Dehumanizing words and writing the “other”

The Meeting of Cortes and Moctezuma

I have recently been rereading the controversial but beautiful and clever book, The Conquest of America, The question of the Other, in preparation for teaching about the clash of Old World and New World cultures.  The book is not intended to be empirical history, rather it is a narrative account of the Spanish discovery and subsequent conquest of the “other” in the New World.  Todorov, prefering to use the antiquated categorization of exemplary history, purposefully crafted a moral treatise.  As the author of the latest edition’s forward writes,

it is a form of dialogue in which the author has attempted to mediate between two extremes: on the one hand, the conventional historicist objective of reproducing “the voices of these figures ‘as they really are,’” and on the other, the subjugation of “the other” to the self, so as “to make him [the other] into a marionette” whose strings are operated by the author.

The point was to call attention to the ethical response of the Europeans to other cultures.  Thus, Todorov speaks of the discovery the self makes of the other.  This is a deeply personal question for Todorov who grew up as a foreigner in France, having left Cold War Bulgaria.  He has, with other Bulgarians in France, written or commented about the estrangement he felt.  Additionally, he has written on the subject of totalitarian governments, such as Voices from the Gulag: Life and Death in Communist Bulgaria, published by Penn State University Press in 2000.  Both accounts show deep analysis of primary sources to express the situation and to insure that the world does not forget.

Discussions of this type are often found in historical works or works with a historical context, because history grants the opportunity for a laboratory of human response.  Our interpretation of history is, in fact, often guided by such principles (though, in fairness, we should ask ourselves how often we guide the conclusions in accord with those principles).

He dedicates Conquest to “the memory of a Mayan woman devoured by dogs,” based on an almost passing mention of her destruction by Diego de Landa—a woman whose name history has long forgotten, if it ever knew it in the first place.  This kind of attention on the person whom society literally discards is always relevant.

Like Todorov, William Brennan, author of Dehumanizing the Vulnerable, When Word Games take Lives, is also interested in the ways in which societies dehumanize others.  Both gentlemen focus on the sources and the words.  Whereas Todorov is a philosopher, Brennan’s  field is social work.  Todorov argues that the natives of Mexico were generally mere objects to the Spanish and that the Spanish overwhelmed them by reading the social and political tensions existing around the Aztecs to create an advantage, while Brennan looks more broadly at patterns from within societies that are set into motion against others.  Looking at many different societies, Brennan believes, despite the varying languages at play, that there are certain patterns for dehumanizing society’s less desirable groups of people and that once dehumanized there is a pretense for eliminating them (or forcing them into prison camps or disenfranchising them, etc.).

Brennan’s range is a wide one.  He covers America, Nazi Germany, Rome and the Soviet Union.  He is also broad in his identification of dehumanized members of society.  Often discussions of the “other” or the “subaltern” are identified with the academic left, but Brennan, a professor at St. Louis University, is very careful to include the unborn and the elderly or infirm (dependent discards) alongside women, European Jews, enemies of the Soviet regime, African-Americans and Native-Americans.  It is his contention that against all these groups a systematic “verbal gymnastics” was orchestrated to devalue the target group—often by respected members from within the society, such as doctors, professors and political leaders.  These patterns are briefly summarized in his chart shown below, but all focus on the deliberate redefining of a member of the target group as something simply not human.  (To read the chart more easily, click on it and it will enlarge it in a new screen.)

Brennan's "Semantics of Oppression"

There are similarities between these two men, their goals and their conclusions, but there are some important differences.  On the one hand, Todorov suggests an innate response that is preconditioned by culture and revealed through the texts.  For example, in the chapter, “Reasons for Victory,” he is not concerned with the accuracy of the Spanish accounts in their descriptions of Aztec actions, so much as he is concerned with the accounts themselves.  In other words, it is the Spaniards’ perceptions that interest him as they identify the Aztecs (the “others”).  His research of the particular event is extensive and thorough—he has worked on other collections related to the voice of these conquered peoples, as well—and it is selective and focused, not at all a survey.

Brennan, on the other hand, is not discussing encounters and the discovery of the “other,” but rather campaigns to convince and justify to “good, average citizens” why a target group should be treated differently and ultimately horrifically.  Brennan contends that most citizens do not stand by while other citizens have been treated brutally without first being convinced that they should, at minimum, look the other way, and at most, participate with vigor.

Both authors continue to be relevant despite the years that have passed since their publications (Todorov in 1982 and Brennan in 1995) and the continued developments in the field of history, as both authors clearly intend.  While in theory they represent opposite poles in the academic world (I exaggerate slightly), there is nonetheless common ground that may suggest inconsistencies within the left and right.  In my opinion, both should stimulate extended thought and dialogue about various current events, such as international relations, immigration, health care, abortion and same-sex marriage, among others.


Filed under Historian's Journal

6 responses to “Dehumanizing words and writing the “other”

  1. “Dear Erika,
    Thank you for your interest in my work and bringing to my attention the work of Tzvetan Todorov. You have done an admirable job of highlight some of the similarities between our two approaches. I was not aware of Todorov’s work, but will surely look into it in the future. Right now I am swamped with a heavy teaching load plus trying to complete a book manuscript tentatively titled, “Killing in the Name of Healing: The Semantic Gymnastics of Raw Medical Power Run Amuck” This work documents how health care professionals in early twentieth century America, before and during the Third Reich, and in contemporary society have resorted to both euphemistic terminology and degrading rhetoric in order to rationalize their respective assaults on the unwanted unborn and vulnerable born. I”ll let you know when the manuscript is finished.”
    ~ William Brennan, PhD, St. Louis University

  2. Joleigh

    ERIKA! William Brennan commented on this! Are you are blown away as I am??? I use one of his quotes in every euthanasia power point that I do! When he lets you know that his new manuscript is finished, could you maybe let your old pal Jole know?

    By the way, I loved what you have to say above. The “semantics of oppression” fascinate me and I have often compared the treatment of the disabled and medically vulnerable just prior to the Holocaust to what the medical establishment is doing today to people like Terri Schiavo — and really anyone who has the misfortune to fall into that “undesirable dependent” category. As a child I used to wonder how otherwise good people could sit by and let the Holocaust happen. Having spent 25 years fighting for the rights of the unborn and medically dependent I now completely understand how. And I still don’t like it.

  3. Olivia

    Oh girl! This is a good birthday present, ain’t it!? Brennan commented! woohoo! Great writing on your part. very intriguing ideas! I am so proud of you!

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