Dangerous Metaphors: How Dehumanizing Rhetoric Works

Guest blogger Dr. Anna Szilagyi describes how dehumanizing rhetoric – a key hallmark of Dangerous Speech – affects our thoughts and perceptions, making violence more acceptable.

In recent times, with the global rise of populist and far-right political movements, a “family” of dehumanizing metaphors have become common worldwide. Indeed, terms that identify different groups of people as pests, deadly animals, reptiles, parasites, disease, filth, zombies, or demons, have been used more and more conveniently by powerful political actors in various parts of the world.

In 2016, to legitimize his so-called “war on drugs” — a bloody extrajudicial crackdown on alleged drug users and dealers — the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte described those who are addicted to “shabu”, the most widely available methamphetamine in the country, this way: “They are the living, walking dead. They are of no use to society anymore.” Also in 2016, amidst a gigantic, state-orchestrated public campaign against refugees and migrants in Hungary, the prime minister of the country, Viktor Orbán argued that for his nation “migration is not a solution but a problem … not medicine but a poison.” He also added: “We don’t need it and won’t swallow it.” In January 2017, it was reported that while discussing issues related to immigration, the American President, Donald Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and nations in Africa as “shithole countries” during a White House meeting.

Duterte’s zombie-metaphor (“walking dead”), Orbán’s disease-metaphor (“poison”), and the filth-metaphor Trump reportedly used (“shithole countries”), are just some of the most prominent examples of a global trend toward incendiary political rhetoric that has very dangerous implications. We also see that on some occasions, politicians seemingly speak in a literal sense, yet, through unspoken but widely understood connotations, they actually activate the same metaphor-family. In 2015, for example, the leader of Poland’s right-wing populist Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski argued in a campaign speech that the refugees from the Middle East bring “very dangerous diseases long absent from Europe” and carry “all sorts of parasites and protozoa, which … while not dangerous in the organisms of these people, could be dangerous here.” While he could claim that he was merely pointing to potential health risks, his implication that refugees constituted a “disease” was obvious to his listeners.

In an era when mainstream politicians do not hesitate to describe various groups of people in dehumanizing terms in order to justify their agendas and policies, it is particularly important for the public to understand in what way such a language can influence human thinking and behavior. This article attempts to show how dehumanizing terms operate, by looking at the example of a recent, deeply disturbing event of political turmoil in the United States. The discourse of white supremacist protestors during the violent unrest that took place in August 2017 in the city of Charlottesville, reminds us that the role of dehumanizing metaphors in political rhetoric cannot be belittled, neither in the context of this particular upheaval, nor in any other case.

Metaphor is not mere rhetoric

Many people may assume that metaphors are used primarily by writers, poets, and public speakers to amplify their messages. However, in reality, we all use metaphors, almost every time we speak. Metaphors help us to describe one kind of experience in terms of another. For example, when we call our loved ones “honey” or “sweetie”, we use metaphors. By employing these figures of speech, we sense that we are able to better express how we think and feel about another person.

In other words, we do not simply talk in metaphors, but we also think and feel in terms of them. In fact, as two scholars, Mark Johnson and George Lakoff have highlighted, our whole thinking is metaphorical in nature.

This also means that when we come across a metaphor, it can shape our ideas strongly without us being aware of it. Considering this, it comes as little surprise that metaphors play a crucial role in political rhetoric in general, and in the language of propaganda in particular. Simply by being exposed to particular metaphors, we may, for instance, develop very hostile feelings towards specific groups of people. Metaphors that identify others as pests, deadly animals, reptiles, parasites, disease, filth, zombies, or demons obviously fall into this category.

This dehumanizing metaphor-family evokes hostility, disdain, loathing, physical disgust, and/or bodily fear in people. The terms in question can emerge both in private and political contexts. In the political realm, such metaphors encourage people to see their fellow human beings who belong to a particular group as obnoxious, disease carrying, and/or blood thirsty creatures that should be removed or isolated from the community. The targets who are described in these dehumanizing terms most often include foreign nations, ethnic and religious minorities, social classes, LGBT people, political opponents, immigrants/asylum seekers. However, depending on the local context, other groups can be caught in the cross hairs as well. As we could see above, in recent times, such metaphors were used to justify the controversial “war on drugs” not just against dealers but also small time drug users or those accused of such in the Philippines.

Importantly, these metaphors simultaneously dehumanize their targets and justify the repressive and inhumane actions that are taken against them. Indeed, they present the hostility, policy restrictions, maltreatment, human rights violations, and physical aggression to which those people targeted are often subjected to as necessary and that can be carried out according to bureaucratic procedures — naturally excluding any emotional identification with the victims.

Lessons from Charlottesville

A recent case highlights the pervasive impact that dehumanizing metaphors have on the human mind. In August 2017, hundreds of white supremacists arrived in the American college town of Charlottesville to participate in the “Unite the Right” rally and protest against the removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The demonstration quickly turned violent, as clashes broke out between the white supremacists and the anti-racist/anti-fascist counter-demonstrators who waited for them at the scene. During the demonstrations, one person was killed and many others were seriously injured after a car rammed into the anti-racist and anti-fascist counter-protestors.

The American media outlet, Vice News followed the white supremacists throughout the escalation of the events. In their documentary “Charlottesville: Race and Terror”, some of the participants of the “Unite the Right” rally speak before, during, between, and after the violent demonstrations. The documentary clearly indicates that the white supremacist speakers utilized a full-fledged rhetorical arsenal in Charlottesville to voice and fuel hatred against black and Jewish people as well as their political opponents.

Besides using other demeaning, abusive, and racist terms, some white supremacists also utilized metaphors of disease and filth to describe blacks, Jews, and those who oppose their agenda. They argued, for instance, that they are fighting against the “parasitic class of anti-white vermin” and the “anti-white, anti-American filth”. And the language use of the speakers suggests that they indeed looked at the people whom they insulted through these metaphors and other speech strategies, in non-human terms.

One speaker said: “And, at some point, we will have enough power that we will clear them from the streets forever, that which is degenerate in white countries will be removed.” This racist statement implied that the people in question represent a hygienic threat to the society that should be eliminated. The existence of these humans was reduced by the speaker to “degeneration”. This biological term refers to unstoppable deterioration that can be prevented only by the eradication of the subject.

It is also important to notice that in the previous excerpt the speaker used the passive structure (“will be removed”). This grammatical form highlights how a subject is affected by an action, and, hence, radiates impersonality. In this case, the passive structure indicates that it is not even important who “removes” the targets, the action that is required is a task that should be executed without emotions.

The way in which a white supremacist interpreted the tragic case of the counter-protestor who was killed in the car ramming incident also shows that dehumanizing metaphors fundamentally influence how people relate to others. Referring to the counter-protestors as “animals” twice, the speaker recalled the incident this way:

“So the video appears to show someone striking that vehicle, when these animals attacked him again, and he saw no way to get away from them, except to hit the gas. And sadly, because our rivals are a bunch of stupid animals who don’t pay attention, they couldn’t just get out of the way of his car and some people got hurt. And that’s unfortunate.” He also added: “I think a lot more people are going to die before we’re done here, frankly.”

The previous quotes illustrate in an exemplary fashion that dehumanizing metaphors — such as “animals” — can fundamentally hinder basic human compassion and empathy. By arguing that the deadly incident was “unfortunate”, the speaker largely belittled the significance of the car ramming. The dehumanizing metaphor (“animals”) also supported the reversal of the victim and the victimizer roles. Indeed, the speaker presented the driver of the car as the victim, and the counter-protestors — including those who were injured and the person who died — as the aggressors.

The same speaker also used the passive voice (“before we’re done here”) in the context of a dehumanizing metaphor. The passive voice, again, implies that the elimination of the opponents is a task that should be executed without emotions.


As social beings, we are conditioned to downplay and belittle verbal abuse. Indeed, the “innocence” of words is routinely imprinted in us through popular phrases and sayings which contrast verbal and physical abuse. For example, a well-known English-language rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”, teaches children this very idea. However, this deep-seated stereotype is false. Words can hurt and may lead to the breaking of bones and worse.

Metaphors that identify other human beings as pests, deadly animals, reptiles, parasites, disease, filth, zombies, or demons, are extremely dangerous rhetorical devices. As the case of Charlottesville also shows, such metaphors have a powerful impact on human thinking. These terms have the capacity to make people believe that other human beings are repulsive and harmful creatures who do not deserve humane treatment and should be “disappeared” from the society.

Because of this, dehumanizing metaphors have played a key role in the propaganda of genocidal regimes. The Nazis and their collaborators, who systematically killed six million Jews in the Holocaust, identified their victims as “rats”, “parasites”, “vermin”, “lice”, “bacilli”, “contagion”, and “filth”. In Pol Pot’s Cambodia, where between 1975 and 1979 nearly two million innocent people were brutally killed by the Khmer Rouge regime, government propaganda represented the victims as “microbes” who must be “swept aside” and “smashed”. In 1994, in Rwanda, in just 100 days, the ethnic Hutu extremists slaughtered at least 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority community and members of the Hutu community who were seen to sympathize with them. The Hutu propaganda called the Tutsis “cockroaches” and “snakes”.

Of course, this does not mean that dehumanizing metaphors emerge exclusively in the context of mass violence and genocide. Nevertheless, it is indeed crucial for the public to be conscious of the brutal power of words that identify other human beings as pests, deadly animals, reptiles, parasites, disease, filth, zombies, or demons. In general, these metaphors support the diminishment of boundaries between verbal abuse and actual aggressive deeds, by “entitling” people to think of and act towards others inhumanely. Actually, in an ideal world, children would be taught to avoid and resist such dangerous metaphors no later than in primary school.

This post originally appeared on Talk Decoded, a blog about the power of language in politics. Header illustration by Joy Lau, from Talk Decoded. Used with permission.