Image: A child holding hands with her mother. (Stocksnap/Pixabay)
This past week a story entered the news that took things to a new low, or so I thought until someone on Twitter (I wish I could remember who) pointed out to me that it isn’t “a new low” – it’s an old bad low that we never really left behind.
The Democrats are right: it’s reprehensible, sinful, evil.
The Republicans are right: similar things happened under the Obama Administration too. In fact, it has a long history, going all the way back to the earliest days in our republic. This does not justify the current policy. Given that we know about the horrific damage such separation does to children and parents, and we should be even more anxious to avoid it at all costs.
Human beings are human beings are human beings. I could stretch that tautology out to the stars, and it would not change. Human beings are not “animals,” and they are not “vermin.”
Jewish tradition teaches us that each human being is created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27.) We may argue about who or what God is, but the message remains the same: all human beings share some essential, precious quality that must be treated with respect.
Hillel taught, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. That is the whole Torah; the rest is its interpretation. Go and study.” (Shabbat 31a)
When we treat other human beings as if they are lesser than ourselves, we sin.
I can hear the “Yes, but…’s” crowding into the minds of my readers. Yes, there are people that threaten our well being, maybe even our safety. And yes, we have a teaching that says that if a rodef (pursuer) is trying to kill me, I can and perhaps should defend myself with enough force to kill them. (Sanhedrin 73a)
None of that suggests that I should see that threatening person as any less than human. I am allowed to defend myself. I am not allowed to describe another person as subhuman, no matter how badly they behave. I am certainly not allowed to treat innocent little children with cruelty, even the children of people who behave badly.
Name-calling is serious business. It is even more serious when a government adopts de-humanizing language. History shows us that we can draw a direct line between that language and atrocity. From the beginning, Europeans justified the enslavement of Africans by attributing a subhuman nature to them. The genocide of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and disabled people in the Holocaust of the 1940’s began with official descriptions of those groups of human beings as subhuman. Nazis called Jews “rats.” In the Rwanda genocide, Hutus called Tutsis “cockroaches.” In American history, the genocide of Native Americans was justified by calling them “savages” and “animals.”
The shifts in language made the behavior that followed easier. Therefore it is critical that we pay attention to language that implies that any group of people is subhuman.
To return to the situation at hand, we have already reached the point of a language shift. Judging from the polls, a significant portion of our populace has no problem with the President’s use of the language “animals” for groups of Hispanic immigrants. We have the inhumane history of slavery and Jim Crow. We have the inhumane, illogical rationalization of Japanese American internment with General Order 9066.
It is time for a change in our national attitude about who gets to be a human being. Jefferson wrote:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
We all know, of course, that he was inconsistent. Jefferson enslaved human beings. But still he left this ideal for us. I believe the promise of these lines is still in our future.
What can we do in the face of the separation of little children from their parents at the U.S. Border?
- First and foremost, we can become more conscious of our own use of language. Language that denies the humanity of another person is dangerous. Better to avoid any language that de-humanizes others, especially if I am going to have credibility in arguing against that use of language by anyone else.
- We can object when we hear de-humanizing language from the people with whom we usually agree. In this polarized climate, people on the other end of the spectrum are unlikely to hear anything I say, but I can make a difference with those who see me as an ally. I can stop accepting de-humanizing language from anyone.
- We can vote and we can encourage others to vote. We are in primary season now. Are you registered? Is everyone you know registered? On voting day, does everyone in your part of town have a way to vote? Organizations like the League of Women Voters need our support in getting out everyone’s vote.
- We can support the ACLU in its efforts to stop the separation of parents and children at the border.
- We can write letters to the editor, op eds, and facebook posts. Remember to defuse counter arguments within your text: the fact that this has been done by previous administrations does not excuse or justify the inhumane treatment of little children.
Do you have ideas for action? I’d love to hear them in the Comments.
5/27/18: Slow Lorist made a suggestion so good that I am moving it up into the text (but watch Comments for more good suggestions!):