“These are not people. These are animals.”
— President Trump, May 16
Let’s start with a little truth. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” Here’s the truth, according to God and backed by physiology 101: People are not animals.
Even though we may lack the stomach for this radical reality, being as we often prefer to demonize the other, the eternal truth is that every human being is a beloved child of God. We do not get to strip people of their humanity, even if we think we are an important person in an important position (see above). Our existence is at once precious and no different from anyone else’s. Even if we think we have the right to look down on others, we do not get to change the essence of their being. Surely we can agree on this fact: People are not animals.
We go to the zoo to see captured exotic animals. We own domesticated animals. We cook and eat all kinds of animals. We do not, in a civilized society, do any of these things to people. To call any person, or any group of people, "animals," is as incorrect as it is offensive. Deeply offensive, wrongheaded, ugly, provocative, ignorant, hateful, and another chapter in the book of lessons learned from this president’s behavior, a book I call “Words Matter." They really do, especially the words streaming from a world leader’s coarsened mouth or twittering thumbs.
Here’s another time-honored truth: Each human being is born with innate dignity. Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries writes, in his most recent book “Barking to the Choir”: “Surely a measure of our kinship will always rest in the certainty that no life holds more value than another.” If you believe in God, this is not debatable. We may condemn a person’s actions, but we may not negate a person’s human worth. This is religion 101, is it not? Or, if one is not religious, how about sociology 101?
History alerts us to the slide into bloodshed when one group of people comfortably regards another group as "animals." In the past, this dehumanizing label has led to white Americans lynching black Americans. Nazis exterminating Jews. Hutus killing Tutsi. Sunnis bombing Shias. The list is long; the lesson, tragically, is repeated too often.
The president’s remarks drip with irony in light of his political party’s tenet that human life begins at conception. If we accept, on a microscopic level, that a zygote is endowed with a human soul, we cannot then tag certain human beings as animals; at least, not without a mind-blowing attack of cognitive dissonance. People who are conceived as humans cannot ever turn into animals. They cannot ever be un-souled.
Of course, the president’s defenders have hastened to make his “These are animals” statement somehow acceptable by clarifying that he was only referring to specific gang members. Which makes no sense, because even the guiltiest criminal, the sickest felon, is still a person. When I worked on a prison yard that housed convicted sex offenders, my religious convictions were challenged daily. These were men who had done terrible things, mostly to women and children. I am a mother of daughters and easily horrified. With God’s grace I treated these prisoners, who were actively paying society for their crimes, as human beings. Which is what they are: children of God, who perhaps benefitted from a kind word or a helping hand on the road to atonement and even wellness. Their judgment, and their redemption, was up to God, not to me. I sometimes heard these men referred to as "animals," or "apes," or "cockroaches." But that’s another chapter of “Words Matter."
Sometimes I feel numb when I read the newspaper, or when I hear the latest untruth passed off as truth by people who know better. The "these are animals" quote, which seems like the lowest possible point in civil discourse, will be replaced by an even lower proclamation, if it has not already been. I fear the point of no return. I can only pray that we, in our collective numbness, may be prodded awake, to reclaim civility, to stand up for our common humanity, to counter bald-faced inaccuracies with the truth. Perhaps then the latest chapter of “Words Matter” will be one of hope for our shared human journey.