Divisive rhetoric in the United States and around the world has fractured our societies, sending people to opposite ends of the political spectrum. But what is it about the dehumanization of others that has allowed this to persist? We wanted to know and consulted psychotherapist Dr. Leanh Nguyen to dive into the subject of dehumanization and how language is an aggregate of it. Through her podcast “On Living: The Trauma and Beauty of Being Human”, Dr. Nguyen examines the forces that prevent our recognition of each other’s humanity and corrupt our sense of connection to each other.
The Modern Divisive Rhetoric
From Brexit to Donald’s Trumps divisive rhetoric on sending four Progressive Democratic Congresswomen back to their countries, it is obvious that the language we use to describe one another matters. Dehumanization has statistically been associated with an increased willingness to perpetrate violence — but why are they so closely connected? As social animals, humans are wired to empathize with their fellow human beings and get uncomfortable when we see someone suffering. However, once someone is dehumanized, we can more easily deny them the consideration, compassion and empathy that we typically give other people. It can relax our instinctive aversion to aggression and violence, and a lot of this starts with language.
In a range of studies, psychologists have been able to show how dehumanizing messages can influence how we think about and treat people. After researchers subtly primed participants to associate black people with apes, the participants became more likely to tolerate aggressive, violent policing of black criminal suspects. Another study exposed the participants to metaphors comparing women to animals, which saw participants subsequently show a spike in hostile sexism.
Language Creates Division
Dr. Leanh Nguyen was born in war-torn Vietnam, escaped to Europe as a refugee of Communism, and then emigrated to the United States for her higher education. She brings to her work all that this range of life experiences have taught her. She brings to it a multi-cultural, multi-lingual sensibility. Through her diversity of experiences as a refugee, she saw first-hand how powerful language can be to divide and destroy, but also to connect and grow.
Dr. Leanh Nguyen explains that language is the distinguishing characteristic of our species, and when we acquire language, we are given a powerful tool that can reach and connect to others. Dr. Leanh Nguyen explains that society has closed us off from acknowledging the beauty and fragility of human life through the de-humanization of others. Along the way, through our socialization, why, and how, do we give up on the offering of connection? Dr. Leanh Nguyen explains that people become deeply embedded in their devices, and become affronted when approached by a stranger, hear the cry of a child, or make eye contact with a stranger on public transportation. How do we allow other people to reach us? If we don’t take the time or make the space to look at another person, we will not see anything of them, and have zero chance to recognize their humanity. Dr. Leanh Nguyen believes that an absence of the sense of curiosity and connectedness about people in front of us is partly to blame for the de-humanization of others.
Being able to connect with individuals from different communities, different backgrounds, and different perspectives invites us to make a connection. They bring compassion, tenderness and openness to every interaction, and Dr. Leanh Nguyen believes this is the key towards building a connected global community.