Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Human Beings Are Not Insects, Vermin, Parasites, or Garbage

On the 80th anniversary of WW II, have we kept the promise to never forget?

On September 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. Fifteen years earlier, he penned Mein Kampf “to describe my own development,” he explained in the preface, and “to destroy the evil legends created about my person by the Jewish press.” To that end, he described Jews as “like a harmful bacillus,” “bloodsuckers,” “vermin,” “vampire[s]” and “parasites.”

As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt noted on Twitter, an “us” versus “them” mindset “often leads to comparing one’s enemies to infectious parasites.” It results in using metaphors that evoke the moral emotion of disgust. Disgust, according to psychologists Buckels and Trapnell “appears to have the unique capacity to foster the social-cognitive dehumanization of outgroup members.”

Hitler understood this perfectly, and with his dehumanizing rhetoric, promoted an anti-Jewish exterminationist mentality across Europe. In 1943, Heinrich Himmler, whose mission was to make Jews “disappear from this earth,” declared that “Anti-Semitism is exactly the same as delousing. Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology. It is a matter of cleanliness.”

Devastating atrocities often accompany dehumanizing rhetoric that evokes disgust. As recently as the 1990s, the Rwandan genocide was preceded by Hutu propaganda describing the Tutsi as cockroaches. Members of the Hutu militia set up roadblocks, checked identification cards for ethnicity, and murdered Tutsi Rwandans. Neighbors slaughtered neighbors with machetes. Children were massacred. By the end of the war, an estimated 1 in 10 Rwandans, mostly Tutsi, had been assassinated.

During World War II, Americans dehumanized the Japanese by depicting them as insects and animals, “and enlarged the chasm between 'us' and 'them' to the point where it was perceived to be virtually unbridgeable,” according to historian John Dower. This made it possible for presumably otherwise decent Americans to endorse Executive Order 9066, which forced over 100,000 Japanese Americans into internment centers.

President Trump uses similar dehumanizing language. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens and correspondent Maggie Haberman noted that Trump’s terminology of “infestation” makes immigrants into insects. Using metaphors such as insects, vermin, parasites, garbage, and such elicits the feelings of disgust one has for those things and connects that emotion of disgust with the person or group of people described.

According to psychologist David Matsumoto and his colleagues, combining feelings of disgust with contempt and anger is particularly potent. Leaders who generate these three emotions at once can engender violence against the targets of their dehumanization.

Over the two days and nights of Kristallnacht in 1938, more than 1,000 synagogues and untold numbers of Jewish hospitals, homes, schools, and cemeteries were vandalized or burned; approximately 7,500 Jewish businesses were looted; more than 90 Jews were murdered; countless girls and women were raped; and some 30,000 Jewish boys and men were arrested. It is not a coincidence that the perpetrators of those crimes were, for the most part, ordinary German citizens — in many cases, neighbors of their victims. In the aftermath, Nazi leader Hermann Goering referred to Jews as “swine.”

The French fascist and antisemite, Lucien Rebatet, spoke approvingly of marking Jews with the now-familiar yellow star of David badge. This “rectified” what he called the “strange situation in which one human group that is radically opposed to the people of white blood and which for eternity is unassimilable to this blood, cannot be identified at first glance.”

For many non-Jews, the yellow star effectively fastened their disgust onto Jewish people. As a result, the Nazis were able to murder almost two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population while much of Europe looked on.

During the Holocaust, over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos were established in Europe. Today, almost half of Americans cannot name a single one. Not even Auschwitz. In fact, when asked about it by name in 2018, more than 40% of American adults and fully two-thirds of American Millennials did not know what Auschwitz was.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Auschwitz was a death camp. Jewish people and others were enslaved, forced to perform hard labor, used in torturous “medical experiments,” and sent to gas chambers where showerheads emitted a deadly poisonous gas. Once killed, they were cremated in immense furnaces capable of burning the bodies of 340 victims every day. An estimated 1.1 to 1.5 million people were murdered at Auschwitz, the vast majority of them Jewish.

In his 2015 book, How Propaganda Works, Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley explains that propaganda focuses on in-groups vs. out-groups, appeals to emotion, and destroys “norms of mutual respect.” Hitler detailed in Mein Kampf that the art of propaganda is about “understanding the great masses’ world of ideas and feelings,” and then manipulating those feelings to capture the hearts and attention of those who see themselves as part of the in-group.

The Holocaust was possible because insidious, demagogic rhetoric manipulated vast numbers of ordinary people into seeing Jews and others as less than human. Today, more than one in five American Millennials are at best unsure if they have ever heard of the Holocaust. Given the shocking lack of knowledge about the Holocaust and its dehumanization and atrocities, it is clear that the mantra “never forget” is insufficient to remind us of each other's humanity.

Our country relies on creating an “us” not out of a shared history or shared faith or shared blood, but a common set of ideals to which we all aspire. It relies on embracing our common humanity and rejecting divisions that create a sense of “otherness” between us.

The goal of demagoguery, Stanley contends, is to “erode empathy.” The goal of civic rhetoric, in contrast, “is to undermine flawed ideologies that diminish empathy.” Along with our freedoms of conscience and expression, we have a responsibility to uphold the norms of civil discourse that promote compassion, prevent dehumanization, and enlarge our definition of who counts as “us.”

We will inevitably be confronted with ideas and expressions that we find abhorrent, including those that dehumanize. Our unique and essential commitment to freedom of speech allows people to say things that are hideous and hateful. For those of us who care about norms of civil discourse, however, it also allows us to argue that we’re all better off — and better people — if we don’t join in. ♦

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pamela Paresky's opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or any other organization with which she is affiliated. Follow her on Twitter @PamelaParesky