When I was in ninth grade I received the “animal of the year” trophy from Coach Bennett for my wrestling fervor. After pinning an opponent, I would jump in the air, spin my arms, land on my knees, and give two thumbs up. My teammates loved these antics from the team nerd.
But that was not the kind of animal the 45th president of the United States referred to during a meeting on May 16. He declared, “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.” The President double-downed on his comments in a statement released the following Monday, “What You Need To Know About the Violent Animals of MS-13.” The White House maintains that in both instances the President was referring to members of a violent gang, one whose origins stem from Los Angeles rather than El Salvador as the administration claims.
Regardless of which group was being singled out — undocumented immigrants in general or gang members in particular — the intention was to appeal to some of the President’s most ardent supporters, those who virulently oppose immigration. According to the White House, the animal comments played well with that base.
My concern — and the connection I am about to make to the trophy I received in the ninth grade — does not hinge on exactly who the President was referring to or whether one appeals to basic human decency or religious scriptures for one’s objections. Instead, I am struck by the odd parallel that I was called an animal for appealing to my base even as the President called others animals in order to appeal to his base.
My animal of the year trophy has long since been lost. But I do have a photo of me standing behind the trophy. I look rather serious as I pose post-awards banquet with my team (that’s me in the middle, with all the 1980 hair and the tan sports coat).
The young men featured in this photo mostly came from Polish, Italian, and other European immigrant families, all of them only a couple of generations away from themselves being immigrants, or, in one instance, from having been enslaved. None of them were animals.
My coach used the label as a term of affection, one laced with notions of masculinity and bravado that permeated the mats on which we wrestled as much as did the sweat we poured out every practice. Even so, Coach Bennett called me an animal to celebrate my passion.
President Trump is also passionate, but his antics portend dehumanization rather than validation. While he is not an animal, his action in calling others animals degrades his own humanity.
The moral, religious, and ethical reasons for objecting to labeling any human being an animal are obvious. Those who reject those reasons define themselves by the very term with which they have labeled others. We give up the best of our humanity when we let go of our ethical foundations.
I wonder what my teammates now think of the President’s comments. I wonder if they are concerned about the slippery slope we step on whenever we set aside our humanity to call others inhuman.
I wonder to whom Coach Bennett would give the trophy today.