"If you’re a minority or belong to a historically oppressed group, you already understand the power of language. Whether you’ve experienced hate speech first-hand or know someone who has, I am sure you can agree that they are not ‘just words’."
The ubiquity of the internet has both positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, we have immediate access to everything we could ever want to know. On the other hand, it has made the dissemination of false and misleading information extremely easy.
BBC News recently published an article titled, “Ukraine war: My city’s being shelled, but mum won’t believe me.” It details multiple accounts of people currently living in Ukraine whose relatives do not believe their accounts of the Russian invasion:
“People who criticize Russia have for so long been presented as traitors or foreign agents; critics are all foreign agents working for the West. So, you don't even believe your own daughter."
Russia is a master of propaganda. They have anonymous state-sponsored web brigades (or Internet political commentators and trolls) that post pro-Russian content, articles, and comments online. They also have RT, a Russian-controlled and funded network that has been spreading propaganda (or misinformation) since it was created in 2005. In both cases, Russia — and its ‘illustrious leader’ — is painted as a liberator, saviour, and unwilling participant in the war in Ukraine. Their propaganda and fear mongering has been so pervasive and persistent that some Russian citizens will believe everything Putin tells them.
Of course, this isn’t just happening in Russia. It is happening all over the world.
Politics have been extremely divisive over the past decade. No matter how you identify on the political spectrum, you don’t need to look very far to see the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. People are divided over differences in politics, social values, race, gender, religion, and culture.
This type of ‘othering’ between groups, perpetuated and fueled by misinformation, isn’t just divisive but can have dire consequences.
Before diving into dehumanization, subtlety and nuance, and combating misinformation, I want to recognize a few things at the outset. First, this article will not favour one political viewpoint or party over another. Misinformation and propaganda are not party specific. Second, I recognize that this article could be ten times as long and still not do this topic justice. Third, look out for resources at the bottom of this piece if you’re interested in learning more about combating misinformation.
"The denial of the full humanness of an individual or group of people is often the first tactic used in an attempt to separate us from them. After all, people are easy to control when they’re fighting one another instead of those in power."
How Language Shapes Action
If you’re a minority or belong to a historically oppressed group, you already understand the power of language. Whether you’ve experienced hate speech first-hand or know someone who has, I am sure you can agree that they are not ‘just words’. Microaggressions against minority/racialized groups are rooted in a centuries-long history of violence, colonization, and segregation based on the idea that certain races, genders, or classes have more value than others.
This is what is referred to as dehumanization. Dehumanization’s goal is to separate and divide, and always starts with language. Dehumanizing language deprives a person or group of people of positive human qualities, comparing them to animals, insects, or ‘lower human forms’. The denial of the full humanness of an individual or group of people is often the first tactic used in an attempt to separate us from them. After all, people are easy to control when they’re fighting one another instead of those in power.
In almost every genocide throughout history, dehumanizing language was the first step towards justifying violence against entire groups of people.
During the Holocaust, the Nazis referred to Jewish people as ‘rats’. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Hutus called the Tutsi minority ‘cockroaches’. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, people were referred to as ‘worms’ who needed to be ‘weeded out’.
De-humanizing language can be as obvious as ‘pests’, ‘illegals’, ‘infestation’, ‘vermin’, and ‘aliens’; But it can also be as subtle as ‘libtards’, ‘hicks’, ‘snowflakes’, ‘tyrants’, ‘mobs’, ‘woke’, ‘communists’, and so on. Language evolves, and it is our responsibility to become aware of any language that generalizes entire groups of people.
I’ve worked as an advocate for over 4 years and often hear the term ‘NIMBY’ (not in my backyard) to describe people who are against safe injection sites, affordable housing, and other social supports in their neighbourhoods. They are often painted as uncompassionate, hedonistic, selfish, and entitled. I used to use the term, until I realized that I was painting an entire group of people with a very broad brush.
When I stopped long enough to read about some of the issues being raised, including community planning, proximity to schools, and the desire for proper needle disposal, I realized that these were real concerns. Of course, there were ill-intentioned people who didn’t want to see poverty in their neighbourhood (instead of proposing ideas to actually help people) but calling them all NIMBY’s made it very easy for me to dismiss even valid perspectives.
Any word we use, even if we are using it to advocate for the rights of others, can limit our perspective, and it isn’t always going to be clear cut and obvious. Every single one of us has a responsibility to recognize it, hold people accountable, and stop it whenever we can.
"When we speak about groups of people in ‘broad terms’, especially when it is negative, we train ourselves to seek out those characteristics in others — which means we become incredibly good at seeing them! We create own our bias, robbing our neighbours, friends and community members of their subtlety and nuance."
What Happened to Subtlety and Nuance?
Human beings are incredibly complex, and the human mind is exceptionally bad at interpreting large numbers. This often means that we have a tendency to speak in generalities. It is far easier to assume that everyone’s life experiences are the same than it is to recognize that everyone is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. However, not only is this application of subjective experience not objective truth, but it also leaves little room for nuance:
‘Liberals are snowflakes’
‘Conservatives are fascists’
‘Immigrants are ruining this country’
‘Freedom Convoy protesters are white nationalists’
When we speak about groups of people in ‘broad terms’, especially when it is negative, we train ourselves to seek out those characteristics in others — which means we become incredibly good at seeing them! We create own our bias, robbing our neighbours, friends, and community members of their subtlety and nuance.
This is called a confirmation bias. A confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values. And unfortunately, algorithms only exacerbate this problem by showing users ‘more’ of what they already like.
Confirmation bias doesn’t just happen with people. It happens with ideas too. ‘Tip of the iceberg’ talking points are extremely dangerous because they paint complicated issues with very broad strokes.
For example, a ‘broad stoke’ is ‘Justin Trudeau is a bad leader’. But where is the subtlety and nuance in this statement? What are the specific bills and policies you disagree with? What changes would you make to existing policy? What can you do to create change in your own community?
We will naturally seek out news that is critical of Justin Trudeau, which can further skew our perspective. Even when we feel frustrated—no matter how valid that frustration may be, it is important to always remain open to new information.
No one is immune to misinformation. We all fall victim to it from time to time. Our first responsibility as individuals is to ensure we question any new information that comes our way. Is the source cited? Does it come from a reputable source? Does it make logical sense? Is it opinion-based or factual? Does it make me emotional or angry? The more you ask yourself these questions, the better you become at identifying red flags.
Whether you consume your news on Reddit, social media, or on a news site, try to add news sources that share perspectives on the other side of the political aisle. Become curious about other viewpoints. I have to admit, there are times that I find this a frustrating practice. However, even if you disagree with what you’re reading, it can sometimes strengthen your beliefs and is not something to be avoided.
If you find yourself in a conversation with someone who says something you consider to be ‘misinformation’, first and foremost, don’t lead with judgement. I can tell you from experience that judging someone for not knowing something or being wrong is the quickest way to put their back up against the wall, which causes them to double down. Become curious about their perspective and ask questions.
I suggest using the Socratic method. The Socratic method is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions. When they make broad statements, ask about the specifics. When they feel frustrated, ask them why. The more we empathize with one another, the more likely we are to find common ground.
To tie things up, I thought I would share a quote from Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly (p. 108), where she shares a perspective about male vulnerability that I think applies here: “…asking members to dislike, disown, or distance themselves from another group of people as a condition of ‘belonging’ is always about control and power. I think we have to question the intentions of any group that insists on disdain toward other people as a membership requirement.”
UNICEF: Countering Online Misinformation Resource Pack
Maxwell Library: Evaluating Websites: Identifying Fake News Sources
Rutgers University Libraries: Evaluating News Sources