As media and political leaders increasingly embrace dehumanizing stereotypes of ideological opponents, America risks drifting down a dark path. Apologists for Antifa label as “fascist” those with opposing ideologies and politics, while others deride half of the American electorate as “Demoncrats." Some may secretly cheer such insults. Doing so, however, starts our country down a well-trodden intellectual and emotional path embracing violence as an alternative to democratic values and fundamental rights.
One does not need to look into the past to find examples of what happens to divided societies. In the news recently are two nations that have institutionalized dehumanization and violence as social norms: China and Saudi Arabia.
The People’s Republic of China is officially secular, while Saudi Arabia is known as the Holy Kingdom, hosting Islam’s two holiest sites. Different in matters of theology, the regimes are similar in their disregard for human life, liberty, and dignity. Saudi Arabia dehumanizes women and dissidents; China punishes critics and subjugates its Uighur minority on a massive scale.
In its northwestern province of Xinjiang, the Chinese government has created concentration camps for its Uighur minority. These “re-education camps” are estimated to hold more than 1 million people. There have been numerous accounts online of their brutality. Consider some of the purchases made by those overseeing the camps: “2,768 police batons, 550 electric cattle prods, 1,367 pairs of handcuffs, and 2,792 cans of pepper spray." China’s definition of “education” is certainly interesting.
Propaganda posted throughout Xinjiang treat Uighurs (generally practicing Muslims) as subhuman. Painted murals include a man using a broom to sweep a pile of tiny Uighurs off the street, a cement-roller flattening a group of Uighurs, and an axe being driven through a group of flailing Uighurs. In all of these murals, collected by the BBC, Uighurs are painted only in black, or as extremely small (or both). Images are said to speak a thousand words, and these posters communicate even more. Rather than directly telling its people that Uighurs are less than human, the Communist Party of China paints these sadistic images. The hope is to leave the message subliminally imprinted in the minds of those who view them.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has deservedly incurred the world’s wrath for the horrific torture and murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Riyadh should face sanctions for this incomprehensible act of inhumanity. But the issue goes deeper: Does Saudi Arabia’s royal family see any of the kingdom’s inhabitants as fully human?
The regime has sustained a brutal campaign against Yemen, a war that has killed tens of thousands of civilians, and it has created a suffocating dictatorship that punishes any dissent. The government brutally killed and dismembered a dissenting journalist and refuses to afford women the basic human rights generally agreed upon by the rest of the world. It employs public stonings and other cruel modes of execution, considering these to be forms of public entertainment.
The language used both by Saudi Arabia and China when discussing people it views as “different” is demeaning. Both speak of people who have become “infected” by ideas deemed improper or dangerous. The language helps instill fear in the minds of the public, encouraging people to view government scapegoats as separate, different, threatening, and irredeemable. What is a so-called benevolent state to do, then, except quash threats posed by these “infected” people?
America is not there yet. However, the language of dehumanization is beginning to creep into our collective consciousness — at both extremes of the political spectrum. This should appall and shock us. But it appears that we are growing accustomed to it.
Both China and Saudi Arabia consider themselves exempt from global human rights standards. Their economic power causes much of the world to treat them as if they are exempt indeed. Perhaps America’s internal embrace of the rhetoric of dehumanization has reduced our outrage against those regimes. Even worse, this process risks encouraging similar destructive assaults on the dignity and rights of American citizens.