This lesson introduces the connection between dehumanizing language and violence by reviewing the ten stages of genocide and engages students in reviewing instances of dehumanizing language in media sources. The lesson compares such language with the biblical themes of the image of God and hospitality to strangers.
- Students will understand the connection between dehumanizing language and violence
- Students will evaluate a range of media sources for the presence of dehumanizing language
- Students will compare dehumanizing language to the biblical themes of the image of God and hospitality to strangers.
This lesson includes themes and images related to mass violence and may be disturbing to some students. Use your own judgment as to its appropriateness for your students and consult appropriately with colleagues. Before starting the lesson, warn students that today’s topic will be heavy and disturbing, and that it is normal to feel uncomfortable. It may be wise to communicate with parents ahead of class to let them know of the topic coming up.
The key idea in this lesson is that words matter a lot because they help shape how we view others and the kinds of behaviors toward others that we find plausible. The biblical language of image of God and hospitality to strangers is not just a matter of theological claims. It serves as an invitation to imagine others as fundamentally human and entitled to our care. Consider how you can ongoingly help students to see such biblical language not as residing within a separate religious sphere of activity, but as directly relevant to how we talk about one another, address one another, and act toward one another in the public and political spheres.
Preparing the Activities
Presentation slides (or other images of genocide memorials).
Copies of the media checklist handout Language and the Image of God.
Access to Brené Brown article: “Dehumanizing Always Starts with Language”
Optional access to Kennedy Ndahiro article: “In Rwanda, We Know All About Dehumanizing Language”
Copies of or access to a range of media sources related to intergroup conflicts. A sample set could include:
- Transcripts from Rwandan Radio
- (this interview includes references to a group opposed to the current regime as “inyenzi” meaning “cockroaches”.)
- Pew research on how Democrats and Republicans view each other
- A Bill Maher monologue about Republicans
- An article about President Trump’s rhetoric on race
- Twitter hateful speech guidelines, which include examples of banned speech
- An article about hateful speech, insults, and genocide
Teaching the Activities
Arrange the desks into groups of four prior to the start of the lesson.
Before starting the lesson, warn students that today’s topic will be heavy and disturbing, and that it is normal to feel uncomfortable.
Introduction (10 minutes)
Begin by sharing 2-3 images of various memorials dedicated to genocide victims (see slides 1-3).Ask the students to discuss the following questions during each slide in their small groups for around two minutes per slide:
- Describe what you see (objects, people, color, background, etc.).
- How do you feel when you look at the image? What emotions do you experience?
- What do you think the image is about?
Debrief with the whole class and explain that the images all depict memorial sites for victims of different genocides in history (slide 1 shows a memorial of the Rwandan genocide of 1994; slide 2 is a memorial in Berlin of the Holocaust; slide 3 depicts a memorial site connected to the Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979). Ensure that students understand the term “genocide” as the targeted killing of a large number of members of a group with the aim of destroying that group.
Phase 1: Understanding dehumanization (20 minutes)
Next, display slide 4 Introduce students to the idea of the “ten stages of genocide” formulated by Gregory H. Stanton, president of Genocide Watch. The key idea here is that genocides do not simply happen out of the blue but arise through a gradual set of developments that follow a common pattern. At each step there is a chance for the community to turn back from its course toward destruction of others. (This may be an important point to emphasize to students, as it offers some ground s for hope that positive change is possible.) After outlining the idea, focus students’ attention specifically on how dehumanization is one of these stages and that dehumanization is manifested in the way we speak about others, such as when certain groups begin to be described as “vermin” or “filth” or “animals.”
Help students to understand that dehumanization happens when we speak about others using language the depicts them as something other than human, which in turn makes it psychologically easier for us to treat them as something other than human. Emphasize that our words matter because they have consequences for how we come to view others and the behaviors that come to seem legitimate.
Next, have students silently read the article “Dehumanizing Always Starts With Language” by Brené Brown. Give them about ten minutes to do so, then lead a brief class debrief in which you ask them to summarize the key points that Brown makes.
Phase 2: Media review (20 minutes)
Tell students that they are going to search for symptoms of dehumanization in a range of media. Provide students with links to (or handout copies of) a range of media (eg. news articles, social media posts, political speeches, interviews, propaganda, etc.) addressing historic and current events, particularly where there are animosities in play. A sample list of such resources is provided above in the Preparing the Activities section. Also hand out copies of the media checklist handout Language and the Image of God. In their small groups, have the students use the checklist as they review the various media. Encourage them to divide up the sources among the group and then pool their findings. The checklist questions are:
- Are members of a group viewed or presented as less “evolved” or intelligent?
- Are there analogies that use the language of infestation?
- Are there references or comparisons to animals?
- Are there threats of violence against a particular group?
- Is the idea of removing members of a group from society or the nation present?
- Are dehumanizing images used? (Do the visuals help you connect with others as human beings?)
- Does one group see another as an inherent threat to their identity?
- Does one group offer a distorted or dismissive view of another?
After students have had a reasonable time to review multiple sources (15 minutes or so), lead a class discussion of their findings. Ask them:
- Did you find any examples where the words used about others crossed the line of dignity that Brené Brown addresses in her article?
- Did those examples seem bizarre or have you come across them in your experience?
- How do such words diminish our humanity?
- As you continue the discussion, draw students’ findings back to the themes of this unit and of the overall series of lessons in this resource:
- How can focusing on or talking about others as made in the image of God help to resist dehumanizing language?
- How can focusing on or talking about our call to practice hospitality to strangers help to resist dehumanizing language?
- How can we help to “rehumanize” those who are at risk of being dehumanized?
For homework or as an extension activity you could ask students to read further about dehumanization, for instance by reading this article by Kennedy Ndahiro: “In Rwanda, We Know All About Dehumanizing Language” and journaling about what it adds to what they learned in class and how it might be relevant to our own engagement in society. You could also consider asking students to take a story that includes dehumanizing language and rewrite it in a way that honors the humanity of all involved.
The Image of God
The Samaritan woman at the well offers a way to explore how identity differences inform interactions and how we judge others. Students reflect on the implications of humans being made in God’s image.