The Dangerous Game of Dehumanization
In a move that almost belies belief, the Republican frontrunner for the 2024 Presidential election (no, the other one) chartered a plane to send 50 or so undocumented immigrants from Venezuela to the relatively remote Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard. He somehow lured them from San Antonio to Florida with the promise of work, and then he had a videographer follow their track to Massachusetts. It’s critical, after all, to capture that red meat for the base on film.
Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott continue to play a game of chicken with one another; unfortunately, the victims of that game are hardworking, scared people who are being used as pawns. They are attempting to one-up each other by promising desperate people a better life; the only thing they are accomplishing is “owning the libs”, and, frankly, that’s enough of a prize for them.
I waded into the comments (never read the comments!) on Twitter yesterday, and one stood out: “Great! Send more!”. This short but simple statement made me pause. There is a lack of empathy present here that we have seen over and over in our human history; spoiler alert: it never leads to good things.
It doesn’t take much to try to empathize with desperation and suffering. These individuals fled their country of Venezuela because of danger. They felt a dangerous trek, on foot, to the United States was safer than remaining in their country. Imagine what it takes to come to that decision. We cannot because so many of us have never been in that situation. I saw a comment that amounted to this question: if their country is so bad, why not stay and try to fix it? I suppose I would turn to our own founding fathers and the individuals that came before them. Did they stay and try to “fix” England? No? They set out for a better life. Why do we praise their intrepid spirit while denigrating others for doing the same thing?
Dehumanization is dangerous; when we look at its literal definition, it becomes clear: according to Merriam-Webster, dehumanize means “to divest of human qualities or personality; make machinelike; make impersonal or unconcerned with human values”. Unconcerned with human values. What do we value as humans? Safety. Security. Love. When we dehumanize an entire population, we remove those characteristics. We see them as an “other” that is not worthy of those qualities.
In the past, we have seen immigrants referred to as “animals”, “aliens”, “illegals”, “rats and vermin”, and so on. By reducing them to these tropes, we can easily justify what comes next. The cruelty is simply part of the plan; if you can score some political points while exhibiting the cruelty, even better!
So, Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott have made a political calculation: to them, these people aren’t people, and they need to be dealt with as such. It helps that they get to “own the libs” while doing it. After all, it’s so funny and fitting to them to send hurting and desperate people to the “glitzy” island of Martha’s Vineyard. The Obamas live there! Everyone is rich! Those liberals will show their true colors!
Lost in all of this is that the people of Martha’s Vineyard really stepped up to take care of these individuals; restaurants sprang into action to provide food, the island churches offered housing, and AP Spanish students from the high school volunteered their time to serve as interpreters. While they were not prepared for this arrival, they certainly didn’t panic. The year-round residents of Martha’s Vineyard are not what DeSantis thought they were. They are not out-of-touch liberal elites. They are a small group of people that live on a very cold and lonely island in the winter. There is no tourism during that time. In fact, there is often a struggle to remain afloat until the lifeblood returns after Memorial Day. DeSantis wasn’t dumping vulnerable people on the rich and famous; he was sending them to people that serve the rich and famous. They certainly didn’t dehumanize their newest visitors; they tried to simply be human to them.
Dehumanizing people is coupled with hurting people; when we view them as something other than human, it becomes easy to abuse them. DeSantis thought that is what would happen when he sent this group to a lonely, post-summer island. What he found was a group of people that was seemingly able to put themselves in the shoes of others. Their spontaneous generosity was present from the moment the planes landed.
If Abbott and DeSantis continue to pull this move, it would behoove the government to allocate resources for assistance. After all, Florida and Texas receive an awful lot of funding for security; they are also subsidized by “blue” state taxes. Perhaps it is time to reallocate that money. It seems it could be better spent elsewhere.
As this saga continues, we will see the ramp-up of dehumanization; it’s so much easier to use people to send a message when you don’t see them as people. They are simply parts of the game, and the point is to win. Recognizing humanity and dignity in those that are struggling should be part of our human experience. It can be easy to forget that when the game is afoot, and what a dangerous game it is when vulnerable people get caught in the middle.