Polarizing speech comes in many forms. Its most dangerous form, dehumanizing imagery, is seeping into talk media in the U.S. When words are fear-based, generate feelings of hate, and promote separation and divisiveness, they are controlling. When words are love-based, generate feelings of empathy, and promote a sense of community and connectedness, they are powerful. Controlling words are drowning out the powerful ones.
With her permission, this series of articles incorporates segments of a speech about polarizing talk given by Kathryn Ruud, a linguist who has studied the manipulative language used by fascists in interwar Germany and by communists in post-World War II East Germany. I invite you to watch the following segment before or after reading today's articles.
Stop Polarizing Talk Presentation, Part 5 of 6 (12.44 min.)
Before Hitler, words like parasites and extermination were not used in Germany in a political context. Hitler, however, often used terms like pestilence, leeches, bacteria and the plague when referring to Jews. He declared that "Jews are maggots devouring the body of the German people." According to Kathryn Ruud, presently in Germany, words such of these are so closely associated with Nazism and concentration camps that it is strictly taboo to use them when referring to other people.
Using dehumanizing images to activate feelings of revulsion toward a targeted out-group is one of the most dangerous linguistic strategies. Unfortunately, it is now being used to divide Americans into two opposing camps by some talk show hosts, both conservative and liberal. When Glenn Beck describes progressivism in terms like, it's a disease, an infection, a poison, a cancer eating our Constitution, it's perpetrating an economic Holocaust, making us vomit, or says that progressives are rotting America from the inside, he is using this strategy.
Fortunately, talk show hosts are not high level government officials who have control over the police, the military or other institutions that might be used to impose control. Some might therefore dismiss concern about their use of such language on the grounds it is just entertainment. But as we become accustomed to hearing extremely polarizing language such as this, it opens the door for it to creep into our political lexicon.
Often I have heard people question how it was possible for the German people, who were civilized, educated and generally moral, to carry out the Holocaust. Polarizing speech was one of the tools used to instill feelings of such revulsion and hatred toward Jews and other out-groups, that the large numbers of people needed to carry out the Holocaust could be mobilized to do so.
It is easy to object that that was different, that we would never do anything like that. However, when the Nazi war criminals were tried by the Allied authorities at Nuremberg, a disturbing aspect of those trials was the fact that the defendants seemed not to be remarkably different from the rest of us.
The Nazis tried at Nuremburg included fathers who loved their children and their wives. Some were practicing Christians; some had a quiet and unassuming nature, demonstrating that being an average person was no insurance against the commission of terrible crimes. Their collaboration in these heinous deeds stemmed from their shared allegiance to the ideological cause of making the world better by establishing a super race, one that emulated the Greek ideal of the human form. Their means were barbarous, but in their minds, the end justified the means. They were merely following group norms and obeying their inspiring leader. We can safely bet that none of the defendants saw themselves as evil or villainous.
There is an important lesson to be learned from this episode in history. Those who committed these terrible acts believed they were justified in doing so because they were destroying people who were subhuman. Anyone not caught up in their extreme dualistic thinking clearly sees that it was the people committing these terrible acts, not their victims, who had lost touch with their humanity.
The talk show hosts who are using divisive linguistic strategies to divide Americans may be improving their ratings, increasing their earnings or getting a lot of attention. Attacking others can be used to advance material interests, or heighten control. It is not a way to bring honor upon ourselves or our nation. The Universe is organized in such a way that, when you attack another, you attack yourself in some way that causes you to suffer.
Posted on GenuineJustice.com 10-29-10.