The maxim that “actions speak louder than words” is common in the news and in everyday conversation. On the one hand, the saying makes a lot of sense: we rightly expect that people who make a commitment to do something—whether to take out the garbage or to uphold a treaty they signed—will follow through. On the other hand, words are actions of a sort and can instigate or influence other actions that lead us places. Some of those are places where we don’t want to go.
At many points and locations in human history one group has demeaned another group so that expulsion or total domination or even massacre is the result. The temptation to blame another group of people for one’s problems and to boost the “in group’s” sense of identity and pride is something we all learn about, even in high school. Thankfully, most of the time support for “the home team” or one’s clique doesn’t lead to violence, but it does often lead to denigrating others who are different or to bullying and harassment.
When we move to the level of larger groups, some of the same dynamics can easily play out. We can view those who are different with suspicion, talking about “those people,” becoming fearful of outsiders, celebrating those who are just like us, and moving into a fortress mentality and closed community. The temptation is even stronger during times of economic strife, social tension, or widespread anxiety about the future. It’s easier to find a scapegoat than to confront the complexity of our problems.
When this kind of rhetoric is intensified, “others” are characterized not only as a source of problems but also as “invaders,” as “diluting our culture,” as “infesting our society.” These metaphors are dangerous not only because they can easily be used to position groups of people as less than human but also because, as we now know, they can elicit a disgust reaction in the brain.
Neurologist Robert Sapolsky and other researchers have detected a powerful response to ideas of vermin, filth, stench, impurity, etc., where the part of the brain called the insula reacts so that you can literally become sick to your stomach at a thought, sight or smell. There can be a strong tendency to protect one’s self by eliminating whatever is the offender. One of Sapolsky’s lessons for us in his book “Behave” is that people need to be very careful in suggesting disgust with respect to other groups of people.
So, what are the dangers of “just words”? “Faces of the Enemy” by Sam Keen is a powerful and disturbing book because it chronicles examples throughout modern world history where a group of people have been reduced to vermin by leaders. Pick up a copy of the book 1986 or the documentary from 1987 and you’ll find not only echoes of the past but also recognizable labels and images in the present.
One of the best-known and most horrendous examples of denigration of the other is the Nazi-era portrayal of the Jewish people as “rats” in images as well as words. At least six million people died under what Adolf Hitler and those who supported him deemed the “final solution.” In Rwanda in 1994 during the lead-up to the massacre of more than 800,000 people in less than 100 days, talk radio included descriptions of the minority Tutsis as “cockroaches” by extreme segments of the majority Hutu population. Look up genocide online and you’ll see how many instances were preceded by demeaning and dehumanizing words and caricatures of the targeted group. Tragically, there are countless examples of this kind of path towards annihilation.
It is striking how the sheer repetition of an idea—however false or horrible—can become accepted enough to tempt people to do things to others they would never have considered. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda officer, understood this very well in terms of repeating lies linking Germany’s plight to certain groups and conjured up threats to purity of a mythical master race. Goebbels also understood the power of eliciting senses of fear, disgust, and hatred in an effort to mobilize many segments of German society. German historians and many German citizens still wrestle and anguish over “how could the average person come to do these reprehensible things?” Indeed, this question haunts the world of the 21st century just as much as it did the last one.
Today’s talk about immigration—whether in the US or in other parts of the world–can easily veer into this dangerous territory. Notions of society or a nation or a civilization as a “body” are compelling to people because of the handy analogy to the individual human. Germs “invade” our bodies; we are can be threatened by pollution from the outside; bodies and their environments can be seen as contaminated; we need to protect ourselves from toxins; and so forth. Extend the idea to an entire people or a culture, and it becomes imaginable to try to eliminate “infestations,” “impurities,” and “intrusions.” We must not go there.
As a people, we must resist the temptations to shift debate and emotions to a level where people’s common humanity and aspirations get lost in a heated, misguided attempt to shore up our own pride or security. For the immigration debate and immigration policy, this means returning to the facts such as statistics and trends, keeping in mind people’s vastly different circumstances, and recognizing the capacities for our nation and other nations to elevate the human condition. Security can mean many things, but we should reflect carefully on how we define and apply it. No one really believes the answer to immigration issues is easy, and we have plenty of examples from even recent history that should give us pause when we talk about “the immigration problem.”
Sally Planalp and George Cheney are residents of Moab and part-time professors of communication at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The views expressed here are their own and do not represent positions of the university.
ByBy George Cheney and Sally Planalp