Monday, May 31, 2010

The Dehumanization of "Illegals"

As part of Charlie Rose's ongoing Brain series, the most recent panel discussion involved negative human emotions such as fear and aggression.  What stood out to me at one point was during their dialogue on how aggression - a fundamental emotion in all animals - is regulated both by genes and environment.  And while early childhood development is very important, and negative experience at an early age can have lasting consequences, that the process is also ongoing through the establishment of social norms.  What peers and society deem acceptable provides a framework for one's own emotional barometer. 

So in Nazi Germany it was much easier for people to go along with the holocaust when their friends and neighbors seemed OK with it as well.  This sort of group think was perpetuated by a cultural and institutional rhetoric that viewed Jews and gypsies as subhuman, notably via language and imagery that compared them to "rats" who were "unclean", "breeding" and "infesting" Europe.  This language is common throughout historical examples of genocide.  In Rwanda, the Hutu referred to Tutsi as inyenzi, or "cockroaches".  This language, apart from the obvious negative association, also simply serves as an efficient way of dehumanizing and objectifying a human being.  If a person no longer represents one with whom one might reasonably empathize, it becomes that much easier to deny them rights, marginalize them, or even cause them direct or indirect harm.

It has been common and widely acceptable in America to use the term "illegal" to refer to illegal immigrants, itself a term  lending somewhat to human objectification.  "Illegals" are often spoken of solely in disparaging terms, i.e. their negative effects on the economy, crime, social spending, wages, and the rule of law itself.  The term seems to roll all of that bitterness and anger into one easily digestible phrase.  Conspicuously absent from it is any acknowledgment either of the fact that these are real people with real lives, or that a narrative might exist that provides any mitigation of the unlawful behavior. 

Combined with a tendency towards ethnic resentment and misinformation, the continued use of dehumanizing language and rhetoric to describe illegal immigrants has lead to increased racial resentment of Hispanics in general.  Heidi Beirich, director of research at the Southern Poverty Law center has described a dramatic rise in anti-immigrant hysteria
Nativists view Latinos as destroying American society and replacing it with an uncivilized and inferior foreign culture. Many also believe there is a secret plot by the Mexican government and American Latinos to wrest the Southwest away from the United States in order to create “Aztlan,” a Latino nation.
In Arizona, senate bill 1070 and its high support among white Americas has already demonstrated a profound willingness to tolerate higher levels of aggression towards Hispanics, historically an ethnic minority.  If this sort of dehumanizing rhetoric becomes even more normative, the possibility for increased oppression and even violence seems likely.

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