In You Are Not Human: How Words Kill, Simon Lancaster explores the power of metaphor in political rhetoric. Lancaster, a former UK civil servant turned speechwriter and occasional giver of TED Talks on oratory, examines a number of metaphors that occur with conspicuous regularity in various walks of public discourse, from health care to foreign policy. Their common trope is dehumanization. Why, Lancaster asks, does the term “permanent vegetative state” retain currency despite being patently unscientific? (He quotes an exasperated medical officer at St Joseph’s Hospice in London: “What is scientific about it? Wherein does an unconscious man resemble a vegetable? Photosynthesis? Roots? Edibility?”) The answer is expediency; survey data suggests members of the public are more likely to accept the idea of life support being switched off if the patient’s condition is framed in these terms.
Once you’ve convinced yourself that someone is less than human, it becomes a lot easier to hurt them. American soldiers serving in Vietnam were encouraged to think of the Viet Cong as vermin because this “turns killing from an act of evil into an act of social good; an act of sanitation, rather than extermination.” Likewise the characterization of people of African descent as monkeys originates from a pseudo-scientific canard that was designed to legitimize the brutalities of colonialism and slavery. The notion has outlived those institutions and lingered in the collective psyche of a substantial swath of white America, where it sustains the deep-seated institutional biases of the criminal justice system. By way of example, Lancaster reminds us that one of the policemen who attacked Rodney King in 1991 — whose acquittal sparked to the Los Angeles Uprising — had, earlier that day, casually likened another African-American man to a gorilla.
Lancaster grew up on a council estate in a relatively unglamorous part of west London; a charitable scholarship program placed him in an affluent private boarding school, where he recalls feeling a little ashamed about his comparatively humble background. In the political conversation around state schools and social housing in the United Kingdom, it is not uncommon to hear phrases like “sink estates” and “bog-standard” schools. Lancaster observes that the discourse abounds with references to trash and scatological terminology: “That [housing] estate is a toilet. He lives in a dump. It’s a shit-hole.” The word “scum” is especially favored by The Sun, a popular British tabloid known as much for its red-baiting as for its xenophobia and misogyny. Though it purports to speak for ordinary decent folk, The Sun’s sanctimonious salt-of-the-earth moralism is in fact a means of pitting working-class people against one another by stigmatizing perceived scroungers and other supposed undesirables. “Scum” is one of the most potent words in its lexicon because, as Lancaster writes:
If water is the symbol of moral purity connected with hard work, then scum has risen above the hard-working people. This is the opposite of cream rising to the top. The message is clear. You’re a cheat, you’re dirty and you’re subverting the natural order. Get back in your place.
When Ronald Reagan famously branded the Soviet Union an “evil empire” in 1983, his words were a dog-whistle to religious zealots across the world, particularly in the Latin American nations in which the Untied States conducted several proxy wars during the 1980s. The men who massacred some 200,000 Indians under the direction of Guatemala’s military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt believed they were fighting a holy war to eradicate a scourge. It might be a stretch to say that Reagan’s speech amounted to incitement to violence, but it would be naïve to suppose that he didn’t know what he was doing. Throughout the Cold War era, and long before Reagan’s presidency, the atheism of the left was emphasized by American-backed regimes in the Global South to induce ordinary people to participate in campaigns of persecution and violence against socialists and social democrats.
You Are Not Human makes a broad sweep of contemporary world affairs. A chapter on “stars” considers the involvement of celebrities in politics and winds up talking about the rise of Donald Trump and other populist upstarts, like Italy’s Five Star Movement; a chapter on the “family” takes us — apropos of the breakdown thereof — to Brexit; and a chapter on God provides a way in to a discussion about the pitfalls of artificial intelligence. The book concludes with a powerful and timely reminder of our common humanity: “There are no demons amongst us, no vegetables, no scum, no vermin, no bitches, no piggies, no gorillas, no stars, no angels, no titans, and anyone who claims to be a god is almost certainly a wily old white man standing behind a curtain.”
Occasionally, Lancaster overreaches. When, in 2015, the United Kingdom’s then–prime minister David Cameron made the case for bombing ISIS in Syria by claiming it was necessary to “cut off the head of the snake,” the metaphor clearly referred to the organizational structure of the terrorist network. To lump it in with various other instances of people being denigrated by being likened to snakes — a trope that is particularly prevalent in antisemitic rhetoric — seems erroneous. Likewise, his contention that calling online abusers “trolls” constitutes a form of demonization is questionable on two levels: first, because Lancaster misattributes the term’s etymology to the bridge-dwelling trolls of Norse lore — it is in fact derived from the word “trawl” — and second, because calling a troll a troll is little different from simply calling them a bastard. The defining element is their obnoxious behavior, not some broad, essentializing stereotype that has been imposed upon them. It is true that the term is sometimes cynically misappropriated by politicians and other powerful people in order to delegitimize reasonable dissent by characterizing it as trolling (this also happens with the word “abuse”), but the label does not carry anything like the dehumanizing connotations of a racial, gendered, or class-based epithet and does not really belong in that company.
Rather like a TED Talk, You Are Not Human is engaging without necessarily being eye-opening. The reader nods along in quiet assent, and by the close of the book they are no wiser than they were at the start. But such is the febrile nature of the current political climate that there is arguably something to be said for going back to basics. As the culture wars rumble on with no end in sight — not so much “wars,” in truth, as a state of permanent emergency — the self-styled free-speech martyrs of the right insist that we must respect the difference between words and actual violence. They are correct up to a point, but the performative and disingenuous pedantry with which they police this distinction is designed to elide questions of moral responsibility. Just because causality is complex and mediated, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. As Lancaster succinctly puts it: “When language changes, so do attitudes, and finally behaviour.”
Houman Barekat is a literary critic based in London. Houman Barekat is a writer and critic based in London, and founding editor of Review 31. He is co-editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (O/R Books, 2017).