Language Matters: Dehumanization

Some people believe that the language we use doesn’t matter, especially when it comes to groups of people. I’ve heard people I love call Chinese people “Chinks” (for example) and when I protested that such a word was racist, they say, “Oh you know I’m not really racist. It’s just a word. You know what I mean.”

Actually, I don’t. One of the main ways we have to communicate what’s going on in our heads and hearts is through language. Accuracy is important so we can understand one another as best we can. Inaccuracy leads to problems in understanding. If you use a racist word to describe a group of people, it makes sense to think you’re racist, at least with respect to those people.

Another version of this misunderstanding of language is that it’s most polite to use language that doesn’t offend anyone present.  We need to be “sensitive.”  Personally, I’m offended by all racist language, so don’t look at me, decide I must not be Chinese based on visuals, and then use “Chinks.” When I then protest this language as unethical, some people respond, “you’re just oversensitive.”

Actually, I’m not. Language both communicates and advocates attitudes, which shape behavior. In many different areas, experts explain that how we think of something is important because that shapes the action we see and are likely to take; I see this in discussions of the framing of work or leadership problems as “opportunities,” the promotion of growth mindsets over fixed ones, and the healing power of positive over stress-inducing negative thinking. Implicit here is that language and attitude promote behavior.

While some claim that dehumanizing and derogatory language about particular groups may not reflect the speaker’s attitudes so the language is, therefore, benign, actually language promotes attitudes and behavior. In genocides and wars, people dehumanize victims through language: the Japanese called the human prisoners they performed medical experiments on “maruta,” Japanese for logs of wood; Greek torturers referred to their victims as “worms;” the Hutu Power movement called Tutsis “cockroaches.” In the Holocaust, Nazis referred to Jews as “vermin,” “filth,” “cancer,” and “plague.” In a particular Nazi proposal memo much studied since Steven B. Katz focused our attention on it in “The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust,” Jewish victims being murdered in a van were called “the load” while the murder itself was called the “operation” or “processing,” words typically used on inhuman objects. Using dehumanized language and euphemisms allowed both writer and reader of the van memo to deny the human and moral cost of their actions (which were to “improve” the vans for more efficient murder of Jewish people).

But just because dehumanizing language occurs in situations of genocide and war doesn’t mean that language necessarily promotes harm, some might say. Actually, Albert Bandura, Bill Underwood, and Michael E. Fromson’s now-classic experiments in “Disinhibition of Aggression through Diffusion of Responsibility and Dehumanization of Victims” demonstrate that dehumanizing and humanizing language – even overheard – do shape action. In their experiment, one group of college students was instructed to train another group of students from a nearby college.  Here’s James Waller (2007) in Becoming Evil summarizing Bandura-and-colleagues’ experiment and results (because the original’s language is a bit hard to read and excerpt):

The supervisory team was given the power to punish the other group of problem solvers with varying intensities of electric shock for deficient performances.  Just as the study was about to begin, the supervisory team overheard an assistant characterize the other group in either humanized (“The subjects from the other school are here; they seem nice”), dehumanized (“The subjects from the other school are here; they seem like animals”), or neutral (“The subjects from the other school are here”) terms. Supervisors were influenced only by those brief descriptions – there was no actual interaction between the groups. Results revealed that dehumanized individual were “shocked” at a significantly higher rate and level than those who had been humanized or were in the neutral condition. (p. 206)

In this experiment, people “shocked” others (no real shocks were administered in these experiments) at a higher rate and level if they overheard those others dehumanized in one sentence. Of those who had to take personal responsibility for their shocking of others (this was another part of the experiment), 100% of those who heard the humanizing language expressed disapproval of the punitive measures while 0 of those who heard the dehumanizing language expressed disapproval of the punitive measures. (Bandura et al, 1975, p. 262). In a subsequent experiment that was slightly different reported in the same article, 74% of those who heard the humanizing language expressed disapproval of the punitive measures in contrast to 23% of those who heard dehumanizing language (Bandura et al, 1975, p. 265). These experiments suggest that dehumanizing language can powerfully shape our actions toward those dehumanized people as well as how we feel about those actions. They also suggest that we treat people better when we hear humanizing language to describe them. It’s important to remember that these experiments were based on single-sentences of language, not repeated statements heard again and again.

Consider also that these experiments focus on the results of hearing language, not speaking. So if we use dehumanizing language to describe others, we can actually affect the attitudes and behavior of those who hear us. In short, using dehumanizing language to describe others promotes attitudes and behaviors that treat those people worse than those who are humanized. Because to me ethics is treating people equally and ethically, I find using dehumanizing language unethical.

Since treating all people equally and ethically is important to me, especially people of color and other marginalized people (since I may have internalized prejudiced ideas from our society), dehumanizing language should have no place in my language habits.

I have been working on my language for years, changing my language habits so I don’t engage in dehumanizing language toward people of color and other marginalized people. In order to be more in control of my spoken language, I have also been observing my own self-talk/thoughts, trying to become more aware of exactly what I meant and conveyed if I thought “that’s so gay” (which as a child I said often), or allowed the phrase “porch monkeys” to float in my mind, when a group of men were yelling sexualized statements to me as I was walking by, before I caught myself.

But I admit fully, and sadly, that I haven’t fully eradicated dehumanizing language from my thoughts. This was made fully clear to me when I was recently reading Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. (Her blogpost titled “Dehumanizing Always Starts with Language” excerpts the exact section I’m talking about. It’s worth reading in its entirety.) The rough summary here is that Brown says that in her research the people who are really connecting with others who are different from them have a line between what’s tolerable and what’s not. What’s intolerable is dehumanizing language and behavior.

When I read this, I completely agreed that this is a wise line in the sand, a wise boundary that accords with all the research, teaching, and writing I’ve been doing for the last ten years. Dehumanizing language should not be tolerated against anyone. But in this historical moment, when I have felt attacked by the dehumanizing statements of leaders and been appalled by the subsequent emboldening of racism, sexism, and xenophobia, I’ve failed at having this as my line in the sand. While I’ve mostly kept myself from writing dehumanizing comments on Facebook, I confess I’ve liked and supported it when other people used dehumanizing language back at these leaders.

Allowing people who are engaging in awful dehumanizing to bring me down to their level where my actions contradict my values because I want to get back at them is not what I want to do. I can do better than that.

Instead I’m not allowing these people to budge me from my values. For example, something that I’ve been doing is trying to affirm people’s humanity by using the word “people.” The words “African Americans,”  “Jews,” “Arabs,” and “gays” are identifiers that essentialize and totalize people from one aspect of themselves and ignore that people are often members of multiple groups. So I’ve been experimenting with saying and thinking “African American people,” “Arab people,” etc. Partly I’ve been working on this to assure that the image in my mind is one of people: black people; Jewish people; gay people; trans people; conservative people; racist people. I think I haven’t been as good about the distinction between racists and racist people, even here on the blog – I should look at that – as I have about the others, so that’s something for me to pay attention to and work on.  I don’t want to dehumanize racist people, even if they dehumanize people like me.

Please note: this is not a call for civility. There is nothing civil about the upsurge in emboldened racism, sexism, and xenophobia in language and action. There is nothing civil about institutionalized and entrenched racism. There is nothing civil about blaming the victim for being angry. Getting angry is a natural reaction. Being enraged is a natural reaction. Fear is a natural reaction. Dehumanizing language and behavior is intolerable and makes people, especially people of color and other minorities, feel unsafe. Those of us who want to be good allies need to hold those who dehumanize people of color and other minorities accountable for their language as well as their actions.

Your turn: How does it affect you when people use dehumanizing language to describe groups of people? Can you start to observe your own use of dehumanizing or humanizing language to describe people? How can you talk with those you love about the importance of recognizing the humanity of all people through the language we use? How can we call for humanizing language for people of color and minorities without seeming to be calling for civility, an argument which has been used historically to say that those acting so angrily (people of color) are not “civilized” (which suggests inferiority)? How can we let speak back to those engaging in dehumanizing groups of people that this is unacceptable — without dehumanizing them? (If you figure out the answers to those last two, please let me know!)

If you think these ideas are important, please consider sharing this with friends.


Bandura, A. Underwood, B. and Fromson, M.E. (1975). “Disinhibition of Aggression through Diffusion of Responsibility and Dehumanization of Victims.” Journal of Research in Personality 9, pp. 253-269.

Waller, J. (2007). Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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