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A Cop’s Laugh, a Political Heir’s Sneer: Dehumanization is the Real Disease of Our Times

A Cop’s Laugh, a Political Heir’s Sneer: Dehumanization is the Real Disease of Our Times

  • Is there a connection between a Seattle police officer’s reaction to the killing of Jaahnavi Kandula and DMK leader M. Stalin’s call for the eradication of Sanatana Dharma?

The release of a recording of a Seattle police officer laughing about the tragic death of Jaahnavi Kandula after being hit by a speeding police car earlier this year has provoked near-universal outrage. Rightly so. This is an instance of clear dehumanization, apathy, and outright cruelty, confirming the belief of critics that many members of the police force do not care for human life, especially if it happens to belong to a particular hue of skin color.

Now, let us consider another example of dehumanization that was in the news recently. Udayanidhi Stalin, the son of the Chief Minister of one of India’s most vibrant states, described “Sanatana Dharma,” a popular term in Indian languages for “Hinduism,” as a “disease” that has to be “eradicated.” It was not a stray remark, but part of a speech delivered at a conference held specifically for the same purpose, “the sanatana dharma eradication conference.”

Since then, Indian op-ed pages and TV channels have been buzzing with arguments and debates. A host of imitators has come forward, including the son of a former cabinet minister, to support the statement, while critics argue that the remarks are obviously genocidal and reminiscent of classic dehumanization tropes of the sort used by the Nazis against Jews (comparisons to diseases, vermin, and so on).

The main defense being offered by the “eradicate sanatana dharma” camp so far seems to be that they are not necessarily calling for the elimination of “Hindus” but only of “sanatana dharma,” with the latter being defined by some as the “caste system” and some as the “caste system” plus texts said to be responsible for the caste system including the Bhagavad Gita and Manu Smriti.

Now, how do we evaluate the issue of dehumanization in both these cases? In one case, we have a stark example of a fatality. Poor Jaahnavi died, and the callous lack of respect for her after her passing became known to us. In the other case, there is no obvious instance of a death or “harm” preceding or following Stalin’s words, at least, not immediately. But there is a history of colonialism, imperialism, slavery, and mass killing based on hatred for the Hindus. Is it irrelevant now? The debate goes on.

It has become fairly commonplace now in academic and activist circles to use calls for extermination as a non-controversial tool for persuasion. If you said “Eradicate Racism” who could find that controversial? But the question does remain. Stalin could have been speaking at a conference entitled “eradicating caste discrimination” for example, and said the same thing specifically. But he did not. To many, what he said, and the title of the conference, sound like a wolf-whistle to bigots who simply hate Hindus for existing without converting from Hinduism.

There are divided views on this. Some will say that Hinduphobia is not systemic, so what Stalin said is at worst, tactless, but not bigoted or tantamount to dehumanization. Similarly, there are also apologists for the Seattle police who will say that the cops were just doing their job and people who are in dangerous professions sometimes make light of their difficult duties. Naturally, I understand that readers who are deeply convinced that police brutality is systemic and Hinduphobia is not will not appreciate the comparison. I ask that we hold that thought, and leave it for homework to examine carefully, should we care at all, to understand what “systemic” really means in each of these cases, who has decided to study it, if at all, and so on.

Meanwhile, the key issue I would like us to think about is simply that of dehumanization. What exactly is it? Where does it come from? How do we differentiate between dehumanization of the sort that signals looming escalation towards genocide from, say, merely passionate progressive political propaganda? Philosopher David Livingstone Smith writes in his book “Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others,” about the close connection between objectification and dehumanization. Jaahnavi was in a way a victim of objectification, first, by the policeman’s comments, reduced to an incident in their bureaucratic process, no more than a “check” for a few thousand dollars. But this objectification is, unfortunately, part of a much bigger history of dehumanization too. One has to wonder if the policemen would have been talking about a victim the same way if she happened to be from their ethnic group, or is it a deeper sense of ‘othering’ that set in because she wasn’t?

Jaahnavi was in a way a victim of objectification, first, by the policeman’s comments, reduced to an incident in their bureaucratic process, no more than a “check” for a few thousand dollars. But this objectification is, unfortunately, part of a much bigger history of dehumanization too.

David Livingstone Smith offers an extensive history of dehumanizing rhetoric in his book, starting from ancient Greece to recent times. He pays particular attention to the presence of dehumanizing tropes about Jews and others in the Bible and the Quran, and the frequent comparison of victims of dehumanization to animals, and often, animals associated with filth and disease – a trend that naturally one thought about also in relation to Stalin’s comments about sanatana dharma being a disease (and one of his defender’s comparison of Sanatana dharma to a snake).

And this tendency has persisted from the times of early European colonialism to the present. Christopher Columbus’s contemporaries often thought of Native Americans as “homunculi,” strange humanoid beings conceived out of natural processes, and lacking, the key point here as far as justification for slavery and genocide were concerned, a human soul. And by the time of the Nazi insanity in Germany, the phenomenon of dehumanization reached industrial, or cultural-industrial strength through the use of disease-animal tropes in radio, film, arts, and so on.  Smith writes:

“Hitler repeatedly called ‘the Jew’ a germ, germ carrier, or agent of disease, a decomposing agent, fungus, or maggot. In their capacity as germ-carriers, Jews are equated with vermin, or… rats, and the source of an epidemic or pestilence comparable to syphilis” (p. 146).

Let us look at Udayanidhi Stalin’s words for sanatana dharma now.

They are “mosquitoes, flu, dengue, malaria, and coronavirus.”

Now, some of my readers might wonder if I am being unfair to Mr. Stalin. He tried to clarify that he did not call for the genocide of Hindus, but only for the eradication of Sanatana dharma. Or that he was ultimately talking about eradicating caste discrimination and who can argue with that?

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First, we have to recognize that genocidal propaganda has often disguised itself in the past with that sort of distinction between the physical part of a people’s existence and their culture. Smith writes that the Nazi propaganda against Jews was not only about their physical presence but also about their culture, (“a smell of foulness and disease pervades Jewish art,” says the narrator in the notorious film The Eternal Jew).

Another genocidal example. The slogan “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” which was the guiding policy of the U.S. colonial settlers who kidnapped and forced tens of thousands of native American children into brutal, jail-like boarding schools, is a prime example of this. Richard Henry Pratt, the visionary who came up with the school system, was a war prison warden who specialized in inventing mental and physical torture to break his victims. He believed in the idea that human beings need not be killed, but could just be “cured” of whatever cultural identity afflicted them. Pratt believed himself to be compassionate, and some sources say he was one of the first people in America to say “racism” was a bad thing. Who knew that the first “anti-racist” was responsible for the torture, suffering, and death of so many children?

Second, we have to recognize that Stalin’s comments, while similarly claiming that they are “anti-casteist,” actually conceal a huge difference in terms of privilege and power. Who actually has more privilege? The son and grandson of a major political party leading a prosperous state or some poor archaka in a government-owned temple being paid a pittance of a salary? I think there is a need to distinguish between inherited economic privilege, which by no means corresponds identically with the “caste-pyramid” caricature found in US history textbooks (implying that the richest caste in India is the Brahmins), and the issue of cultural inheritance, which is what “sanatana dharma” evokes for its followers. The performative gesture of breaking idols or snapping threads, unfortunately, does not do anything to redistribute hoarded lands or wealth in the hands of the billionaire class. This is a long overdue reality check we need to do before the current dehumanization becomes even more genocidal.

I think the big problem we face in our times is that the profusion of communication media, the polarization of people into silos, and the mixing up of contexts between those of the United States and India have all led to the normalization of highly needless hate tropes, sometimes under the guise of being progressive or anti-racist or anti-casteist. We are reaching the limits frankly of our identity-first, reality-last, approach to judging life, suffering, pain, and justice. What if the target of the Seattle cop’s harsh words was not an Indian woman but someone with more privilege? What if someone says “Kandula” happens to be a Brahmin surname? Or “Kuchibhotla” (the Kansas City shooting 2017)?  Does that mitigate the horror of our words and actions and beliefs today?

Identity was supposed to be about rehumanizing our discourse. We are now on the precipice of many more new horrors in the world based on the same old lies.

Top photo, courtesy, Seattle Community Police Commission’s Twitter @SeaCPC.

Vamsee Juluri is a Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco. His latest book is “The Firekeepers of Jwalapuram,” part 2 of a trilogy titled “The Kishkindha Chronicles,” … “because the world was a better place when the monkeys ran the world.”

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