The Choice of Our Words Can Dehumanize Others – And That Could Have Severe Consequences

George Orwell once wrote, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”. Language plays a crucial role in many human processes, and it can play a critical role in some of the darker phenomena that we experience. Philosopher David Livingstone Smith attempted to tackle the question of how it was that humans are able to treat fellow humans with violent cruelty. In his book, ‘Less Than Human’, Smith puts forward evidence from Ancient civilisations (Chinese, Egyptian, Mesopotamian) and their literature, showing that they readily referred to their enemies in subhuman terms.

To those who naively assume that humans have evolved beyond such levels of cruelty, be mindful of Nazi Germany and their references to Jews as Untermenschen (subhuman), Rwandan Hutus smearing of Tutsis as cockroaches, and Serbian labelling of Bosnians as aliens; each example preceded a rampage of genocide. Attempts to dehumanise often instrumentalise “science”, giving a slimy veneer of pseudo-science to their machinations; the now disproven “science” of phrenology was used to relegate the status of black people by Americans and Western Europeans. In a more peculiar example, early colonisers of the Americas made themselves believe that the Native American population did not blush as they did, indicating that they did not feel shame, and so were less morally developed creatures than them, and so were worthy of being violently colonised. The genocide carried out against the Native Americans remains to be one of the greatest crimes of the previous millennium. Psychologist Bene Brown argues that it is precisely this process of linguistic dehumanisation that allows one group of people to treat another as subhuman.

Language and Legislation

This process of dehumanisation of migrants has been accelerating in Europe for some years. Former columnist for the British tabloid The Sun, Katie Hopkins, used the term cockroaches to describe migrants in 2015. Hopkins is no exception; a UNHCR report that studied the content of press coverage on the refugee and migrants’ crisis in the EU reported that 10.1% of articles in Italy spoke of refugees and migrants in terms of a national security threat, while 10.8% of articles in the British press spoke of a cultural threat. Often these threats were conveyed using terms more appropriate for describing hordes of animals, sometimes predatory, sometimes virulent.

While the power harnessed by those such as Hopkins is debatable, looking towards Hungary, and xenophobic positions can be found among the most powerful men in the country. Current Prime Minister Victor Orban, who has held his post since 2010, has likened migration to “occupation of territory” under “the guise of humanitarian action”. He readily speaks in terms of the importance of preserving demographics, culture, and values, all of which are reasonable subjects; where things become murky is when these issues are raised within conversations about migrants and refugees. In 2016 Orban referred to migrants as “poison”, adding that Hungary did not need “a single migrant” and that “every single migrant poses a public security terror risk”. The painting of migrants as a toxic, existential threat, is dehumanisation par excellence.

Hungary is by no means exceptional in this regard, and these instances have not been restricted to the extremes of the political spectrum; former British Prime Minister David Cameron, of the “centre-right” Conservative Party, infamously referred to “swarms” of migrants at Calais in 2015. The Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), which is the minority partner in the coalition that is ruling Austria, described the Muslim Youth Austria (MJO) group as “part of a nested network…over which Political Islam organises”. The conjuring up of Political Islam as a threat is readily used to smear Islamic organisations around the world. The choice of the word nesting, and its animalistic connotations should not go unnoticed. Members of the FPO, as well as members of the majority Austrian People’s Party, readily talk of the impending threat of the “Islamification of Europe”; rather than being refugees in seek of refuge, or migrants in search of a more prosperous land, Muslims seeking to migrate are tarred as an ideological virus, seeking to denature Europe. A similar line of political campaigning has been taken by Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party, which seeks to “De-islamify” the Netherlands by banning the headscarf, closing all mosques, and banning the Quran.

Drawing back to Livingstone and Brown; language is often a predictor of behaviour. The dehumanisation that has been employed has not been without consequence, and the pattern seems to fit that described by researchers in the field; dehumanisation serves as lubricant for the infringements that are to come. Just this week, the Hungarian parliament passed a series of laws that criminalise any individual or group who offer to help migrants seek asylum, while also passing a constitutional amendment stating that “alien populations” cannot be settled in Hungary. In Austria, the closure of mosques has begun, with 7 mosques having been shuttered already.

Prevalence of Islamophobia

Speaking about Hungary, the Director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth noted, “If you scratch the surface, why are they so upset? It’s not about jobs or the ability to manage them or social welfare. What it is really about is that they are Muslim”. Indeed, the qualification of desirable and undesirable migrants based on religious or ethnic makeup has many historical precedents, including Australia’s drive to attract white European migrants, while denying entry to South East Asian, or the State of Israel’s favouring of Jews, and more specifically, white European Ashkenazi Jews. The importance of Roth’s statement is found in its specificity; what Europe is witnessing on the whole is more specific than the broad strokes or racism and xenophobia, though they are undoubtedly an issue. Europe is in the midst of a strong current of Islamophobia.

Indeed, a Pew study released this week that examined religious restrictions in 2016 found that infringements on religious rights had increased for a second year, particularly in Europe. While the study found that Christians and Jews faced persecution in some countries, the overwhelming targets of political parties and legislation were Muslims; of the 25 European countries that were found to be harbouring anti-religion Nationalist groups, 20 of them were targeting Muslims.


The British Brexit result, coupled with the election of Donald Trump, seems to have unleashed a new visceral chapter of public discourse. Given that the majority of migrants and refugees are Muslims, and coming from Muslim-majority countries, it would be naïve to separate the hate directed towards migrants and refugees, and that which is being directed towards Islam. Historical precedents are worrying, and the behaviours and actions that are being taken in Europe highlight that the issue at hand goes beyond one of language and conversation. Islamophobic attacks are rising quite dramatically in some parts of Europe, while different forms of legislation are attacking different aspects of what it means to be a Muslim. At the risk of being deemed alarmist, the trajectory taken by much of Europe is agreeable with certain models of genocide. While it might never get to that extreme, we are already at stage of countries turning desperate refugees away, and enacting legislation that severely restricts their rights, and even their chances of survival.

Written by Tamim Mobayed

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Tamim is a 28 year old Dublin born Syrian who grew up in Belfast. He is working in the Media and studying for a Ph.D. in Psychology, part-time. He's a big fan of Liverpool Football Club and cats.