Labels & Dehumanisation

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Chalice Lighting

We come together today from many places and many ways of life
Amid our many differences, we join as one
We know that there is strength in our connection
We know that there is comfort in our togetherness
We know that there is hope in our diverse unity
May the flame we kindle today enable us to see beyond disagreement and strife
Beyond anger and fear
Beyond different belief and understandings
May we learn to see the beauty in each and every person
And free our love to work in the world

First They Came - Pastor Martin Niemoller

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

The Body of Humankind - Norman Cousins

I am a single cell in a body of billions of cells. The body is humankind.
I am a single cell. My needs are individual, but they are not unique.
I am interlocked with other human beings in the consequences of our actions, thoughts, and feelings.
I will work for human unity and human peace; for a moral order in harmony with the order of the universe.
Together we share the quest for a society of the whole equal to our needs,
A society in which we need not live beneath our moral capacity,
and in which justice has a life of its own.
We are single cells in a body of billions of cells. The body is humankind.

Message by Rev Andy Pakula

Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day. It is a commemoration that was established to remember the horrors of the genocide perpetrated by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. We have days like Holocaust Memorial Day to remember and honour the victims, but - more importantly - we set aside times like this so we will not forget the dangers of human cruelty. We stop to remember and study so we can understand better what happened and how we can learn from it. By doing so, we hope that we can prevent such nightmares from taking place again.

The Holocaust shocked the world through its cruelty and its massive scale. But it was even more astounding to many because of its cold-bloodedness. There seemed to be no shred of compassion or humanity among the perpetrators who killed and tortured and persecuted in an industrialised way. Detailed records were kept. Efficiency was emphasised at it would be in any modern corporation making widgets, mining ore, or producing software. But the efficiency was applied to transporting victims to death camps, to getting the maximum work out of starving prisoners, and to the deployment of efficient means of killing men, women, and children and disposing of their bodies.

The Holocaust was not the first time humankind had been inhuman to other humans. It was not the first genocide. Mass-killing has been with us for a long time but in the Holocaust, we saw that an industrialised, European country that had produced so much of the West's great culture could also turn to heartless brutality. We learned to our horror that the advancement of civilisation is no guarantee of human decency. The organised, efficient ruthlessness of the Nazi regime was such that it eventually exterminated some 6 million Jews, 200,000 Roma, 250,000 disabled people, and 9,000 homosexual men.

In our horror, we ask how people could ever come to treat others as objects to be eliminated. How could they behave in such an appalling way? How could they lose sight of our common humanity? We might want to place the blame on a few truly evil people. Adolf Hitler somehow hypnotised an entire nation to turn them into cold-blooded killers. We consider a people in shock and humiliated from the outcome of the first world war and the economic chaos that followed. We want to believe that the Holocaust was an isolated incident that says nothing about human nature - that says nothing about us.

In response to this shocking mass murder, the phrase ‘never again,’ was coined as a vow and a promise that such inhumanity should never happen again. Never again must any group of human beings undertake to slaughter and eradicate another group. But ‘never again’ has rung hollow as - since the Holocaust - we have seen examples of human extermination in places like Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Today, it seems clear that the Rohingya people in Myanmar are being systematically destroyed. The Holocaust was unique in some ways, but genocide is not a unique occurrence. It has happened before and it can happen again.

And we inevitably ask ourselves how can such brutality and inhumanity take place throughout a whole people or nation? We imagine ourselves in the situation of German citizens during the Nazi regime or in any of the other situations where people like us were committing genocide on people like ‘them’ and we are all but certain that we would not allow it to happen. Not only would we refuse to participate, we would fight against the persecution and the violence. We would take whatever action we could because we could never tolerate treating any other group as ‘other’ or as less than human. We are certain that we would not allow the step by step persecution that Martin Niemoller described to take place as he begins with ‘First they came for the Communists, And I did not speak out, Because I was not a Communist’ and then proceeds through socialists, trade unionists, and Jews.’

There was a protest sign early in the Trump presidency that echoed Niemoller’s famous poem. It read ‘First they came for the Muslims, and we said not this time!’ In fact, the sign continued in a choice expletive which I will not repeat in this polite gathering but which I think really added a lot to the message.

We think that we would behave differently if the seeds of genocide appear here but we might be wrong in our estimation of how we would behave. We might be ignoring some very difficult truths about human nature - truths that connect to how we categorise people as other and dehumanise them. These are painful realities about the power of labels to influence our views of other and of ourselves.

On the 4th of April in 1968, the great American Civil Rights leader, Revd Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. It was a shocking and divisive day for Americans. As she watched the news on television, a schoolteacher by the name of Jane Elliott in the small American town of Riceville, Iowa, decided that she needed to teach her all-white class of eight-year olds about racism. She talked with the children the next day and tried to get these concepts through to them by discussion. It became clear to her that she was getting nowhere. These children - many of whom had never even seen a person of African descent - could not take on what it would be like to be subject to racism or other prejudice.

So, the next day she tried something more impactful than words. As the exercise began, she told the class that blue-eyed children were superior to those with brown eyes. She gave out brown fabric collars to put around the necks of the brown-eyed children so they could be more easily identified. And then she began to treat the blue-eyed children better than the others. They got extra helpings at lunch. Only they were allowed to use the brand-new playground equipment and they got extra play time while the brown-eyed children had to return to sit in the classroom.

Elliott moved the blue-eyed children to the front of the classroom and the brown-eyed children to the back. The blue-eyed children were discouraged from playing with the brown-eyed children. The brown-eyed children were not allowed to drink out of the same water fountain as their blue-eyed classmates. In other ways, Elliott singled out the blue-eyed children for praise and the brown-eyed children for criticism. We might imagine the blue-eyed children rebelling against the unfairness of this experiment. After all, the brown-eyed children were their friends and classmates. We would hope they would refuse to participate in the othering. We are sure we would. But the blue-eyed children didn’t object to what was happening.

The brown-eyed children initially resisted their new low status and the idea that they were any less capable than the blue-eyed children. Elliott threw in a few false facts about brown eyes and intelligence and all their resistance disappeared. The blue-eyed children, in contrast to our hopes about human nature, became increasingly harsh to their brown-eyed friends and classmates. It was easy to get them to believe they were superior and to treat the other children as inferior and unworthy. The blue-eyed children flourished in their superior status. They scored better grades in a test. They finished tasks they’d been unable to do before. The brown-eyed children became timid and subservient. They isolated themselves from the blue-eyed children. Their academic performance worsened. All of this happened in the space of just one school day.

What did it take? Some propaganda - untruths saying that one group was better than the other. And, perhaps most important, it required labels. The two groups needed to be distinguished to create the conditions for bias and persecution. A physical difference was part of it, but the brown collars served as an obvious label.

The Nazis did much the same. Jews didn’t look different enough from other Germans so they were required to wear yellow six-pointed star labels to identify them. And the propaganda was vicious and persistent. Eventually, most Germans abandoned their Jewish neighbours and friends. The same pattern has played out in other genocides. Labels and propaganda lead to seeing other groups as different, as not as good, and eventually - not even quite human - not worthy of dignity or worth - not worthy of freedom or safety.

If this world is ever to make ‘never again’ more than an empty vow, we need to understand and accept the unwelcome flaws in our nature. The reality is that we are wired to embrace and idealise our own group and to reject and dehumanise others. We are susceptible to simple tools that take advantage of our inherent tendencies - tools like labels and propaganda. And so, if we are to prevent such great horrors and the smaller everyday divisions, we need to recognise the tools of dehumanisation for what they are and raise the alarm early and loudly.

The great risks are not as far away as we would like. In the United States, there is a president who resists condemning Nazis, who labels and spreads propaganda about Muslims. The danger there and in parts of the world we expected to be free of such othering and dehumanisation is very real indeed. Beyond vigilance, we need, also, to work on ourselves. It is part of our nature to label and see those we label as 'other' as less deserving of worth and dignity than ourselves. It takes work and a willingness to endure discomfort to work beyond the labels - to challenge them and to question them - to see the shared humanity behind them. Labeling and 'othering' our enemies will never bring about new understanding and harmony.

We are one. We are, as Norman Cousins describes it, single cells in a body of billions of cells. That body is humankind. Let us be those who look beyond labels to recognise the true shared humanity that unites us all.

Closing Words

The future begins in each and every moment
The future begins in this moment
We can choose to allow the future to slide ever further toward separation and division
Or we can resolve to turn toward compassion and cultivate understanding
Whether we choose to see difference as a sign of otherness or as an opportunity for enlarged perspectives determines the lives we will lead
Whether we choose to look beyond barriers, decides what kind of communities we will create
Whether we treat our diversity as a problem or as a blessing, will shape the world that we and our children will inhabit
Let us turn toward one another and see - not strangers - but brothers and sisters.
Let us turn toward compassion.
Let us turn toward love.