Dehumanization is a well-known and potent rhetorical tactic, and it is a hallmark of dangerous speech. Dehumanizing individuals or groups can convince audiences to condone or commit violence against them, by making the death and suffering of members of the targeted group seem acceptable, or even necessary.
In this blog post, I will examine one particularly common dehumanization trope: describing humans as snakes. From ancient myths and religious texts to modern-day propaganda and media, the visual portrayal of snakes has served as a powerful tool for dehumanization, fueling stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination.
What makes the snake such a powerful dehumanizing symbol? Across the ages, snakes have acquired a notorious reputation. The uncanny nature of the snake’s physical traits — the lack of limbs, their scaly and slick bodies — and the perceived threat of an unpredictable and potentially fatal bite have fueled fear of the creatures. While they occasionally represent positive attributes, snakes are usually associated with malevolence, embodying slyness and hidden unfriendly intentions. Instantly, the biblical serpent comes to mind, but snakes have also accompanied mythical figures, like Medusa or, to look for more modern examples, Thulsa Doom from ‘Conan the Barbarian’ or Lord Voldemort from ‘Harry Potter’.
This negative attitude towards serpents is further encoded in language. In English, someone deceitful is described as ‘sly as a snake’ or ‘a snake in the grass.’ They may also be said to have ‘the serpent’s tongue’, and, if they engage in dishonest trade, might be labeled a ‘snake oil salesman’. Generally, snakes represent those who cannot be trusted, and this notion is best reflected in the phrase ‘to nurse vipers in one’s bosom’. The idiom originates from Aesop’s Fable, ‘The Farmer & the Viper’, a tale about how offering kindness to evil creatures will lead to their eventual betrayal, and variations of it exist in numerous world languages. Recently in Poland, the idiom has been used in reference to the massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia during World War II, which were committed by Ukrainians — the implication here is that if such horrors were possible in the past, the Poles should be cautious now and not help Ukrainians as they might turn out to be the proverbial ‘vipers’.
In America, Donald Trump notoriously used this metaphor during his 2016 presidential campaign. At rally after rally, he read lyrics from the song, “The Snake,” which describes a woman who has taken in a freezing snake, only to die after it bites her. Before reading the lyrics, Trump would frequently instruct the audience to think of the lyrics in the context of immigration.
These two examples are not isolated cases. Likening outsiders to serpents has happened throughout history, and in many cultures. During the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, extremist Hutu media used the term ‘snakes’ when referring to Tutsis. This strategy appealed to both the fear of snakes as creatures, prevalent in this region of the world, and the snake as a symbol of Satan. In Myanmar, extremist Buddhist monks referred to Rohingya Muslims, a religious minority group whose members have been subjected to various forms of human rights violations, as ‘reincarnated snakes’. This justified acts of violence against this group, as such attacks were seen as a form of ‘pest control’.
The use of snakes as a dehumanizing metaphor is potentially even more rife in visual materials than in speech. American WWII propaganda used animal symbolism to discredit US enemies, most notably the Japanese. The well-known ‘Salvage scrap to blast the Jap’ poster shows a snake (Japan) fighting over a territory it occupies with a bald eagle (the USA). Shockingly, despite the image’s harmfulness, it’s still being reproduced on T-shirts, mugs, and smartphone cases.
The Nazis also commonly portrayed Jews as snakes before and during WWII. One poster from 1928 Austria shows a hybrid entity whose head bears resemblance to a Jewish man, but the tongue and body is that of a snake. (It also features wings, which may evoke associations with scavenger birds like vultures or ravens). This creature coils itself around the crowned Austrian eagle, symbolizing the alleged exploitation of the Austrian state by the Jewish community. An election poster of the Nazi party for the 1930 Reichstag elections in Germany utilizes the symbol of a snake in a similar manner. It portrays a snake with the Star of David on its head being slain by a Nazi blade. Red, blood-like words emanate from the snake’s body, referencing the prevailing anti-Semitic themes of the time, such as usury, unemployment, Marxism and Bolshevism, betrayal, inflation, prostitution, terror, civil war, and more. Another such example is a caricature featured in the infamous Nazi publication ‘Der Stürmer’ that shows a fist clenched over a snake which is supposed to look like a Jewish man, accompanied by words cautioning readers ‘not to let it go’.
This anti-Semitic imagery continues to be used in contemporary times. For instance, a cartoon from the Egyptian press portrays a vicious snake, adorned with the Star of David, strangling the stereotypical figure of Uncle Sam, which serves as a metaphor for the perceived relationship between Israel and the USA. Another example from Oman depicts a snake, formed in the shape of the Star of David, devouring the dove of peace — an illustration that signifies the perceived threat that the state of Israel poses in the region.
The easiness of replicating such dehumanizing metaphors might be attributed to their seemingly benign nature — after all, what we see is usually a cartoonish representation or, in the case of verbal metaphors, ‘just’ a set phrase or ‘just’ a derogatory moniker. Such speech acts are typically not treated as something very harmful or dangerous. However, according to Dr. Anna Szilagyi, an expert in media, politics and communication, these dehumanizing metaphors, used in everyday language, shape (and reflect) the way people think. As history has shown, they have the power not only to discredit the representatives of a given group or inspire disdain towards them, but also to rationalize and even justify repressive measures, human rights violations and, eventually, physical violence. Therefore, they should not be taken lightly, and steps should be taken to counteract these harmful impacts.
Paweł Trzaskowski is a scholar based at the University of Warsaw and Radio Poland, and a 2020/23 DSP Global Research Initiative Fellow. He holds a doctor’s degree in applied linguistics. His academic work focuses mainly on language pragmatics, and his most current work concerns dangerous speech that targets Ukrainian immigrants in Poland.