I was still reeling on Saturday from the breaking news of the massacre of Jewish worshippers in a synagogue in Pittsburgh when I received an email jokingly comparing insects to humans.
It was a marketing email from Fix St. Louis, a local home-repair business. The subject line said: “The Undocumented Migrants Now Heading to YOUR House.”
I was stunned. Surely, a few hours after the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in America, no one was going to send jokes comparing migrants to pests that should be exterminated. Were they? Consider the email’s first three paragraphs:
“While you have been watching the TV drama play-out (sic), thousands of Hondurans and Guatemalans marching toward our borders, you may have been missing a different type of invasion that is literally happening all around you -- one that may impact you more directly.
“As someone who’s had the privilege of living the American Dream of homeownership, you may not realize that YOUR home IN PARTICULAR is the envy of literally thousands. And as the weather has gotten colder, these individuals have become MORE emboldened, and are ready to cross your borders, penetrate your walls, and move in with you without your permission.
“But there’s good news. In this case nobody will accuse you of being a racist, bigot or xenophobe if you refer to them as ‘pests,’ fortify your walls, or even call for their extermination! So let’s get to work.”
The rest of the email outlines how to deal with damage caused by woodpeckers, squirrels, carpenter bees, spiders, ladybugs, boxelder bugs and stink bugs. I clicked the “unsubscribe” button on the email, and when prompted to say why, I noted that it was racist.
I reached out to the company’s owner, Steve Boriss, to ask him about the content of the email. He wrote to me saying that he “sincerely did not understand what our newsletter had to do with race.”
“It requires imagination to suggest the newsletter makes any implications at all -- whether they are good people or whether they are doing a bad thing. It just isn’t in there,” he wrote. Regardless, he refused to talk to me because he said it appeared my mind was made up by the reason I gave for unsubscribing.
That’s unfortunate. I would have pointed out that the email directly calls the destructive pests he lists “undocumented migrants.”
It’s in the subject line.
“Undocumented migrants” is a term used to describe people: real humans fleeing their countries for desperate reasons. It is not a term that should be used to describe termites and rodents.
Plenty of research shows that using dehumanizing language to describe groups of people is harmful because it is easier to commit injustices and atrocities against those you’re convinced are not truly human -- more like stink bugs looking to invade. Dehumanizing words have long been used as weapons to convince otherwise “normal” people to go along with horrors and injustice.
Where else have we seen people compare groups of humans to animals? Just two weeks ago, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan tweeted anti-Semitic remarks comparing Jews to termites. Farrakhan posted a clip to Twitter of a speech he gave, captioned, “I’m not an anti-Semite. I’m anti-Termite.”
When rhetoric like “infesting” is used by political leaders and Fox News hosts to describe people, they are invoking the same hateful language and imagery as Farrakhan -- and worse. It’s even more disgusting when outright lies -- such as claiming, without proof, that Middle Eastern terrorists are among the caravan, or that the migrants are infected with smallpox, a disease that has been eradicated -- are used to stir hatred and fear. The alleged shooter who killed 11 innocent worshippers was said to have been radicalized by right-wing pundits spreading conspiracies about Jewish leaders helping refugees.
Earlier this week, the Huffington Post reported that Patrick Stein, one of three right-wing militiamen found guilty in April of a conspiracy to kill Muslim refugees living in rural Kansas, offered an interesting defense. Stein’s attorneys said their client got caught up in the anti-Muslim information he was devouring online and from conservative talk show hosts such as Sean Hannity and Michael Savage. Stein referred to Muslims as “cockroaches” he wanted exterminated, according to the report.
Dehumanization starts with language.
We try to teach our children that words matter. They should not be used to degrade other people. That point is more challenging to explain when kids see and hear dehumanizing language from supposedly mature adults -- from the president to TV pundits to a local business owner.
The most discouraging part of the marketing email I received is not that Boriss refused to have a conversation about why it might be wrong to make the sort of comparisons he did.
It’s that this kind of dehumanizing language has become so normal and mainstream for a segment of Americans that they cannot even begin to see a problem with it.