to us as a people at all. Calling someone “it” doesn’t remove their gender -- it disregards their
humanity. And sadly, this is being done to a segment of the population that is already at much
higher risk of experiencing physical violence and discrimination. (10)
A lesser version of this that actually strikes me as comical is the tendency to call preborn
children “it.” “It’s a boy.” “How far along is it?” I don’t think this is as dangerous as other forms
of dehumanization but I do think it’s interesting and I wonder if, when we as a culture finally
start recognizing the humanity of preborn children, such speech will fade away.
The final way human beings are treated as something other than humans is when they’re referred
to as simply “property.” This concept, of people as property, has been the ideological basis of
nearly all instances of slavery, from the Jewish people in Egypt, to American chattel slavery, to
the modern exploitation of incarcerated humans through forced and severely underpaid labor
within the prison industrial complex. And for all these groups, seeing and speaking of them as
property has helped normalize mistreatment and violence against them.
This ideology is also prevalent in the ways our law treats the advancement of reproductive
technologies. According to the law, embryonic human beings created via in vitro fertilization are
the literal property of their parents. Earlier this year, a freezer malfunctioned at a fertility clinic
in Ohio, causing the death of thousands of tiny human beings; do you know what the bereaved
parents seeking justice were offered? A refund. When one couple attempted to sue for the
wrongful death of their unborn child the Judge wrote: “The parents may believe that the embryos
they created are already persons, but that is a matter of faith or of their personal beliefs, not of
science and not of law.” (11)
This leads us to one of the most effective forms of dehumanization: the idea of the human, “non-
person.” It’s so effective because it relies on partial truth. They’re not denying the “humanity" of the person or group they are attempting to oppress – rather, they’re saying just that this
standard isn’t as important as we think.
This is why we have the anomaly of a pro-choice embryologist or doctor. Of course, no self
respecting believer in science will deny that the product of a same-species reproduction is also a
differentiated member of that same species or that during human reproduction what is produced
at fertilization, or conception, is a genetically distinct, whole, living, human, organism. (12) Rather
they will try to say that this human with distinct DNA is not “a human being” or a “person.”
While I appreciate the work of countless pro-life activists who came before me who have
fought to include the preborn within the legal definition of personhood -- I’d like to humbly
suggest an alternative. I contend that this very concept of personhood is an illegitimate
social and legal construct that throughout history has almost exclusively been used to
discriminate against whole classes of human beings. I believe in human rights, not person-
rights, because the definition of who can or can’t be a person is ultimately a political and
ideological debate that ignores basic scientific facts. If there could ever be a category of
“human, non-persons” then personhood is either a useless signifier at best or dangerous and
deadly at worst.
If we are going to claim to be supporters of “human rights,” we must apply them to all
humans – regardless of age, size, level of development, location, or level of dependency.
Earlier I said that there were two reasons we should avoid dehumanizing language. The first
being how our words can shape our perceptions.
The second though, and possibly more important, is that dehumanizing language simply isn’t
true. In our culture seeped in “fake news” it’s necessary to state -- truth matters. Without
correctly calling something what it objectively is and understanding it as such, it’s impossible to
come to an accurate moral position on how to treat that thing: and when that thing might be a
human being it really matters. To dehumanize means to use our words to take away the humanity
of someone; but here’s the thing -- that can’t really be done. Our humanity belongs to us despite
the words people may use.
Regardless of our age, size, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, immigration
status or ability level, we are all equally human. This isn’t an opinion, it’s a scientifically
demonstrable fact. We gain our humanity when we come into existence at the moment of sperm-
egg fusion during fertilization and we do not lose it when we cross a border, or develop a
disability, or take cross-sex hormones, or commit a crime, or do anything -- other than die.
Human beings are never objects, nor parasites, nor beasts -- we are always human and we
deserve to be referred to as such. Doing otherwise just opens the door for violence.
(1) Brennan, William. Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives. Toronto,
Ont.: Life Cycle Books, 2015.
(3) Stoff, Michael B., Jonathan F. Fanton, and R. Hal Williams. The Manhattan Project: a
Documentary Introduction to the Atomic Age. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000.
(4) Immigrants Contribute Greatly To U.S. Economy, Despite Administration's "public Charge"
Rule Rationale https://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/immigrants-contribute-
greatly-to-us-economy-despite-administrations. Accessed Feb 4, 2020.
(5) Planned Parenthood 2016-2017 Annual Report. Accessed February 1, 2020.
(7) “Defense Sector Political Contributions .” OpenSecrets.org. Accessed February 4, 2020.
(8) “Disability Rights Toolkit for Advocacy Against Legalization of Assisted Suicide.” Not Dead Yet,
May 1, 2015. https://notdeadyet.org/disability-rights-toolkit-for-advocacy-against-legalization-of-
(9) Caron, Christina. “Transgender Girl, 12, Is Violently Threatened After Facebook Post by
Classmate's Parent.” The New York Times. The New York Times, August 15, 2018.
(10) Stotzer, Rebecca L. “Violence against Transgender People: A Review of United States Data.”
Aggression and Violent Behavior 14, no. 3 (2009): 170–79.
(11) Cha, Ariana Eunjung. “These Would-Be Parents' Embryos Were Lost. Now They're Grieving -
and Suing.” The Washington Post. WP Company, August 24, 2018.
(12) V. N. Persaud and Keith L. Moore. Review of Medical Embryology. Philadelphia, PA: