Living Action – Humanizing the Dehumanized (Part 1): Empathy in Conversation

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”

UNESCO Constitution (1945)


Violence against undocumented immigrants, as well as Latinx and Hispanic communities in the United States, is being driven by a years-long campaign of dehumanization by President Trump’s administration, as I recently examined in a series of essays (Part 1; Part 2). The pattern of rhetorical tricks and cognitive processes, which I laid out in those essays, contribute to an enemy image that conflates refugees, unauthorized immigrants, and Latinx people with violence, crime, and insidious danger. If we are going to halt or roll back this direct violence, we need to directly address the cultural violence – dehumanization – through strategies that can allow us to intervene with cultural peace – humanization. The truth is, the path of dehumanization is lubricated by human psychology, and people too easily slip down this slope into violence. Even so, trudging back up towards the humanization of a targeted group of people is not impossible.

My intention with this series of essays, “Living Action,” is to provide people with strategies and tactics for engaging constructively in our political life and transform our current crisis. This will begin with laying out some possible strategies for helping humanize a group of people who have been dehumanized based upon field-tested practices from the field of peace studies and conflict transformation. This particular piece will lay out the basic principles of humanization and start with the opportunity most readily available to most people: empathy in conversational interventions.

Humanizing the Dehumanized

“Humanization is a matter of recognizing the common humanity of one’s opponents and including them in one’s moral scope. Viewing an adversary as outside the community in which moral norms apply can reduce restraints against aggression and legitimize violence. It is [through] recognizing the human characteristics of one’s opponents can help to limit escalation and violence.”

(Maiese, 2003)

Dehumanization and enemy images thrive in psychological environments without complicating or individualizing details, such as the personal stories of a vilified group of people. Humanization is the process by which we undermine this psychological environment, helping people recognize the nuanced, diverse humanity of people belonging to an out-group. After all, it is easy to feel a need to defend oneself against those “illegal aliens,” but it is much harder to justify violence against Ignacio and Maria Villatoro, the father and mother of four children, who chose to leave behind their home, and everything they had, in Guatemala to seek asylum in the U.S. after receiving a death threat from a local gang because staying felt like a death sentence for their children (Flores and Barajas, 2018). When we can picture a real person, with their desires and fears, their friends and family, or even their favorite food and hobbies, the out-group to which they belong will not easily remain the ambiguous, homogenous enemy image we imagined upon them.

As Maiese on “Beyond Intractability” lays out (2003), there are several basic, evidence-based methods for humanization, including empathy, dialogue, education, and media strategies. Let’s start by focusing in on the first part: building empathy.

Empathizing with the Enemy

Helping a person develop empathy for a group of people they have conflated into an enemy image can be challenging. After all, there is no way to *make* or *force* someone to experience empathy for another person. You can only open the door and invite them into a broader worldview. The primary strategy for creating these opportunities is to create situations where a person can perceive similarities between themselves and the members of another group. Helping make an out-group member’s needs and values available for the person to understand and connect with can be especially important, but even simple things people can identify with, such as hobbies, favorite foods, and traditions, play a powerful role in humanizing them by adding depth to the two-dimensional caricature image of the out-group.

A problem we often encounter when trying to encourage empathy, especially in digital realms like social media, is that people don’t bother to listen beyond the first sentence or read past the headline. In a conversation, this obstacle is effective summed up by Stephen Covey’s famous quote (1989):

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms…

One way mediators and conflict transformation practitioners overcome this obstacle is through “empathic listening,” also known as “active listening” or “reflective listening” (Salem, 2003). This is a type of listening that you might already engage in intuitively from time to time, but focusing in on particular techniques that you can employ to help with this and practicing them can greatly improve your skill with this tool. Some of the key techniques are: attentiveness to content and emotions, care not to interrupt, paraphrasing to check for understanding, using open-ended questions (“What do you want?” instead of “Do you want X?”), and reflecting back the content and emotions expressed by the speaker (“You left your home because your children were threatened by a gang” or “It sounds like you were afraid for your children’s lives”). When we acknowledge what a person is saying and trying to express, as well as providing them the space to share their story rather than confirm or deny your own expectations, the speaker will feel listened to and we will ready ourselves to listen for understanding.

Of course, the first way this can be employed is simply by personally using active listening in a conversation with an individual belonging to an out-group, challenging your own preconceptions and ensuring that their story is heard. It doesn’t stop there though. After all, you may be thinking, “That is all well and good, but my uncle Frank or my friend Steve won’t listen, and that’s the real problem!” So how can we create chances for a person who holds an enemy image to engage in empathic listening? There are at least two ways to do this that come to mind.

The first is to engage in empathic listening with the person that holds a dehumanized view of another group of people. This can be helpful because often people that hold these views don’t feel “heard” or feel “persecuted” themselves, and acknowledging what they think and feel can help them avoid putting up their psychological defenses and be more likely to hear what there is to learn about another’s experience. For example:

SPEAKER: MS-13 is dangerous! They kill children and deal drugs in our schools. I have a right to protect my children!

LISTENER: I can understand being afraid for the safety of your children. It sounds like you’re worried that they might be attacked or hurt by someone.

SPEAKER: Yeah, I am. The world these days is so dangerous, and I just want to protect them.

LISTENER: That makes sense, wanting to protect them. What is it that makes you afraid that they might be harmed?

SPEAKER: Well, the other day on the news, I saw a story about how two girls were murdered at their school by MS-13.

LISTENER: When you saw that other children had been killed by them at school it made you concerned that the same thing could happen to your kids? Gang violence is definitely scary. What do you think about that other story the other day, the one about the family that had to leave behind their home in Guatemala because a gang threatened to kill their children?

SPEAKER: Hm? I didn’t see that one, what happened?

LISTENER: It was on CNN the other day. The father, Iganacio, was scared for his children’s safety after a local gang threatened to kill all of them, so him and his wife, Maria, decided that they’re only option was to flee and seek asylum in another country since the local police weren’t able to protect them there. Now, their family is facing a bad situation here too, as his children were taken away from him at the border and the government isn’t helping reunite them. I couldn’t help but realize that they too were just afraid and wanting to protect their family, you know? Here, I’ll send it to you so you can read it, too!

Now, obviously, the first time you try to use empathic listening to have a conversation like this, it probably won’t go this smoothly or get this far. It might take several conversations to move from acknowledging that person’s feelings and thoughts, to talking about how members of the out-group share similar concerns. That said, you might also be pleasantly surprised. When I first started using active listening techniques as a crisis counselor, I was skeptical about how effective they were, but quickly found that people opened up easily and became receptive to new ideas within even just a 20-minutes conversation.

Part of the reason this can be effective is that it provides a psychological backdoor around one of the most common defenses to empathy: the backfire effect. Often, when we hear someone say something we know to not be true, especially if it denigrates an entire group of people, we feel like we need to disprove their claim and that the most effective way to persuade them will be to present facts to the contrary. For example, if someone insists that “illegal immigrants” are dangerous and must be deported, your gut reaction might be to inform them that, statistically, both undocumented people and foreign-born residents are far less likely to commit crimes or violence than the native-born population, like themselves. The problem is that when we feel that our beliefs or our identity is threatened, we tend to “entrench” ourselves, and our belief in a false opinion can become even stronger (McRaney, 2011). Part of the reason this happens is that when we try to evaluate contradictory information, we naturally begin to prepare to defend ourselves and our beliefs, so we begin recalling all of the things that support our viewpoint, reinforcing it (Big Think, 2010). After all, particular anecdotes that this person remembers about an undocumented immigrant committing a violent crime are easily available in their memories, so why would they believe you?

This is where empathic listening comes in. Instead of instantly responding with counterarguments or contradictory facts, which would lead the person to feel threatened, you are engaging in a supportive dialogue where the person feels heard. In fact, this creates an opportunity for a person to perceive this discussion as a partnership where you are searching for the truth together, rather than as a competitive argument where you are their opponent (Galef, 2013). If done well, the speaker’s empathy will remain open, or even be opened up, by realizing you are a person who cares, making it possible for them to begin to see the humanity in others they had dehumanized

Admittedly, this takes effort and energy on the part of an empathic listener, and it’s understandable if you can’t bring this to every conversation. It’s for this reason I would advise people to first try some common active listening techniques with friends and family, in order to build up confidence and consistency in their listening skills. And while none of us probably have the time or energy to do this favor for every random stranger on the internet, if we each picked two or three people for which we are willing to do the emotional labor to help them regain their empathy, we could have a much larger impact together.

Earlier I mentioned there were two strategies I could easily think of that we might employ to help build empathy. The second will use these same skills of empathic listening, but instead of acting as the interlocutor in a two-person conversation, this strategy involves playing the role of a supportive in-group member.

Bridging Empathy for your In-Group

Intergroup Contact Theory predicts that when members of two different groups interact, under favorable conditions, the attitudes they hold towards each other’s out-groups will become more positive and prejudice will decrease (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2006). One intervention during intergroup contact that can help support positive outcomes involves in-group members who express support for intergroup contact and favorable reactions to out-group members. When we encounter someone belonging to another group, we are more likely to put those cognitive defenses up and not respond favorably to what they say, especially if we have thoroughly dehumanized them. If an in-group member reinforces a change towards increasingly positive attitudes though, that can circumvent these cognitive defenses.

Playing a role like this can allow you to once more employ empathic listening to help humanize an out-group. The most obvious way to do this occurs when you are with an in-group member – a family member, friend, colleague, etc. – and you two encounter someone who belongs to another group. If you employ empathic listening techniques towards the out-group member during the conversation, that fellow in-group member is more likely to be receptive to the humanizing elements of the conversation. This not limited to in-group encounters though, as emerging research for other forums of intergroup contact, such as television and online platforms, has shown promise when the conditions are adapted for the new setting (Hasler and Amichai-Hamburger, 2013).

An example of how this might play out could be when you and a family member are watching the news and a story about people who are residing in the U.S. without authorization comes up:

INTERVIEWER: What led you to leave Guatemala?

INTERVIEWEE: A gang had threatened to kill me and my family. If we stayed, it would have been a death sentence for my children.

LISTENER: I can’t imagine how terrifying that must have been, to have people threaten your children and not be able to do anything to protect them back home. What would you do if we had been threatened when I was a kid and you couldn’t help keep me safe?

LISTENER’S PARENT: I don’t know. I guess we’re pretty lucky to be so safe here.

Again, these moments are not likely to change things overnight, but they can begin to open up those that are close to you who have adopted a dehumanized enemy image to the process of humanization. You signal through these kinds of interactions that it is not the case that the entire in-group supports dehumanization in a way that does not immediately raise the person’s psychological guard, facilitating the potential for humanization. While these interactions might seem awkward or might make one feel anxious at first, you will probably find that they go more smoothly than your anxiety makes it seem and might be more effective than you expect.

Creating Opportunities for Intergroup Contact

If you are ready to take action beyond these more reactive approaches, a great way to help with humanization is by creating chances for in-group members to experience intergroup contact with a person from a dehumanized out-group. Intergroup contact is one of the most robust theories in the field of social psychology, and has been tested time and time again for over 50 years, with a 2006 meta-analysis of hundreds of studies having demonstrated that it is not only reliable as a method of reducing prejudice, but is also effective (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2006). It is important to realize though that the conditions under which contact takes place are vital to its success, as there is a risk of reinforcing prejudice if the contact situation is poorly executed.

Setting up intergroup contact is pretty simple; all you need to do is invite a friend from an in-group to a situation where you have also invited an out-group. Some examples might be to invite two friends to go volunteer at a charity with you, inviting an out-group friend to a family dinner, or having a group of people come together for coffee. You might worried about how you would manage a conversation about a conflict issue, such as Trump’s policy towards undocumented immigration, if you invite someone wearing a MAGA hat and an undocumented immigrant. The thing is, you don’t actually have to bring up the underlying conflict or tension in intergroup relations for intergroup contact to be effective.

The elements that are key to successful intergroup contact are: equal status, cooperation, common goals, and support from authorities or institutions (Everett and Onu, 2013). Equal status isn’t to imply both people should have the same socio-economic privilege or anything like that, but rather that the situation doesn’t place them in a hierarchy to each other, such as a boss and an employee. Cooperation as a condition is about ensuring people are not in a competitive situation but rather a cooperative one, such as placing them on the same team rather than opposing teams in a football match. Common, or superordinate, goals merely means that the goals of contact participants are shared or aligned, rather than in conflict (for example, working together to paint a room rather than on person wanting to paint a room and the other wanting to put up wallpaper). Lastly, support from authorities or institutions can be hard in the context of dehumanization, as there are authorities who are at least indirectly discouraging intergroup contact. That said, merely having the support of the person organizing the encounter, especially if they are someone who is a member of an in-group to both or who is respected by both, can ensure that this condition is at least somewhat achieved.

This is why getting a group of friends together can be so effective as an intergroup encounter. With a mutual friend inviting both person, that provides support for the contact. Friendship does not place people into formal hierarchies, but rather encourages interaction on a more equal ground. And whether the group of friends is volunteering to help at a homeless shelter or having a movie night together, the activity is cooperative and everyone shares the same goal – helping the homeless in the first case and having fun in the second.

This can even be done more formally, such as by organizing a workshop or a meet-and-greet. A quick search online can help you find many guides to organizing intergroup encounters, making it a lot easier to figure out how to structure it and avoid common pitfalls. Additionally, formal events make it easy to organize helpful follow-up activities, such as reflecting on the experience through reflective journaling or reflective, mediated dialogues.

Humanization through Empathy

Empathy is one of the most basic and immediately available tools we can all bring to bear on dehumanization. We can begin with improving our own understanding receptivity, by employing empathic listening with someone belonging to a dehumanized out-gorup. We can then bring that empathy and what we learn into our conversations and interactions with people who belong to the same in-group, such as family, friends, U.S. Citizens, or chess club members, helping them become more open to humanizing others. Lastly, we can even take pro-active steps to create opportunities for humanization.

It is easy to feel helpless when one of the most powerful people in the world is busy justifying violence against a group of people on TV every day, but if we all take the initiative to begin humanizing those that are being targeted for the people in our lives, we can make a meaningful difference. After all, the bulwarks against hate and violence are not what our laws say or what policies a politician pushes, as these are only side-effects of what those that support people in power allow to happen. If we can cultivate the empathy needed to act as levees against the tides of hate, we can prevent this flood from drowning us all and maybe even weather the storm that thunders all about us now.


How Did We Get Here? (Part 2): Abusing Ambiguity to Conflate an Enemy Image

**Content Warning: Instances of explicit, dehumanizing hatespeech targeted at Latinx and Hispanic people, as well as undocumented persons, will be examined in this essay.**

“We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”

-Donald J. Trump, May 17, 2018

Who was President Trump calling “animals?”

When the headlines about this now common refrain cascaded across the news, there were two very different conclusions that people came away with. Many interpreted President Trump as labeling undocumented immigrants in general as animals. Others took him to be referring exclusively to members of MS-13. What I found telling about this episode was how a single dehumanizing remark presented a verbal Duck-Rabbit illusion depending on the context that was given.

Trump, and members of his team, would later double-down on this rhetoric and insist he was only referring to MS-13 gang members (Davis and Chokshi, 2018). This meaning seems to be born out when you include the comment to which Trump was responding to:

“SHERIFF MIMS: Thank you. There could be an MS-13 member I know about — if they don’t reach a certain threshold, I cannot tell ICE about it.

THE PRESIDENT: We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals…

(Lind, 2018)

Seems obvious, right? When presented in this manner, the “people” he is calling animals appear to be MS-13 members who are also immigrants. This is clearly a very violent duck. It must have just been a “fake news” controversy, right?

Let’s take a step back for a moment, and look at the broader context. This statement occurred during a roundtable discussion on California’s “sanctuary law” (Lind, 2018), a policy that determines under what circumstances local law enforcement should inform Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about the immigration status of a person they have in custody. The longer version of the exchange between Sheriff Mims and President Trump went as follows:

SHERIFF (Margaret) MIMS (Fresno County, CA): Now ICE is the only law enforcement agency that cannot use our databases to find the bad guys. They cannot come in and talk to people in our jail, unless they reach a certain threshold. They can’t do all kinds of things that other law enforcement agencies can do. And it’s really put us in a very bad position.

THE PRESIDENT: It’s a disgrace. Okay? It’s a disgrace.

SHERIFF MIMS: It’s a disgrace.

THE PRESIDENT: And we’re suing on that, and we’re working hard, and I think it will all come together, because people want it to come together. It’s so ridiculous. The concept that we’re even talking about is ridiculous. We’ll take care of it, Margaret. We’ll win.

SHERIFF MIMS: Thank you. There could be an MS-13 member I know about — if they don’t reach a certain threshold, I cannot tell ICE about it.

THE PRESIDENT: We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before. And because of the weak laws, they come in fast, we get them, we release them, we get them again, we bring them out. It’s crazy.

(Lind, 2018)

The broader exchange appears far more ambiguous, doesn’t it? The sheriff begins by talking about ICE not being allowed access to the “bad guys” in their custody or use their database to enforce immigration law, apparently referring to people who have an undocumented immigration status, in general, that fall into their custody. After all, that is the topic of the event. Trump then seems to continue using that meaning, as he affirms that his administration is pursuing the issue in the courts. Then, the Sheriff replies by giving an example of an undocumented person in their custody who is a known MS-13 member, and the president responds with the infamous quote. This suggests that Trump’s “bad people” are the same as the sheriff’s “bad guys,” which include all people who have an undocumented immigration status that fall into local police custody, not just MS-13. Maybe this is a rabbit, after all?

For the purposes of this essay, I am not interested in debating what Trump “actually” meant. Rather, I want us to examine what it is that he is doing that allows his remarks to lend themselves to either interpretation, and how this connects with my previous essay‘s discussion about Enemy Images. This is because the president employs specific rhetorical strategies that allows audience members to conflate unrelated groups together with an enemy image he has crafted. Due to its current immediacy, I will be focusing here on his specific conflation of MS-13 with Latinx and Hispanic people who have an undocumented immigration status, but President Trump also uses these rhetorical strategies with people who are transgender (Seck, 2018), Muslim (Haberman and Oppel, 2016), and belonging to other minority groups (Shear and Davis, 2017).

(Be forewarned, this essay wound up being longer than intended due to the need to analyze specific quotes in text. So it may be a bit of a read!)

From Immigrant to Illegal

Misleadingly ambiguous rhetoric about people who have migrated to the United States without authorization didn’t begin with Donald Trump. In fact, equivocation about the terminology around this topic is downright commonplace due to what, until recently, was the most widely accepted phrase to refer to undocumented immigrants: “illegal alien” (Diep, 2015).

You might assume, as I did until recently, that “illegal alien” must be a legal term and its popular usage followed from that. Interestingly enough, it is actually not a common legal phrase (Opening Arguments, 2017), appearing only once in the entire U.S. Code of Laws (8 U.S. Code S. 1365), in a section passed into law in the 1980s. Furthermore, it does not mean what people commonly refer to when using “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant.” According to the U.S. Code, it only refers to a person who has already been “convicted of a felony” and “who is in the United States unlawfully.” In other pieces of federal legislation, the term “illegal alien” has been employed a handful of times over the last several decades, but it always refers to a person who has already been convicted of a felony, and sometimes only to people who have been previously deported from the United States (Selby, 2018). It is never used to refer to the category of people who are simply living in the US or attempted to cross the border without authorization.

This should actually make sense on reflection. As one immigration law firm points out (Becker and Lee LLP, 2013), we don’t “call a driver who once drove drunk an ‘illegal driver’ in perpetuity.” Why did these labels enter common use then?

“Illegal alien” is actually a political term that came to popularity in the 1970s due to a confluence of interests held by anti-immigration “restrictionist” movements, immigration enforcement bureaucracies, labor unions, news media, and civil society organizations (Diep, 2015; Ackerman, 2011). Ironically, one of the driving forces behind the adoption of this term were the efforts of progressive civil society organizations that were hoping journalists and politicians would employ “illegal alien” instead of the term more commonly used at the time – the bigoted slur targeting Latinx and Hispanic people, “wetback” (Florido, 2015).

This itself represents the ambiguous rhetorical strategies I want to discuss. Many people adopted the term “illegal alien” as a more “polite” version of a racial slur referring to people who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization. It would later enter U.S. law to refer specifically to a person who had entered or resided in the U.S. unlawfully after already having been convicted of a felony, such as a violent crime. The term eventually became applied to all undocumented immigrants. This represents three different meanings, but the term is often used as if the meaning is obvious, when it is actually ambiguous. This then allows a person to use the same term, with different meanings, to conflate a racist image, violent felons, and people who simply lack legal authorization to reside in the U.S. This represents the first form of ambiguity that President Trump regularly leverages: equivocation.

Equivocating the Innocent with the Enemy

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Donald J. Trump, Presidential Campaign Announcement Speech (June 16, 2015)

This quote, which I began this series of essays with, is a good example of equivocation. Who are the “people” and the “they” to which he is referring? At different points in only a handful of sentences, these lazy pronouns refer to the Mexican government, undocumented immigrants, people with problems, drug-traffickers, criminals, rapists, and “good people.” This is a rhetorical trick, and logical fallacy, known as Equivocation.

Equivocation, in its simplest terms, is what happens when we say something in an ambiguous way that opens up a statement to more than one interpretation (Merriam-Webster, 2018). As an informal fallacy, it is the use of ambiguous phrases as a rhetorical strategy to evade or deceive (Perlman, 2017), often employing one meaning of an ambiguous term in one part of the argument, and then using a different meaning in another (Texas State University, 2016). A commonly used example is as follows:

A warm beer is better than a cold beer. After all, nothing is better than cold beer, right? And a warm beer is better than nothing!

(Texas State University, 2016)

A more pertinent example was recently provided by the Trump Administration in their use of the term “denuclearization” in reference to North Korea. North Korea has, for decades, usually used this term to mean signing a peace treaty, the removal of an American military presence in South Korea, the withdrawal of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella,” and then, finally, a removal of nuclear weapons from North and South Korea (Pollack, 2018). Trump has made it clear that he only means that North Korea will disarm their nuclear weapons and end their nuclear weapons program. In the end, they signed an agreement that used “denuclearization” in an ambiguous way (New York Times, 2018). Trump has since claimed repeatedly that North Korea has agreed to get rid of their nuclear weapons and is “no longer a threat” (Rosenfeld and Chandran, 2018; RFE, 2018; CBS News, 2018; ACW Podcast, 2018)  despite the document itself implying the North Korean interpretation of the term and no actual agreements about disarmament appears to have been made. Trump agrees to one interpretation of the term when signing a document and then talks as if it’s his original meaning that he agreed to, in order to evade criticism and deceive people about what was in the agreement.

Equivocation is important as a rhetorical trick for persuading an audience to target a group of people as if they are the enemy image that is presented. When President Trump slips between a “they” that means undocumented immigrants and a “they” that means violent gang members, he is also helping his audience do the same. And when he concludes that extraordinary tactics are needed to stop this second “they,” the audience then may extend that logical-seeming conclusion to the original “they” of undocumented immigrants, justifying direct violence against all people who are present in the country without authorization.

Conflating the Criminal with the Cleanhanded

“And the other day — just the other day — Nancy Pelosi came out in favor of MS-13. That’s the first time I’ve heard that. She wants them to be treated with respect, as do other Democrats.”

Donald J. Trump (May 22, 2018)

This quote embodies another rhetorical tactic utilized by Trump: Conflation. Conflation is sometimes misunderstood to mean the confusion of two things for each other, but actually means to bring together or fuse (Perlman, 2015). In this context, and the usage that lends itself to the title, is the treatment of two different ideas as if they were a single idea (Daly, 2012). In the case of President Trump, and his administration, there is a tendency to use “illegal immigrant,” “criminal alien,” and “MS-13” as if they were interchangeable, despite having very different meanings.

Trump has repeatedly made the claim that Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic politicians are “in favor” of MS-13 members, as well as the violence and crime they commit, based upon a conflation of support for undocumented immigrants and support for MS-13 members (Valverde, 2018). Following Trump’s aforementioned “animals” remark, several Democratic politicians, including Nancy Pelosi, came out against the dehumanization and mistreatment of undocumented immigrants that had already become rampant under the Trump administration. Trump responded by painting anybody who was supporting the humane treatment of undocumented immigrants and opposing dehumanizing rhetoric as a supporter of gangs and their violence.

Sometimes he conflates these ideas in a single sentence, with a little dehumanizing bigotry thrown in for good measure:

“Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!”

Donald J. Trump (June 19, 2018)

In this declaration, he conflates “illegal immigrants” with “MS-13,” by pointing to Democratic support for undocumented immigrants. He implies a subhuman enemy image by using “infest” and then references a conspiracy theory of using undocumented immigrants as voters. This last comment, besides being textbook paranoid style politics, represents conflation of even another idea into the enemy image he is attempting to associate with undocumented immigrants. Despite the fact that people who are not citizens cannot vote in the United States, and that convicted felons such as the legally defined “illegal aliens” cannot vote in most states either, he is also trying to mix in Latinx- and Hispanic-Americans into this enemy image, planting the seed in the minds of suggestible audience members that any Latinx person they see voting belongs to their cultivated enemy image.

Hastily Generalizing People into the Enemy

“You look at what’s going on where somebody comes in who’s bad, and yet they’ll have 24 members of a family, not one of them do you want in this country.”

Donald J. Trump (May 24, 2018)

Besides being an outright lie (Valverde, 2018) about how citizens and residents can sponsor family members who wish to immigrate to the United States, this quote demonstrates a common fallacy leveraged by Trump, and his family members: Hasty Generalization. This occurs when we predict or presume facts about an entire population or category based upon insufficient or inappropriate evidence.

As a fallacy, this can be tricky because generalization is a valid form of reasoning in a lot of situations. For example, if I interview 10,000 people in a city of 100,000 about their favorite flavor of ice cream, it is possible to generalize the survey results to the entire city and make confident predictions about ice cream preferences. That said, if I interview only five people, and all five people love chocolate ice cream, it would be a hasty generalization to assume that all 100,000 people in the city love chocolate ice cream.

The above quote does this in a straightforward manner. There is one person who is “bad” in a family, therefore every member in that family must be “bad” and we don’t want them in the country. This is also apparent in the other quotes discussed so far, where he suggests the percentage of violent criminals and gang members among undocumented immigrants is much higher than it really is (Valverde, 2018; Woody, 2018). It is important to note here though that, often, Trump does not himself make an explicit generalization. Instead, he uses ambiguity and repetition to invite the audience to make the hasty generalization for him.

For example, in the “mexico is sending us rapists” speech, he specifically stipulates that this does not describe all undocumented immigrants from Mexico, after all “some are good people.” But note how he defines the equivocated “they”: neutral people, people with problems, people with problems, drug traffickers, criminals, rapists, good people. This suggests 5/7ths of this “they” are dangerous or have problems, while only 2/7ths are neutral or good. This is reinforced by “some are good people,” as we use that in contrast to “majority” to suggest that the “some” represents a minority in the group.

This represents the next factor in this confluence of fallacy and bias: the Availability Bias.

Making Enemies Readily Available

The Availability Heuristic is a cognitive shortcut we often resort to without realizing it. The term was coined by Tversky and Kahneman, based upon extensive research and experiments, to describe the tendency of people to “judge the frequency of events in the world by the ease with which examples come to mind” (Decision Lab, 2018) This leads us to judge rare events as more common than they are, based upon memories of those rare events being more readily “available.” How readily a memory is available depends on a number of factors, such as heavy media coverage, how recently we heard about the information, and how shocking an event was. A useful example was provided by Kendra Cherry below:

Which job is more dangerous — being a police officer or a logger? While high profile police shootings might lead to you think that cops have the most dangerous job, statistics actually show that loggers are more likely to die on the job than cops.

(Cherry, 2017)

President Trump, and his administration, are masters of exploiting the availability heurisitc through modern media. Almost all of the quotes that we have examined so far became much more potent by taking advantage of how 24-hour television news media and social media function. Trump will make an inaccurate claim, such as how his administration is deporting MS-13 gang members “by the thousands” “every week” (Valverde, 5/15/2018), suggesting there must be large numbers of MS-13 gang members in the US and that most of them are undocumented immigrants, neither of which is true. This will then get media coverage, spark outrage, and people will share it on social media. He will then stoke the fire by repeating the claim multiple times (Greenberg, Jacobson, Sherman, and Valverde, 5/30/2018) on multiple platforms (Valverde, 5/24/2018). Many people will hear this claim multiple times over the course of several weeks. As a result, people overestimate how many undocumented immigrants there are (Beauchamp, 2015; Rampell, 2017), and many likely overestimate the risk of MS-13 violence.

This is part of the reason logical fallacies, like hasty generalization and equivocation, and rhetorical tricks, such as conflation, are so effective at proliferating enemy images in our perceptions. The first time we hear one, it may not sink in, but if we hear it 10, 20, or 50 times, it will start seeming much more prevalent. Combine it something extreme or shocking, such as a violent crime like the ones Trump likes to feature, and it will stick in your mind even more. This is why it was so sinister when the president announced he wanted ICE to begin publishing a weekly list of crimes committed by immigrants (Camacho, 2017). But then again, that was on purpose, as this is one of the tools used by the Nazi party to propagate enemy images of Jewish people to justify the holocaust (Democracy Now, 2017).

Make the enemy image readily available, and the audience will often do the rest of the work for you. The ease with which this readily available enemy image is conflated with the general population of a targeted group is aided by the last cognitive bias that I will explore in this essay, our failure to perceive diversity within out-groups.

All Enemies Look Alike

Out-Group Homogeneity is a cognitive bias in how we perceive members of a group to which we do not belong. You may already have an accurate notion of what I mean when I say in-group and out-group, as it is something most of us experience in our lives, the “Us vs. Them” thinking that is so often decried. What you may not realize is how stubbornly it emerges under almost any circumstances and how strongly it shapes the way we perceive the world.

This bias is best understood within the context of Social Identity Theory from the field of Social Psychology. Social Identity Theory holds that our sense of selfhood is informed by the groups to which we belong, and that the identities we form from these group affiliations, our “social identities,” influence our perceptions and behavior (Psychologenie Staff, 2018). Importantly, when we encounter someone, depending on the situation, we will probably engage in “social categorization,” attempting to assign a known social identity to them in order frame our expectations about them (Learning Theories, 2015). If we don’t perceive them as belonging to a group to which we belong, our “in-group,” we place them in an “out-group” category, and almost inevitably initiate some degree of comparison of our in-group image with the out-group image. This often leads to the emergence of prejudice against the out-group (Psychology Research and Reference, 2018), so much so that groups formed based on even minimal group identities, such as those randomly assigned by an experimenter, will lead to the emergence of elevation of one’s perceptions of their in-group and the denigration of the out-group (Gagnon and Bourhis, 1996; Bennett, 2018).

Another consequence of social categorization is the “out-group homogeneity” bias. This is our tendency to perceive the members of our own group as diverse and different, while perceiving those belonging to out-groups as being more similar to each other (Dixon, 2017), sometimes to the point of seeing out-groups as homogeneous, or “all alike.” After all, if I am a student and look around a classroom, I’ll notice how different other members of that class are from me, but when I just pass by the open door of a different class, the students that belong to that class will all look similar at a glance. This plays an important role in prejudice, as it enables us to apply stereotypes of an out-group to any member of an out-group we may meet (Understanding Prejudice, 2018).

This also makes it easier for these rhetorical tricks to enable the conflation of different people into an enemy image. After all, when a person encounters equivocation or rhetorical conflation of an enemy image with an out-group, if they see that out-group as homogenous, the traits of a single member become easy to generalize to the whole population because they all seem the same.

Abusing Ambiguity for Enemy Images

Let’s consider then what happens to an audience member exposed to Trump’s rhetorical tactics. Trump tells you that “they” are coming into our country and “they” are committing violence. Sometimes he may be talking about undocumented immigrants, other times he may be talking about MS-13 gang members, but either way, he keeps telling you about the danger “they” represent through equivocation. He then refers to something you heard the other day, Nancy Pelosi coming out in defense of undocumented immigrants, but informs you Pelosi is actually in favor of MS-13, conflating the two into a single “they.” Next, he tells you about how “they” brutally murdered two young women, and how we need to protect our country from them. “They” must all be dangerous, occurs to the audience member, as they hastily generalize.

And, after all, “they” are all the same, aren’t they? That out-group sure seems homogenous anyway, the way Trump talks about them. The rally ends, and the audience member leaves feeling afraid of this enemy “they” that Trump keeps talking about. Then, in the days that follow, references to how dangerous “they” are become readily available, as the news repeats Trump’s offensive quote over and over again as part of their reporting. The reporters keep trying to tell this audience member how these statements are inaccurate, but they assume it must just be “fake news.” After all, “everybody knows” how dangerous “they’ are, the audience member hears it all the time and can think of several examples of how dangerous they are. Now they begin to entrench themselves, discount critical news media, and prepare to fight this enemy image that “they” now embody.

Trump never has to say explicitly that all undocumented immigrants are dangerous or that all Latinx and Hispanic people are subhuman monsters. In fact, if he’s called out on it, he’ll clarify his ambiguity in a way that is plausible, but deceptive, providing a smokescreen that will allow the audience to rationalize away the bigotry. And yet, the audience has already done the work for him, making the generalizations on their own and conflating undocumented immigrants, MS-13, Latinx and Hispanic people, drug dealers, and violent animals into a single enemy image. He only had to open the door, the audience did him the favor and walked right into his trap, now imprisoned in a world full of enemies.

It is through an abuse of ambiguity that we ambled right into this violence. If we want to help people leave this prison that Trump helped them stumble into, what should we do? How do we move people past ambiguity and into clarity?

I will attempt to suggest some possibilities in a future essay, but countering with specificity is a place to start. Ask people who and what they mean when they use ambiguous words, help make counterexamples easily available to them, and create opportunities for people to see for themselves the diversity and humanity in the people they have come to see as monolithic enemies.

Next in this series, I will identify specific practices and policies that have arisen from these conflated enemy images.



How Did We Get Here? (Part 1): How Trump Cultivated an Enemy Image of Latinx and Hispanic people

**Content Warning: Instances of explicit, dehumanizing hatespeech targeted at Latinx and Hispanic people, as well as undocumented persons, will be examined in this essay.**


“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you, they’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

-Donald J. Trump, Presidential Campaign Announcement Speech on June 16, 2015


Three years ago, while announcing his candidacy for President of the United States, Trump told us exactly who he is and what his plans were. He didn’t even dog-whistle. With this declaration, he began a seemingly never-ending spew of dehumanizing language that led us right into children in cages and attempts to suspend the basic rights of undocumented people. Frustratingly, this was all tiredly predictable and many voices were diagnosing the problem, predicting the dangerous path it would lead us down. And this is where we have arrived, all the same.

I think it might be fruitful to take a step back, consider how we came to be here, and attempt to understand more fully what we’re dealing with. After all, if we wish to put out the fire, we need to understand what is feeding it and where it is spreading. For this reason, in this essay, the first in a series I intend to write over the next few months, I am going to start with one of the social processes that led us here. Due to its immediate and ever-present salience, I am going to examine how Trump’s rhetoric and policies have cultivated an “enemy image” to justify violence against Latinx and Hispanic people in the United States.

Imagining the Enemy

“The first thing that caught my attention was that all nations use basically the same visual metaphors, the same hostile clichés, to characterize and dehumanize their enemies. It was like all these propaganda artists had gone to the same art school.”

-Sam Keen, Faces of the Enemy (1987)

A key study for our current understanding of how we create and use enemy images comes from a qualitative study conducted by Sam Keen, entitled Faces of the Enemy (1991). He collected propaganda images from dozens of countries spanning decades of conflict, and found several consistent motifs and themes. Tellingly, he found these same elements in the propaganda of cultures on opposite sides of conflicts and in conflicts and regions completely removed from each other, suggesting that these represented a general, underlying process that stretched across cultures and eras.

In almost every case, a nation will portray themselves as a victim or as someone endangered, with the group they are in conflict with being framed as a danger or aggressor. This appears to be done to prepare a community to do violence against this targeted group by creating justifications for violence, and dehumanizing the “enemy” in order to mute their communities empathy towards them. Beyond this, there are several elements in how the image of the enemy is framed, three of which are particularly relevant in the case of Trump’s rhetoric. I will link to a whole pile of images in this discussion, and I encourage you to examine them for yourself and ask yourself what you see in all these images.

First, we present the targeted group of people as subhuman, especially using the imagery of animals. The Nazis presented the Jewish people as vermin. The Hutus of Rwanda called Tutsis “cockroaches.” Americans portrayed the Japanese as rodents. The Japanese and the British drew cartoons of the Russian octopus stretching its tentacles across Asia. The Germans painted the picture of a British spider weaving its tangled webs across Europe. It has always been easier for people to kill animals than other human beings, and by ensuring your community sees the chosen enemy as a animal you can mute their empathy, which might otherwise make it harder for them to do direct violence against them. Additionally, if a dangerous animal is threatening you, you cannot reason with it, you can only exterminate it if you wish to protect yourself and your family.

Second, the enemy is always shown to be inherently more dangerous or vicious than members of your own group. The enemy is violent, aggressive, and unreasonable. They are greedy and ravenous, wanting to devour the entire world. They are rapists, murderers, and criminals. They are not defending themselves, they are invading and stealing from others. If we attempt to be reasonable or peaceful, they will take advantage of us and harm us. So, even though we are virtuous, we must be vicious ourselves and take extraordinary measure to protect our community.

Third, seemingly in contradiction to the first point, our enemies are more powerful and dangerous than any mere individual human. They are a demon, a monster, or a supernatural spirit. The enemy is involved in a worldspanning conspiracy, and they are everywhere at once. We can’t rely on conventional diplomacy or tactics to protect ourselves – after all, guns don’t kill vampires or demons.

Quite often, our enemy is all of these things at once, such as in this famous image of a German King-Kong-sized gorilla who is preparing to rape a woman, while under the armor of “militarism” and having bludgeoned someone with his violent club of “kultur.” Each of these pieces adds up, each muting a bit more empathy and creating a bit more of a justification for violence. This is necessary if you want people to harm a targeted group because most people are reluctant to commit direct violence against actual human beings. While there is debate over whether or not humans are “naturally” violent, there is significant evidence that the vast majority of us are not good at engaging in direct violence. This is not only born out by our everyday experience where most of people we encounter do not commit violence most of the time, but also by a famous set of US military studies that found that soldiers who encounter an enemy soldier will not fire their weapons most of the time, and when they do, they tend to fire randomly rather than aiming directly.

Enemies of the Paranoid

It is valuable to note the parallels between Keen’s findings and Richard Hofstadter’s observations in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1964), which I discussed last year in reference to Trump’s politics. Rather than studying propaganda images, Hofstadter did a deep dive into American texts across hundreds of years of history, and found the cyclical reemergence of a “paranoid style” of politics and rhetoric. In fact, he predicted that this would likely continue to occur roughly every fifty years, given the pattern up until then. Once more, he found that it always begins with a specific belief: we are now a persecuted group, being victimized by some malevolent entity, and our entire way of life is threatened.

Each time a new target would be chosen by society, such as Freemasons, Illuminati, Catholics, Mormons, and Communists, but the rhetoric and politics around them were always the same. They were both subhuman and capable of things no human being could do. They were involved in vast conspiracies that ranged from local government to the United Nations. Members of the targeted group practiced secret and inhuman ritual violence against people. Once more, we can imagine an enemy as less than human, more than human, or both at once – just as long as they are anything but human. This is important, as it is telling that two independent scholars, using different methods and different data, came to the same conclusions.

The Art of Dealing Enemies

This brings us back to where we started, Trump’s announcement he would campaign to teach us to see undocumented people, especially Latinx and Hispanic people, as our enemies. During his June 16, 2015 speech, when he announced he would be running for president of the United States, he laid out a textbook enemy image in the paranoid style of politics. While many of you likely remember the quote at the top of the page, you may not remember the full context, which might shock you in retrospect.

He began his speech by complimenting the crowd and throwing some insults at the other Republican presidential candidates, suggesting that because they were not savvy about how they presented themselves for the TV they couldn’t “beat ISIS.” From there, he immediately jumped into presenting a vision of a persecuted United States:

Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them.

This led to a quick comment about “losing” on trade deals with China and Japan, and how he could help us win again. After building this sense of persecution with more innocuous examples, he then launches fully into his target: Mexico.

When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they’re killing us economically.

The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.

Thank you. It’s true, and these are the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

Take a moment to consider the elements of enemy images and paranoid politics that we discussed above, what elements do you see here?

Mexico is “beating” and “killing” us, invoking a violent nature through analogy. Also, this is not an accident, but intentional persecution. Once more, we are being victimized by other people “dumping” their “problems” on us. What are those problems? Rapists, drug traffickers, and criminals, who are being intentionally sent across our border by the nation of Mexico.

Later in the speech, he reiterates this point again, this time clarifying that it is not just Mexico, but “all over South and Latin America.” He also goes on to craft enemy images of Muslims and people of the Middle-East, but that’s a topic for a later post. The key here is that he laid out his thesis: the US is a victim, being intentionally targeted by the nations of Latin America, and the means by which they are harming us are undocumented people they are “sending” across the border who are imagined to be mostly rapists, drug-dealers, and criminals. In roughly two paragraphs, Trump has created an image of a violent, immoral, rapacious enemy that is taking advantage of us right now and endangering our communities.

This was just the beginning, as we have seen him use the term “animal” more than once in discussions conflating undocumented migrants with MS13. He calls the places undocumented people of color come from “shithole countries.” And he constantly employs verbs that imply that migrants are subhuman, such as “breeding” and “infestation,” or are a violent enemy “invading” our country. He equivocates constantly as to who he is referring to when discussing immigration, often suggesting all undocumented migrants are “MS13 thugs.” He also regularly adopts terms used by others that suggest undocumented migrants, especially those from Latin American countries, are animals, such as “catch and release,” which we usually use to refer to a fishing practice. And he encapsulates it all within conspiracy theories, suggesting that there is an inhumanly powerful force infiltrating our communities.

So there it is, right in front of us. Undocumented people from Latin American countries are at once both less than human, as infesting animals, and more than human, being part of a conspiracy to persecute American communities. They are violent criminals and thugs who want to rape American women. We are being invaded and we must stop the enemy at all costs.

We should not dismiss the harm that this does either. A recent study by Kteily and Burneau (2017) found that this rhetoric had actually dehumanized American perceptions of Mexican immigrants and Muslims, leading them to be seen as less “evolved,” similar to animals. These also led to increased support for the exact policies Trump has been enacting against Latinx and Hispanic people in the United States, including detention and expulsion. The danger is demonstrable, having happened again and again in our history.

In a future essay, I will discuss strategies for working against dehumanization, but one of the best resources on these topics can be found at Beyond Intractability, including a straightforward article on humanization. Before we do that though, there is another feature of Trump’s enemy-image-making that I want to explore, which are the rhetorical strategies of ambiguity and equivocation that he uses to enable audiences to conflate undocumented people and violent criminals, as well as the cognitive biases which facilitate this conflation.

Next Up: How Did We Get Here? (Part 2): Conflating Latinx and Hispanic People with Criminals



“You have the body” indefinitely detained: undocumented people and habeas corpus

“We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.” –President Donald Trump, On Twitter (June 24, 2018)

Today we witnessed yet another unprecedented act for a U.S. President: declaring that this administration will pursue the suspension of the privilege to a writ of habeas corpus via Twitter. Sadly, it is only that last part that is unprecedented, as people have been denied this fundamental civil right before by a President’s executive order. And almost without fail, this has always resulted in abuses and misuse, and inevitably endangered all people subject to the decisions of the executive branch, including U.S. Citizens.

Why a person should be concerned about not having the right of habeas corpus may not be immediately apparent, hiding behind such obscure language. After all, if you walked outside right now and asked the first ten people that you encounter what “habeas corpus” is, I imagine the majority will not be able to tell you or explain it clearly. The truth is though, if Trump is able to enact this proclamation of his, either through executive order or congressional cooperation, we may be staring down one of the biggest threats to civil liberty in recent memory. For this reason, I think it will be important for us all to familiarize ourselves with habeas corpus, what it has to do with Trump’s policies on immigration, and why it would be so dangerous to suspend this privilege, even if just for undocumented people.

Habeas Corpus is Latin for “You have the body” (West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, 2008, as cited in The Free Dictionary). This principle of Anglo-American jurisprudence originates in a common law practice that predates the Magna Carta, whereby a judge issues a “writ of habeas corpus,” demanding “one who holds another in custody to produce the body of the person before the court for some specified purpose” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018). Over the centuries, this literal order to bring an individual to a court, made to the person who “had the body,” evolved into a fundamental civil right and safeguard of liberty, allowing a person who is imprisoned to ask to be brought before a judge and have the legality of their detention be evaluated. This legal privilege was even enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, where the framers specified that the privilege of a writ of habeas corpus could only be suspended by the federal government in case of a rebellion or invasion (U.S. Const., Art. 1 S. 9).

These days, when a writ of habeas corpus is issued, it compels the institution, or individual, responsible for detaining a person to bring that person before a judge and requires them to provide sufficient justification, according to established legal standards,  for continuing to detain them (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018). The reason this is such an effective tool for protecting people from the potential abuses of executive authorities is made clear by examining the consequences that result from a hearing like this. First, and probably most importantly, the institution detaining the person will be required to release them if they do not have a good legal justification for imprisoning them. This protects any person who is arrested or detained from not being imprisoned for the rest of their lives, if it is found to be unjustified, and ensures that there is a legal reason for jailing a person in the first place, ensuring that a law enforcement officer can’t just throw anybody in jail based upon their personal desires or prejudices. Second, by getting a hearing in court through habeas corpus, a person can contend that the conditions under which they are being detained, or the treatment that they are receiving, is inappropriate, ask to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment, and be given access to a fair and speedy trial, per the bill of rights. Third, it is also the primary mechanism by which the United States protects people from being “disappeared,” as happens under certain authoritarian governments, by requiring that the executive authority physically produce the person at a specific time and place for their hearing. While there are many other important consequences of this principle, one last one worth mentioning here is that these constellation of protections that can be accessed through habeas corpus preserves the rule of law and the separation of powers in the U.S. federal government, ensuring that the judiciary has the ability to provide oversight on the actions of the executive. Without this particular mechanism, there is not much to prevent an official of the executive branch from effectively becoming judge, jury, and executioner.

The history of the United States has witnessed several episodes during which the federal government suspended habeas corpus. In probably the strongest case for the constitutionality of such an action, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the military to suspend habeas corpus during the Civil War around railroad lines to protect Union Army supply lines (Bomboy, 2018). The U.S. Supreme Court did issue a writ of habeas corpus in one case, bringing them into conflict with the president’s order, arguing that the president did not have the constitutional authority to suspend habeas corpus. This problem arose because the constitution does not specify who may suspend habeas corpus, despite being placed in the article describing the powers of the U.S. Congress. While this dispute did not actually resolve the question of whether or not the president has the authority to suspend this privilege through an executive order, Lincoln did ensure he had congressional approval to do so in future cases during the war.

The irony of the Supreme Court insisting on such a strong right to habeas corpus was that the Chief Justice at the time was the same one who had denied this right to any non-white person just a few years before in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. Often pointed to as one of the worst decisions in Supreme Court history, the Dred Scott case represents one of the darkest chapters in American jurisprudence ( Dred Scott was an African-American who had been kept in slavery his entire life, but was promised his freedom before Sandford died in a “free” territory. Despite this, Sandford’s widow demanded that Dred Scott was not a free person but property and should be forcibly returned to slavery. Scott and his supporters decided to sue in federal court for his freedom. Initially, his right to a writ of habeas corpus was honored and his case was heard, leading to the infamous decision. The federal judge that heard the case, the same one who would later serve as Chief Justice, argued in his decision that any person of color could not be a citizen of the United States, and that people are who are not citizens are not entitled to any federal civil rights, including habeas corpus and the right to sue. This decision was even made against the precedent of the Amistad case in 1841, which had determined that former African slaves that escaped from Cuba had the same privilege to habeas corpus as any U.S. citizen (Brecher and Smith, 2007). In this case we see a legal theory coalesce, that non-citizens are not entitled to federal civil rights, which was specifically developed to uphold the legality and enable the practice of slavery.

While the Dred Scott case’s precedent would eventually be overturned, and constitutional protections put in place through the 13th and 14th amendments with the intention of preventing future abuses, the legal theory that an entire category of people can be denied access to the judiciary’s check on executive authority, either due to their status as non-citizens or due to their racial identity,  would re-emerge more than once following the Civil War. The result has almost always been a national shame. In the 20th Century, the most well-known case is probably President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s executive order which suspended habeas corpus for Japanese residents in the U.S. and Japanese American citizens in order to enable his administration to place them in internment camps for an indefinite period of detention (Friedersdorf, 2013). Even more recently, at the dawn of the 21st Century, we witnessed the suspension of habeas corpus, through a combination of the PATRIOT Act and the Military Commissions Act passed by Congress during President George W. Bush’s administration (Brecher and Smith, 2007), for people that were declared to be “enemy combatants” by executive authorities as part of the “War on Terror.” The inability for those held by the military as enemy combatants to access habeas corpus has led to many issues we have yet to fully reckon with as a nation, such as the indefinite detention of people imprisoned at Guantanamo, the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and the inability for a court to hear claims and decide the constitutionality of acts of torture against enemy combatants (Hurley, 2015). In both of these cases, we see once more how a revocation of right to a writ of habeas corpus has, almost without fail, violated human rights and endangered real people, including U.S. Citizens.

This brings us back to President Trump’s twitter pronouncement. He has stated he intends to pursue a policy where detained people will not have a right to see a judge or have a court hearing, which is just a simpler way of saying his administration wants to suspend habeas corpus for undocumented people. The most immediate result, of course, would be to effectively prevent any person from legally seeking refugee status in the United States, as those that wish to seek asylum protections are being criminally prosecuted as undocumented migrants as part of Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” policy (Human Rights First, 2018; Reveal News, 2018; Ramey, 2018), and habeas corpus would be their only opportunity to have a chance to plead their case for their right to asylum. In fact, this is the articulated aim of this policy, with John Kelly having stated that it is intended as a “tough deterrant” for people seeking asylum to come to the United States (Anapol, 2018).

The consequences of suspending habeas corpus in this case will not be limited only to refugees being wrongly imprisoned or deported to face persecution. One of the risks, as has happened with “enemy combatants” that have become “indefinitely detained,” is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will effectively be able to imprison people as long as they want to, even for the rest of their lives. Even foreign-born residents who have legal documents and U.S. Citizens will be put at risk of this form of indefinite detention, as these kinds of mistakes have already been made (Coll, 2018; St. John and Rubin, 2018). If all those detained and labeled as undocumented migrants by ICE are refused a privilege to a writ of habeas corpus, then there will be no effective legal protection or judicial remedy for anyone targeted by an ICE agent. Such authority would be a danger to the life and liberty of every single person in the United States.

One might hope that Trump’s statement about this is merely his infamous loose language, but there is a history of his administration advocating for the legal theory that underpinned the Dred Scott decision and Japanese internment. In 2015, during his presidential campaign, Trump cited President Roosevelt’s suspension of habeas corpus and internment of Japanese-Americans as a good example for his proposed “Muslim Ban” (Liptak, 2018). In 2017, one of Trump’s federal attorney nominees, Stephen McAllistor, directly cited the Dred Scott case as precedent in a legal brief, arguing that undocumented persons, as non-citizens, are not guaranteed civil rights under federal law (Lockhart, 2017). This happened again when a Trump appointee, Scott Lloyd, argued for the Department of Justice the same legal theory, that non-citizens can be denied federal civil rights (Grossman and Stern, 2017). As we have discovered again and again with this administration, when it tells you its intentions multiple times, you should always take them both literally and seriously.

I can understand the temptation to think that I am exaggerating the threat in this case. After all, if I am a documented citizen, I have papers that prove my legal status and will be just fine, right? Besides, it probably won’t happen anyway, as Trump says a lot of stuff he never actually does, right?

It is true that we have yet to see Congress or the Supreme court indicate whether they will support a suspension of habeas corpus by President Trump, and it might require the active support, or at least inaction, of both of these institutions to persist after it is initially challenged. Then again, as discussed above, past presidents have successfully suspended the privilege of habeas corpus by merely signing an executive order. After all, President Lincoln only had to refuse to enforce the writ issued by the Supreme Court to make the entire judicial branch powerless, President Roosevelt deterred thousands of Japanese-Americans without the need of Congressional support, and the Supreme Court has even shown deference to the executive and legislative branch in these matters when it comes to “enemy combatants.” And the wording of Trump’s statement itself suggests this is not just mere rhetoric, having already invoked the term “invasion” repeatedly in the way he talks about undocumented people, suggesting he is not entirely unfamiliar with the language used in the Constitution on this point.

In other situations, I might myself think that these fears represent a slippery slope fallacy. Consider though, the difference between an actual slippery slope and the mere illusion of one is the existence of a guardrail that prevents us from careening into the ditch.  In this case, habeas corpus is that guardrail, which ensures that all people will have a chance to challenge the abuse of power. If a person is never given their day in court, there is no chance for anyone to see their legal documents or hear their case for asylum. At that point, the life and liberty of a person who is being detained depends entirely on the integrity and compassion of the person detaining them, whether that is this president, the next one, or just an official serving further down the line in immigration enforcement.

To know how you should respond to this issue, you only need to ask yourself one question: do you think you can trust your life and liberty to the integrity and compassion of Donald J. Trump? If you cannot answer yes without reservation, then you need to act to try to prevent this.

The Multiple Violences of Current U.S. Immigration Policy and possible interventions

Recent events involving the separation of families and detention of children due to their undocumented status (Lind, 2018) have sparked a national conversation about the problems in current U.S. Immigration policy. Despite Trump’s claims to the contrary, it appears that his recent executive order is likely to exacerbate what people are outraged about and not remedy the fundamental problem of imprisoning children and families (Chang, 2018). Given that the complexity of these policies and their effects though, it can be challenging to identify the specific harms that need to be addressed, and specific actions we can take to attempt to remedy or minimize the harms being done. For this reason, I thought it would be helpful to examine how these events look through the lens of Peace Theory and what insights might be gleaned from such an approach. Specifically, Johann Galtung has developed three widely-used concepts in Peace Theory that are intuitive and may provide some useful clarity in this situation: Direct Violence, Structural Violence, and Cultural Violence (a handy summary can be found here:

Direct Violence encapsulates many of the obvious types of violence that come to mind when we commonly use the word, such as when one person assaults another person. Importantly, Galtung centers his definition of violence on the deprivation of basic needs or well-being. For example, murder is violence because it deprives a person of their life and forced starvation or malnutrition is violence because it deprives a person of the food or nutrition necessary for their health and well-being. Importantly, in direct violence involves specific acts performed by one person that harm another person.

Similarly, Structural Violence involves deprivation, but in this case it is caused by institutions, policies, and practices in a society rather than a specific person. For this reason, it is sometimes called “indirect” violence. Examples might be a set of laws and government policies that result in people of different skin colors having access to the same public resources and civil rights or the common practice of not filtering industrial air pollution by a group of private factories that results in local people becoming ill through exposure to toxic chemicals in the air.

Finally, Cultural Violence involves those things that occur in the symbolic realm of society, such as ideas, stereotypes, and stories. These things are categorized as cultural violence when they legitimize or justify direct or structural violence. An obvious example would be the propaganda produced by Nazis in Germany that labeled Jewish people and others as dangerous, greedy, and inhuman, thereby legitimizing the violence of the holocaust. A less obvious example might be media and everyday speech that presents people with mental illness as inherently dangerous and violent, rather than actually being more vulnerable to violence (Varshney et al., 2015; CMHA, 2018).

After considering these ideas, what are examples that can be identified of direct violence in the Trump Administration’s immigration policies and practices? Structural violence? Cultural violence?


For further reflection, here is a short summary of examples of acts, policies, and practices that I would categorize as meeting the definition of direct, structural, or cultural violence, as well as possible avenues for intervention in which common citizens can participate if they want that form of violence to be remedied or minimized. As a note of caution, identifying these as types of violence does not necessarily claim they are justified or unjustified,  or suggest whether they are good policy or bad policy For example, imprisoning a serial killer is still an act of violence, as it deprives them of their liberty, though many would argue it is a form of legitimate violence in order to prevent the acts of violence that the serial killer would likely commit in the future.


Direct Violence

  • Forcibly removing children from their parents’ arms, physically restricting the movements and activities of children in detention centers, indefinitely separating families and preventing them from reuniting (Lind, 2018).
  • Denying young children the parental care and affection necessary for healthy development.
  • Detaining children in conditions that prevent them from having appropriate shelter.
  • Restricting the movements and activities, through imprisonment, of people due to a lack of documentation, even if attempting to legally seek asylum and refuge (Ramey, 2018).
  • Allegedly subjecting children to physical force to restrain them and psychiatric drugs that not medically necessary and risk significant side-effects (Smith and Bogado, 2018).

Possible Interventions for Direct Violence:

  • Protests outside the offices of legislators and executive officials demanding reform to current laws and policies that enable or order these acts of direct violence.
  • Lobbying legislators and executive officials through phone calls, letter-writing, emails, and in-person meetings to reform said laws and policies.
  • Reaching out to Border Patrol and ICE agents to engage in a discussion aimed at persuading them to engage in civil disobedience against orders to commit acts of direct violence.
  • Physically impeding direct violence by placing one’s body between enforcement agents and targets of direct violence, physically blockading the ability for enforcement agents to access places where they engage in direct violence through protest, or engaging in sit-in and street protests that undermine the operations that result in this violence.
  • Donating or volunteering for organizations that provide legal aid, material support, and direct care to the children and families that have experienced this violence or are vulnerable to it.
  • Attending town halls and public events held by politicians in order to ask them what they will do to end or minimize this violence, as well as informing them that your vote will depend upon the actions they take to end or minimize this violence


Structural Violence

  • Laws and executive policies that require or permit family separation or the indefinite detention of families
  • An executive practice of not prioritizing which undocumented migrants are criminally prosecuted or deported leading to a greatly increased caseload for immigration courts, legislative policies that fail to provide sufficient manpower, resources, and funding to handle the current caseload, and a new executive policy to indefinitely detain families during their legal proceedings and trial; together these will result in children and families being effectively imprisoned for several months, and more than a year some cases.
  • A federal agency (ICE) whose continued financial support, and the employment of its members, depends upon undocumented people being arrested, detained, and prosecuted as criminals or security threats.
  • Private prison organizations that have a profit-incentive to pursue, and the legal capacity to lobby legislators and executive officials for, expanded detention of undocumented migrants and increasing the numbers and categories of people placed into a legal status requiring detention and imprisonment.
  • Previous foreign policy interventions, or inactions, that exacerbated the threat of persecution in countries that refugees are fleeing
  • A criminal justice system that is oriented towards punishment, rather than rehabilitation or prevention, resulting in increased rates of detention and punitive responses.

Possible Interventions to Structural Violence

  • Protests outside the offices of legislators and executive officials demanding reform to current laws and policies to prevent family separation and provide alternatives to indefinite detention.
  • Lobbying legislators and executive officials through phone calls, letter-writing, emails, and in-person meetings to reform said laws and policies.
  • Protests and lobbying to increase the legislative and executive support to immigration hearings to enable efficient and fair trials that can handle the current caseload.
  • Protests and lobbying demanding politicians to pass new legislation or for executive officials to change Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that criminally prosecutes all undocumented migrants, rather than prioritizing prosecutions to those with a history of violence or present a security threat, decreasing the caseload that has slowed immigration proceedings and resulted in much longer periods of detention; this could include demanding a return to the Obama Administration’s policy that did not indefinitely detain people and prioritized criminal prosecution based upon the criminal history of the undocumented individual.
  • Lobbying legislators to reform or abolish current immigration policies or ICE.
  • Lobbying local politicians to put policies into effect that result in not actively cooperating with or undermining federal immigration authorities in criminally prosecuting, transporting, or indefinitely detaining undocumented people who have not committed violent crimes.
  • Demanding politicians refuse funding from entities lobbying for an expansion of immigration detention, such as private prison entities.
  • Proposing and lobbying for reform of foreign policy practices that exacerbate the threat of persecution in vulnerable communities abroad.
  • Protest and lobby for criminal justice reform that de-emphasizes punishment and emphasizes rehabilitation, prevention, or other approaches.



Cultural Violence

  • Terms, phrases, idioms, and other rhetoric used by politicians, public figures, and common citizens that dehumanizes undocumented people (“illegals,” “illegal aliens,” “animals,” etc.) and people of color or foreign origin.
  • Rhetoric and descriptions of policies that dehumanizes people or legitimizes violent policies, such as “catch and release” or “zero tolerance.”
  • Claims unsupported by evidence that reinforce stereotypes that people who lack documentation are more prone to violence or property crime.
  • Movies and television that regularly present people of color and foreign persons as more dangerous and violent than native-born US citizens or white people.
  • Media that that supports the idea that indefinite detention of families or family separation is a necessary or effective means to decrease the number of people migrating to a country, especially in cases of asylum seekers.
  • Public and everyday rhetoric that perpetuates the myth that immigration harms U.S. citizens and the U.S. economy
  • Cultural Schemas and legal precedents that support the idea that people without U.S. citizenship are not entitled to basic civil and human rights; The Trump administration has brought up, in the context of the rights of detained migrants, the precedent of the Dred Scott case, which determined that a slave, Dred Scott, was not entitled to any civil rights because he was not a U.S. citizen, legitimizing slavery (Grossman and Stern, 2017; Lockhart, 2017).

Possible Interventions for Cultural Violence

  • Organize opportunities for cooperative and educational intergroup contact between US citizens of diverse demographics and migrants from vulnerable populations to decrease negative opinions and foster favorable attitudes
  • Educate yourself on the data and facts around these narratives and stereotypes; share what you learn, as well as the sources you learn it from, with the people in your life.
  • Do not remain passive when you encounter rhetoric that perpetuates cultural violence. Options include directly confronting individuals you hear express dehumanizing language and narratives, or asking questions and engaging in persuasive discussion with these individuals.
  • Lobby media companies to de-platform individuals and shows that support and reinforce dehumanizing narratives and violent stereotypes.
  • Lobby advertising companies to remove ads from the platforms and shows that perpetuate cultural violence.
  • Express demands to politicians and public figures to not use dehumanizing language and educate the public on its dangers.


Useful Educational Resources

  1. Basic facts about Trump’s policies and the immigration situation:
  2. “Illegal Alien” is not a legal term or legal status, but rather a political term:
  3. Undocumented people, as foreign-born residents, are less likely to commit crimes and violence than the average population:
  4. Migrants and refugees do not harm economies, but rather provide significant contributions to national economies according to analysis 30 years of data:




People are Power: Part 1 – An Intro to Arendt’s Thought

This will be the first in a series of essays on the political question of power. The goal in this first essay is to lay out the underlying political theory of power that will inform an analysis of current events in the essays that follow.


In face of the events of the last two years, violence has come to preoccupy our discussions. Whether it is the actual violence we witness or the threat of violence to come, it is easy to find reasons for fear and heartbreak. Interestingly, violence is often pointed at as a sign of power and authority, whether it be the newfound capacity for violence President Trump has put his hands upon or the violence of police upon civilians. In some cases this is brandished publicly in hubris and in others it appears to be a consequence of the authority invested in certain individuals. Almost all of these cases though point not to power, but to a breakdown in the ability for our folk concepts of power and violence to comprehend what we see.

After all, if violence is a form of power, why does violence appear to be impotent to bring peace to Syria and Iraq? If violence is power, then why are groups that lack mainstream political purchase the ones that seem most likely to engage in terrorism? If violence is power, then how is it that protesting citizens have brought down or paralyzed tyrannical governments, even if only briefly, across the world? That is because the reality of violence is not power.

This way of conceiving power, as being synonymous to one’s capacity for violence, shouldn’t pass the smell test given the way we usually think of power in other contexts. Consider the origins of the word itself. “Power” comes to us from the Latin word “potis” through Old French, which was much more closely entwined with its other derivatives, “potent” and “potential” ( It meant the ability to act or the possession of a certain capacity or ability. Strangely though, in the 20th century, power became equivocated in political theory as one’s capacity for violence, with theories of sovereignty defining power as a monopoly on legitimate violence or the Realist Theory of International Relations operationalizing power specifically as a state’s weapons and capacities for military violence. This idea even became translated into Leftist thought, best exemplified by Mao’s famous quote, “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

In 1969, Hannah Arendt identified this problem and argued that the received notions about power and violence held by both theorists and non-theorists did not actually correspond to the reality of political phenomena. Rather, she argued that we falsely equivocate a pile of terms and ideas, including power, command, authority, and violence. In one of her most concise summaries of her thought on the matter, On Violence, Arendt proposes not only that power is the core political phenomenon, but that it is the opposite of violence ( She lays out the problem as follows:

“It is, I think, a rather sad reflection on the present state of political science that our language does not distinguish between such key terms as power, strength, force, might, authority, and, finally, violence—all of which refer to distinct phenomena. To use them as synonyms not only indicates a certain deafness to linguistic meanings, which would be serious enough, but has resulted in a kind of blindness with respect to the realities they correspond to. Behind the apparent confusion lies a firm conviction that the most crucial political issue is, and always has been, the question of Who rules Whom? Only after one eliminates this disastrous reduction of public affairs to the business of dominion will the original data concerning human affairs appear or rather reappear in their authentic diversity.”

(Arendt, On Violence : Section II)

Core to this mistake, in her thinking, is the belief that power is equivalent to the ability for a person to have their commands obeyed by others. She identifies this as one of two major traditions of thought on the relationship between government and power:

“These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man—of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody.”

(Arendt, On Violence : II)

This view may very well correspond to your received notion of power, as we often talk about it in terms of people in positions of authority making or legislating commands. It is also a notion that is deeply entrenched in political theory and political science. For example, as mentioned earlier, power is often defined in international relations in terms of getting what you want from others through coercion (military), exchange (economic), or soft (persuasive) power (Such as in Joseph Nye’s theory of soft power: While it is tempting to go down this road, as it provides simple capacities possessed by a state that allow one to evaluate its power, it fails entirely to recognize how these capacities are dependent upon the underlying power of social organization of which the state is a manifestation.

Arendt instead draws our eye to another tradition of thought in political theory that, though neglected, has often played a role in the actual practice of politics:

“However, there exists another tradition and another vocabulary no less old and time-honored than the one mentioned above. When the Athenian city-state called its constitution an isonomy or the Romans spoke of the civitas as their form of government, they had in mind another concept of power, which did not rely upon the command-obedience relationship. It is to these examples that the men of the eighteenth-century revolutions turned when they ransacked the archives of antiquity and constituted a republic, a form of government, where the rule of law, resting on the power of the people, would put an end to the rule of man over man, which they thought was “a government fit for slaves.” They too, unhappily, still talked about obedience—obedience to laws instead of men; but what they actually meant was the support of the laws to which the citizenry had given its consent.

Such support is never unquestioning, and as far as reliability is concerned it cannot match the indeed “unquestioning obedience” that an act of violence can exact—the obedience every criminal can count on when he snatches my pocketbook with the help of a knife or robs a bank with the help of a gun. It is the support of the people that lends power to the institutions of a country, and this support is but the continuation of the consent which brought the laws into existence to begin with. (Under conditions of representative government the people are supposed to rule those who govern them.) All political institutions are manifestations and materializations of power; they petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them. This is what Madison meant when he said, “all governments rest on opinion,” a statement that is no less true for the various forms of monarchies than it is for democracies. The strength of opinion, that is, the power of the government, is “in proportion to the number with which it is associated” (and tyranny, as Montesquieu discovered, is therefore the most violent and the least powerful among the forms of government).”

(Arendt, On Violence : Section II)

This is what so interested Arendt: power as that ability which enables us to work together to create a society. For this reason, she defines power as our ability “to act in concert.” She further qualifies power as “belonging to a group” and remaining in existence as long as the group persists. In many of her other works, such as The Human Condition, she explains that by “action” she further means those things we do in the public space that initiate and further a new endeavor. This view implies that power comes into being whenever people associate and is what allows us to cooperate and create a society together.

In contrast, she sees violence not as an end in itself, but a means that can destroy or undermine power – the means by which one can make it so people cannot work together. This may sound strange at first, but consider the way violence is used. For example, in a battle, the goal is not to engage in as much destruction as possible, but to undermine an opponent’s ability to coordinate their attack or to resist. In this same way, government forces, like police, use violence to break apart protests and undermine a group’s ability to communicate and coordinate their actions. And while the threat of violence can sometimes convince someone to obey a command, that threat cannot make someone come up with a new invention or create a new institution. Through collaboration though, we become capable of doing things far beyond what any one of us could achieve alone.

For Arendt, this was not mere armchair speculation, but a matter of experience. While living in France as a refugee from the holocaust, before Germany invaded, she worked to help Jewish refugees like herself escape to safety. No matter what violence Hitler’s forces brought to bear, people working together were able to create a route to safety for those they sought to destroy. When France fell, she then had to flee to New York, once more witnessing the power of collaboration to frustrate and stop the machinations of evil and violence. During her lifetime, revolutions shook the world and countless times she watched as tyrannical, violent leaders were overthrown by the collaboration of ordinary people.

“Since the beginning of the [20th] century, theoreticians have told us that the chances of revolution have significantly decreased in proportion to the increased destructive capacities of weapons at the unique disposition of governments. The history of the last seventy years, with its extraordinary record of successful and unsuccessful revolutions, tells a different story…The fact is that the gap between state-owned means of violence and what people can muster by themselves—from beer bottles to Molotov cocktails and guns—has always been so enormous that technical improvements make hardly any difference…In a contest of violence against violence the superiority of the government has always been absolute; but this superiority lasts only so long as the power structure of the government is intact—that is, so long as commands are obeyed and the army or police forces are prepared to risk their lives and use their weapons.

When this is no longer the case the situation changes abruptly. Not only is the rebellion not put down, the arms themselves change hands—sometimes, as in the Hungarian Revolution, within a few hours…Where commands are no longer obeyed, the means of violence are of no use. Hence obedience is not determined by commands but by opinion, and, of course, by the number of those who share it. Everything depends upon the power behind the violence. The sudden dramatic breakdown of power, which ushers in revolutions, reveals in a flash how civil obedience—to the laws, to the rulers, to the institutions—is but the outward manifestation of support and consent.”

(Arendt, On Violence : III)

This was something that was on display for the world during the Arab Spring. For example, in Egypt, we saw an authoritarian leader, Hosni Mubarak, overthrown in a matter of days by the collaboration among nonviolent protesters themselves and the noncooperation of the military with his commands ( Arendt herself brought up the example of the Vietnam War, which was being actively waged at the time, to showcase how violence is impotent in the face of power. This idea has even seen itself given new life in the form of “Selectorate Theory” in the field of political science, which examines how the minimum necessary coalition of people needed to gain and maintain power shapes the behavior of political leaders (

In times like these, Arendt’s theory of political power is not only insightful, but inspirational. It reminds us that power inevitably rests in our hands and it is the sum of our choices that creates the society we live in. This tells us that no matter how much violence or strength a particular leader or coalition lays their hands upon, the power remains in the hands of the people and we have the ability, if we so choose, to work together to resist and transform events. We are not objects acted upon by history but the subjects that create it.


The Recency of “Heritage”

Taking down statues of Confederate generals is not changing history.

In his statements about the violence last weekend, President Trump walked out a tired old canard, claiming symbols of the Confederacy were a matter of heritage and history, and that to remove them is to change or erase history. He has repeated this claim multiple times since then. The problem is, these public symbols of “heritage” were themselves part of a campaign to erase and rewrite history across the South in the early Twentieth Century.

At the center of these events was a statue of Robert E. Lee that was erected in 1924 ( For many, that year likely sounds like a mere footnote or reinforces the idea that this is a symbol of history. If you begin to examine the many statues and public symbols that portray the Confederacy in some way though, you will begin to notice they cluster around two periods in the 20th century: the 1920s and the 1950s ( In both of these cases, they embodied revisionist white supremacist movements, with the rise of the modern Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1920s and the emergence of the “Dixiecrats” and pro-segregationist parties of the 1950s.

The march in Charlottesville was organized by white supremacists and their fellow travelers – “white nationalists,” the alt-right, and neo-nazis. These groups claim that these statues are facts of history and represent “heritage.” As noted above, President Trump has echoed this language, dog-whistling as loud as possible to these groups to signal he supports them. This appeal to history and heritage is by no means an unusual tactic for a group that is trying to legitimize itself or its violence.

Appeals to the historicity of a belief, practice, or symbol, as a means of legitimization and justification, is about as human as it gets. This is such a common theme in anthropology, we can see this in everything from the mythologized narratives described by modern-day neo-pagans and wicca practitioners of the historical continuity from antiquity of their practices ( to how people build new nations and legitimize violence in its name ( Similarly, white supremacists attempt to naturalize their ideology by creating a funhouse mirror version of American history that warps things beyond recognition to legitimize their contemporary political positions and violence.

The narratives these movements insist upon suffer from countless ahistorical, revisionist misrepresentations. The most common is the retelling of the Civil War as a conflict about “states’ rights” rather than one about slavery. If you had told that to a Southerner or Northerner at the time, they would have likely been confused by such a claim. To debunk this, one need only look at the declaration issued by South Carolina, the first state to secede and start the Civil War, which explicitly stated the primary reason for their decision was “…increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery” ( That doesn’t even take into account the wider context, such as the years of violence between pro- and anti-slavery partisans that preceded the Civil War ( or that time Representative Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner with a cane on the floor of the Senate ( over Senator Sumner’s speech against slavery and the politicians who supported it.

At the center of this revisionism is none other than the KKK. While the KKK did have its origins in terrorism committed by White Southerners in the reconstruction era following the Civil War, it faded away by the end of the 19th century. The modern KKK was instead founded in 1915 and didn’t begin to gain traction until after World War I ( This movement was far more involved in mainstream politics and would eventually come to influence national policies in the 1920s ( It was during this era in which many of the modern symbols of the KKK were created and cemented, as well elements of its ideology such as the construction of “White” as “Anglo-Saxon Protestant” and excluding those whose heritage originated in Catholic Europe. All across the South at that time, statues and public symbols were erected and dedicated that were symbols of the KKK’s mythologized history of the Confederacy and White Supremacy (( Rather than being merely a memorial to the history of a slave-holding, treasonous nation, these were explicit statements of a racist ideology cultivated and advocated by the KKK.

Similarly, the “confederate flag” is itself an ahistorical symbol of racism. As many will point out, the modern flag that goes under that moniker was not the flag of the Confederacy, but was specifically the battle flag of General Lee’s army of Northern Virginia ( Until the rise of the modern KKK and pro-segregationist movements, it was little more than that, and would not have been seen as the symbol of the South that is presented as today. This is probably best illustrated by a quote from the editor of the Augusta Courier in 1951, which the Southern Poverty Law Center chose to begin its discussion of this very topic ( :

“The Confederate flag is coming to mean something to everybody now.
It means the southern cause. It means the heart throbs of the people
of the South. It is becoming to be the symbol of the white race and the
cause of the white people. The Confederate flag means segregation.”

This flag was becoming a symbol of white supremacy and segregation in 1951 due to its adoption by the Dixiecrat party in 1948. The Dixiecrats split off from the Democratic party specifically due to Pres. Truman’s advocacy for civil rights and the party’s embrace of an end to segregation. In the decade that followed, Southern states began to incorporate the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia into their state flags and other public symbols.

Even if we were to just give these groups the lie of this being history, these are symbols of an army that betrayed the U.S. Constitution and marched against the armies of the United States. These are symbols that have been brandished by hatemongers and terrorists. These are symbols that are soaked in the blood of slaves and victims of the KKK. These symbols should be repugnant to us specifically because of their historical meaning.

To claim these are symbols of “heritage not hate” is either a bald-faced lie, a mark of supreme gullibility, or an addled mind. Symbols of the confederacy, whether it be the flag, statues, or otherwise, were specifically brandished or re-invented in order to propagandize and legitimize ideologies of White Supremacy and terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. That is to say, removing these symbols is not an act of “changing history,” but rather one of restoring history by removing symbols of a recent racist revision of history propagated by the KKK and pro-segregationist groups from the 20th Century. For this reason, let us call these statements out as the lies they are – attempts to change history.