In Caracas, sleeping through the constant ringing of car alarms can be a challenge. It seems as though every half hour an alarm goes off and the sound bounces from the walls of the Ávila, echoing through the entire city. When you think of the sounds of Caracas, you think of the sapitos at night, and of car alarms.
But it’s the alarms coming off of the political world that are most worrying. And nothing is as alarm-worthy as Chávez’s straightforward, dehumanizing discourse against his critics.
In this clip,
we hear Chávez argue, repeatedly and vehemently, that “the rich are not human”, to the applause of his accolytes. It’s not something that slipped out. It’s something he says four or five times, underlining it by saying “and I take responsibility for this” just before repeating it yet again.
The rich man, we’re told, is an animal in human form. It’s not just that “being rich is bad.” It goes way beyond that.
The use of superheated, over-the-top rhetoric against anyone who fails to toe the President’s ideological line has been one of the mainstays of chavista rhetoric from the very beginning. But the final step, the out-and-out denial of the humanity of those who criticize him, that step is new.
I think at this point we at least owe the President the courtesy of taking him at his word. He has told us, many times, that Venezuela’s Constitution is second to none in protecting human rights. We note with some concern, however, that the constitution is silent on the topic of the rights of animals in human form.
Once certain groups are stigmatized as evil, morally inferior, and not fully human, the persecution of those groups becomes more psychologically acceptable. Restraints against aggression and violence begin to disappear. Not surprisingly, dehumanization increases the likelihood of violence and may cause a conflict to escalate out of control. Once a violence breakover has occurred, it may seem even more acceptable for people to do things that they would have regarded as morally unthinkable before.
Parties may come to believe that destruction of the other side is necessary, and pursue an overwhelming victory that will cause one’s opponent to simply disappear. This sort of into-the-sea framing can cause lasting damage to relationships between the conflicting parties, making it more difficult to solve their underlying problems and leading to the loss of more innocent lives.
The spread of dehumanizing discourses are a typical feature of pre-genocidal situations. We know that the Rwandan genocide was preceded by a long and dedicated campaign by Hutu extremists to convince their people that Tutsis were not human in the same sense they are.
We know that a decade of Khmer Rouge propaganda on the dehumanizing effects of urban life was necessary to prepare its followers to accept the need to empty the cities and kill their inhabitants.
We know that Sudan’s arab militias are bombarded with messages equating Darfuris with apes and slaves to soften them up to commit acts of mass murder.
We know how important the dehumanization of Japanese people, their portrayal as a subhuman race of near-chimps, was in American military propaganda ahead of the decision to indiscriminately firebomb Tokyo and to use nuclear weapons against civilian populations.
And the German example is too notorious to need more than a mention.
Dehumanizing discourses are a necessary – if not sufficient – precondition to genocide. Hugo Chávez declares that he takes full responsibility for a discourse that explicitly denies the humanity of his critics.
I hate to sound alarmist, but you do the math.