07/24/2013 02:30 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

Rep. King's Dehumanizing Remarks Straight Out of History, Literature


Iowa Rep Steve King's comments about DREAM-eligible youth probably bothered me at the same level as it did most people; as a culture, we are (at the least) able to recognize these generalizations for what they are: lazy thinking wrapped up in stereotypes.

But there was something much more menacing about King's comments that stuck in my gut and played with my insomnia last night, and I was finally able to put my finger on it.

Here are some of his original words (emphasis mine):

For everyone who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes...

And here's his unapologetic follow-up:

We have people that are mules, that are drug mules, that are hauling drugs across the border and you can tell by their physical characteristics what they've been doing for months, going through the desert with 75 pounds of drugs on their back...

As an English major, writer and voracious reader, my thoughts follow certain frameworks. Browsing my bookshelf as I started work this morning, I came upon an old college copy of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. At the gut-level, the most disturbing thing about Beloved is supposed to be that the slave, Sethe, killed her children to save them. But, to save them from what? The impetus of Sethe's escape, eventual capture, and the final incident in which she kills her child was partially this incident, which she relates later in the book (emphasis mine):

I couldn't help listening to what I heard that day. He was talking to his pupils and I heard him say, "Which one are you doing?" And one of the boys said, "Sethe". That's when I stopped because I heard my name .... Schoolteacher was standing over one of them with one hand behind his back.... I heard him say, "No, no. That's not the way. I told you to put her human characteristics on the left;her animal ones on the right. And don't forget to line them up". I commenced to walk backward .... I just kept lifting my feet and pushing back. When I bumped up against a tree my scalp was prickly... My head itched like the devil. Like somebody was sticking fine needles in my scalp. I never told Halle or nobody.

There are other portions within Beloved in which Sethe is dehumanized and degraded, such as when her milk was stolen from her, as if (she said) she were a cow or goat. This dehumanization and degradation have always stayed with me. In fact, Beloved is one of the most disturbing books I've ever studied, and this is why.

When I heard King's first comments and his follow up statements, they gave me that same unsettled feeling that Beloved gave me, and this dehumanization is the connection my mind was trying to make.

King is dehumanizing, bastardizing, bestializing and Othering people (people), using language specifically designed to cast them as the sub-human "other." Look again:

...they've got calves the size of cantaloupes...

We have people that are mules... can tell by their physical characteristics...

Looks like Rep Steve King took his playbook right from the hands of the slave owners at Sweet Home plantation.

The linguistic choices here cannot be minimized. I've blogged about this concept of "Othering" before, but scholars who are eons ahead of me have done better. The language of stigmatization allows Rep. King to wash his hands of any responsibility and to justify his abhorrent actions. Ignoring the individual humanity of another allows him to treat them as less: less deserving, less important, less than himself. It allows him to cloud his thinking and absolve himself of any guilt in their maltreatment, and it purposefully incites (or, at the least, gives permission to) others to follow his lead. It is a way to lessen the cognitive dissonance that presents itself when one considers the facts of an issue truthfully and justfully, and when one acknowledges that his beliefs, policies and votes are downright damaging to people---children, teens. Such language is revolting, repulsive, disturbing, and has no place in the national conversation.

Iowa voters, Latino voters, take note.