Cw: xenophobia and homophobia
As I watched Donald Trump’s inaugural address, eyes both welling and rolling, a certain section stuck out to me. It occurred early in the speech as Trump was still getting started. After thanking Obama for his gracious support during the transition process, Trump said, “Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning because today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.”
Initially, this part of the speech didn’t strike me as any more vitriolic than any other part of the speech. The anti-corruption sentiment certainly wasn’t a surprise — hell, Trump’s entire campaign was built on that message. Additionally, it is nothing new for an “outsider” politician to condemn the nation’s capital as a hotbed of corruption and bureaucracy.
No, it was only after I had heard it a couple of times (usually in the form of Facebook videos comparing Trump to Bane) that I realized what felt so fundamentally wrong about this statement. By placing those represented by “Washington, D.C.” in opposition to “the people,” Trump essentially argued that the political elite are not people.
As I reflected on the 2016 presidential campaign that afternoon, I realized that Trump’s attempt during the inauguration to divorce people from their humanity by using language wasn’t an isolated incident. In fact, this subtle form of dehumanization has been one of his favorite rhetorical devices since his campaign began in June of 2015. Take, for example, the infamous quote from his campaign announcement that set the tone for the remainder of his presidential bid: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Before anything else, he classifies immigrants as rapists, only adding as a secondary thought that some of them might be good people.
Trump’s political enemies aren’t the only people to get this treatment. Last June, upon seeing a black man in the audience of one of his rallies, Trump exclaimed, “Look at my African American over here!” MY African American. Yes, it could have just been a poor choice of words, but, to me, that statement is eerily reminiscent of one of the worst institutions of Antebellum America. In another incident this month, CNN journalist Jim Acosta’s request for a follow-up question was met with the bizarre response, “You are fake news.” In addition to being absurd — reporters themselves aren’t the news organizations for which they work— the president-elect reduced a man’s entire identity to one of the most commonly denounced aspects of the media landscape.
I do not mean to say that the President has used inherently offensive words in his speeches. In spite of his off-the-cuff style, Trump has been good about avoiding the use of some of the worst slurs in the dictionary. However, this actually represents the insidious nature of Trump’s word choice. Most Americans would instantly have written-off Trump as a candidate if he used a racially-charged epithet to refer to Mexican immigrants or his African American. Instead, Trump offered the American people a sneaky alternative. He refused to put marginalized groups in human terms, while also evoking the same prejudices as an epithet without being explicit.
If all Americans ignored President Trump’s attempts to dehumanize through language and instead chose to recognize their peers’ basic humanity, this issue would be irrelevant. Sadly, however, the President’s hostile messages have resonated with many Americans. According to a survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 4 in 10 teachers reported in November 2016 hearing hate speech based on race, religion, immigration status, or sexual orientation in school. Such a high percentage would be indicative of a problem in any segment of society, but it is especially frightening to learn that students are being exposed to, and in some cases expressing, such dehumanizing and hateful words. When a student constantly hears the implicit message that some people are “less than,” it becomes easy to rationalize hatred and forget compassion. How can a man hope to understand and appreciate the struggles another person has experienced if he cannot bring himself to even refer to the other person in human terms?
I know what it’s like to be reduced to a label. Although it didn’t happen often, I remember vividly the mixture of rage and sorrow I felt after being called a “faggot.” It was the feeling that no matter what else I tried to be or do, I couldn’t escape that stereotype-laden box a fellow human had placed me in.
Many of us at Swat understand this feeling. Given the varied cultural and religious backgrounds of the Swarthmore student body, I’m almost certain that many of my peers have experienced this form of oppression, oftentimes more intensely than I have. We know the destructive power of linguistic dehumanization because we have lived it. If we want to make the world a more open and accepting place, it starts with acknowledging the simple, self-evident fact that people deserve to be treated like people.