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The Social Peril (and Promise) of Entomophobia

Resisting genocide and fostering tolerance

 MSGT Rose Reynolds
Aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.
Source: Wikimedia Commons: MSGT Rose Reynolds

Insects have the capacity to perturb our psychological tranquility through their monstrous otherness. Perhaps the best literary example of this entomological feature is Franz Kafka’s, The Metamorphosis. While this story is unsettling, it doesn’t delve deeply into the darkest corners of the human psyche. Given contemporary rhetoric about illegal aliens and swarms of migrants, we should remember the ways in which politicians have used our antipathy toward insects—our cultural entomophobia—to frame some of the most horrible acts of human history.

Given our profound capacity for empathy toward beings like ourselves, genocide requires an extraordinary alteration of the human psyche. Careful analysis has revealed an eight-stage process, the first three steps of which involve cognitive restructuring in which the enemy is classified, symbolized and dehumanized. This depraved, conceptual metamorphosis often involves turning people into vermin, as evidenced in these historical and contemporary cases:

Before the 1864 massacre of a Cheyenne community, including women and children, Colonel John M. Chivington exhorted his troops: “We must kill them big and little…Nits make lice.” In the middle of the next century, Heinrich Himmler, maintained that, “Antisemitism is exactly the same as delousing. Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology. It is a matter of cleanliness.” For his part, Adolf Hitler was profoundly entomophobic and framed the Holocaust in terms of extermination.

In 1984, Iraqi General Maher Abd al-Rashid proclaimed: “If you gave me a pesticide to throw at these swarms of insects [the Iranians] to make them breathe and become exterminated, I would use it.” Such rhetoric was echoed a decade later on a Hutu-run radio station during the Rwandan genocide: “The Inyenzi [cockroaches] have always been Tutsi. We will exterminate them.”

And in the 21st century, Jennifer Robinson, a human rights lawyer, revealed that, “Bugsplat is the official term used by US authorities when humans are killed by drone missiles.” The diminishment of other people through equating them to insects continues with social media postings such as this one on Rush Limbaugh’s Campfire website: “It should be legal to shoot [Mexicans] on sight. They breed their filthy race like the cockroaches that they are.”

We’ve been conditioned to perceive insects as dangerously, repulsively different than ourselves. At this point in western culture, it seems an inconceivable leap to begin to see such creatures as lovable. But maybe we could come to understand them as being just different—not a threat but simply, perhaps intriguingly unfamiliar. Because insects are everywhere, they provide daily opportunities to practice tolerance.

One of the great challenges of the 21st century is how we will respond to alien religions, cultures, genders, politics, and species. Perhaps this is overextending the power of cultivating an acceptance of insects, but why can’t this be a way to begin overcoming our xenophobia—fear of the unfamiliar? Gay men kissing, women in burkas, people speaking Spanish, and spiders in the basement. Who knows, if kids learn that they can coexist with radically different creatures, maybe they’ll figure that they can live among not-like-us humans.