In a White House meeting last week, Donald Trump ranted about immigrants (not for the first time). He said, “These aren’t people, these are animals, and we’re taking them out of the country at a rate that’s never happened before.” Though there has been some debate about exactly whom he was referring to, it wasn’t the first time Trump invoked (nonhuman) animals to demean other human beings.
As the child of an immigrant, a cousin of refugees, and a doctor to asylum seekers, I cringe every time I hear hateful language directed at immigrants and their families. Similarly, I recoil at the derogatory reference to animals, who also do not warrant Trump’s vitriol. I have written about immigration in the past and I will continue to write about it in the future. But, in Trump’s comments, there is something deeper that demands our attention. Comparisons of human populations to devalued animals in society are often made in the context of a broader strategy. Such comparisons can facilitate the passage of discriminatory and unjust policies with innumerable anticipated and unanticipated consequences.
In my book Phoenix Zones, I discuss how comparing humans to nonhumans in society can be an ominous sign of what is to come. Scholars Jim Mason, Charles Patterson, and David Livingstone Smith have pointed out that when humans are compared to animals who are demeaned, harmed, exploited, and killed on a daily basis, it becomes easier to target, abuse, and even kill humans likened to animals. For example, Turkish oppressors referred to Armenians as “Rajah” (cattle) during the Armenian genocide. Nazis referred to Jews as “Ratten” (rats) before and during the Holocaust, and Tutsis were labeled “Inyenzi” (cockroaches) before they were murdered during the Rwandan genocide. More recently, Buddhist monks in Myanmar have compared Rohingya individuals, who are being systematically raped and murdered, to reincarnated snakes and scorpions.
It appears no one is immune from making or being subject to such comparisons. Living in America or being an American citizen does not provide immunity against these comparisons either, as revealed by the historical treatment of Japanese-Americans forced to live in converted animal stalls in internment camps during the Second World War.
As a human rights physician, I’ve struggled to understand how we can prevent atrocities like genocide, mass rape, and other violent and unjust crimes against humanity. I do believe it is possible to end these atrocities, though only if we end disrespect for and violence against our animal brethren. Solutions to these seemingly insurmountable problems nonetheless extend well beyond ending comparisons of humans to nonhumans. We need to reimagine the world and our place in it, as well as how we see others—for example, by viewing other human and nonhuman beings as deserving of respect, compassion, and justice in as much as we imagine ourselves to be. Doing so requires an end to assigning worth based on one’s ethnic background, monetary wealth, educational or occupational status, and even species. It also necessitates overcoming gaps in empathy, including those directed at people from other nations.
Animals have much to teach us in this regard, as former war correspondent Layla AbdelRahim argues in her new book comparing principles of life in wilderness with the economic principles of civilization. Her research has revealed that “economies of wilderness are governed by mutualistic, empathic relationships of exchange,” whereas the current construct of civilization is rooted in the control of others, domestication, and alienation from others. Her message appears particularly timely as policymakers and voters choose sides, wilderness is under attack, and cruel rhetoric foreshadows policy change.
It is imperative that we see comparisons like those made by Trump for what they are—an attempt to divide us and blunt our compassion and empathy for one other. Fortunately, there are mechanisms by which we can hold our lawmakers and other sources of influence accountable. We can also instill and exercise values that contradict and provide an antidote to the narrow-mindedness before us, starting with how we treat each other—with disdain or dignity. Attempts to divide us can be thwarted by a change in view, language, and treatment of our fellow humans, as well as our fellow animals.
Truthfully, we are all animals, and it may be one of our more redeeming qualities.