I don’t watch HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, but I do read some of the awful things he says on his show. Maher can be partially excused because he’s doing the show to make money. What’s more frightening is the audience response to some of his Nazi-like antics. A History channel special on the “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and the book An Eye for an Eye by John Stake struck me that Nazi tactics are alive and well in America among Liberal “Entertainers” and “Progressive” pundits.
What happened in a civilized nation like Germany that led to the wholesale slaughter of millions of people and zombie-like allegiance to a madman like Adolf Hitler? Much of it came down to rhetoric. Demeaning language was key to dehumanization, something Maher specializes in.
Stake writes the following in the Preface to his book An Eye for an Eye:
“I wouldn’t report that a Jew had beaten a German, tortured a German, or killed a German until the reader could understand why the Jew had done it and even could think, If I’d been that Jew, I’d have done it myself. . . .”1
As I was reading the book, I kept asking, What is the process of turning rational people into irrational monsters all the while claiming that their actions are rational and moral and actually doing a service to mankind? What are the steps involved in turning your neighbors into dogs to be beaten, swine to be gutted, and refuse to be incinerated?
The first step is to find an unpopular group to blame for a troubled life. The Jews, a despised people historically, were seen as the source of Germany’s economic and social troubles after World War I. Jews who were successful in business were prime targets. Their success meant that someone else was less successful. As the Bible says, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” The same tactic is being used today.
The second step is to dehumanize the scapegoated group with demeaning terms that make them seem less sympathetic to the general population. The goal is to turn them into objects of scorn and ridicule for a greater purpose and make the arguments seem rational (if we don’t do this, then we’re all going to perish).
The Jews were described as Stinkende schweine! “You stinking pigs!” Schmutzige Juden! “You dirty Jews!” Parszywy Żydzie! “You boiled-covered Jew!” The use of dehumanizing language made it easier to conceive of the Jews as subhuman and a harmful influence on the nation.
William Brennan makes the point that “pejorative expressions” have been “invoked to devalue individuals and groups now and in times past: deficient human, subhuman/nonhuman, lower animal, parasitic creature, infectious disease, inanimate object, waste product, and nonperson. These demeaning designations have been and continue to be so extensively resorted to that they constitute a veritable war of words.”2 A war on words can often turn into a war on people because of their ideas.
Brennan argues further that the “reason particular groups are earmarked for large-scale semantic devaluation and massive oppression is closely linked to ideology. . . . a philosophy, a social theory, a set of interrelated ideas, concepts, beliefs, and values that generate and sustain the dissemination of dehumanizing terminology.”3 The dehumanizers can’t use rational arguments or appeal to substantiated empirical evidence to make their case, so they must degrade the opposition in ways that sets them apart from the masses and casts them as a threat to society and the nation intellectually, socially, and politically.
Don’t think that such expressive terms are the singular domain of the Nazis. I’ve been the subject of dehumanizing language as have other Christians that is reminiscent of the Nazis and their enablers. This type of language is becoming a growing trend. Here’s a gem from Roseanne Barr:
You know what else I can’t stand, is them [sic] people that are anti-abortion. F**k them. I hate them. They’re horrible. They’re hideous people. They’re ugly, old, geeky, hideous men. . . . They just don’t want nobody [sic] to have an abortion ’cause they want you to keep spitting out kids so they can f***ing molest them.4
The denigration of Christians, their families, and their beliefs is reminiscent of the dehumanizing tactics of Nazis in Hitler’s German.
- John Sack, An Eye for an Eye: The Untold Story of Jewish Revenge Against Germans in 1945 (New York: Basic Books, 1993), xi. [↩]
- William Brennan, “The Language of the Culture of Death: When Word Games Take Lives,” 1. [↩]
- William Brennan, Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives (Chicago: Loyola Press, 1995), 11–12. [↩]
- Roseanne Barr, HBO Comedy Hour (June 20, 1992). Quoted in TV, etc. (July 1992), 3. Quoted in D. James Kennedy with Jerry Newcombe, The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail: The Attack on Christianity and What You Need to Know to Combat It (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996), 88. [↩]