By Mark Joseph Stern
June 3 2014
Humans are hardwired for empathy, which means we are prone to treat other people’s struggles with compassion and sympathy. This rule, however, doesn’t apply when the other people in question can be made to seem disordered, disgusting, and inhuman. The trick for those who oppose granting basic human dignity to any given minority group, then, is to deny their humanity. A human being probably deserves our empathy and respect. A debased freak clearly does not.
The effort to smear gay people as less-than-human was always destined to fail: There are a fair number of us, and once you know a gay person, it’s hard to see them all as disturbed weirdoes. But there are really very few trans people in the world, and, as the National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson recently illustrated in a strangely angry hatchet job on Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox, the drive to deprive them of their dignity remains alive and well. In fact, Williamson’s article is such a marvelously thorough polemic against treating trans people as people that it deserves to be studied in detail. For the convenience of all those who hope to follow in Williamson’s footsteps, here’s a handy guide for dehumanizing trans people—in three simple steps.
1. Compare a trans person to an object or caricature.
Williamson titles his essay “Laverne Cox Is Not a Woman,” and he repeatedly drives home his point by referring to Cox as “he” throughout. But Williamson’s real aim is to prove that Laverne Cox is not human. If we see her as a human being, we might start to empathize with her plight and thus agree to respect her identity and personhood. Williamson is obviously horrified by this possibility (though he never actually explains why), so he mounts a clever rhetorical effort to reduce Cox from a person to a mere object. First, Williamson describes Cox as “an effigy”—that is, one of those dummies you burn to show how much you hate someone. Then Williamson brings Cox down yet another notch, comparing her to a “voodoo doll”—that is, those things you stick needles into to cause someone pain, at least in the popular imagination.
I ran Williamson’s comments by David Livingstone Smith, a professor of philosophy at the University of New England and author of Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others.
“What he means here is something like—this person isn’t a person,” he told me. “This isn’t someone with her own identity and her point of view—a human being just like he is. She’s something alien, something that we want to put at arms length.”
The net effect of these insulting comparisons is, of course, to make Cox sound like something you should either light on fire or poke with needles, not a human whose innate dignity deserves your respect. Rather than portraying Cox as a person (or, God forbid, a woman), Williamson has turned her into a caricatured object designed to be destroyed. With that groundwork laid, Williamson moves in for the second, even more degrading blow.
2. Make the trans person sound grotesquely disordered.
Williamson refuses to use the scientific term for a physical sex change, “sex-reassignment surgery,” which sounds far too clinical to meet his purposes. Sex-reassignment surgery sounds like something your neighbor or uncle might get; “genital amputation and mutilation,” as Williamson describes the procedure, does not. This graphic rebranding places in the reader’s mind images of disgusting disfigurement, even barbarism—certainly not the kind of thing a healthy, well-adjusted human being would voluntarily undergo.