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  • Holly Scala

Splitting Hairs to Prevent Genocide: Toxification vs. Dehumanization

February 2, 2022

The word “dehumanization” is frequently used in discussions of early warnings to political violence or persecution of groups of people. Most people interested in genocide prevention are familiar with the dehumanizing terms that pervade society before a genocide happens. Hutu extremists in Rwanda labeled Tutsis “cockroaches”, Nazis referred to Jews as “vermin”, and Turks referred to Armenians as “dangerous microbes”.

The challenge is today we hear dehumanizing rhetoric ad nauseam, to the point where it can no longer be as precise an indicator of an impending genocide. Stars with excessive Botox are referred to as “robots”, the player on the opposite basketball team is deemed a “scumbag”, medical patients are named by their malady or room number. Yet the use of these terms has fortunately not precluded a genocide in Hollywood social spheres, on the basketball court, or in the hospital wing. It’s no secret that humans dehumanize each other every day as part of our social coding to separate the world between “us” and “them”. However, we need to be able to pick up on the telltale signs of an impending genocide, and dehumanization as a concept on its own is just not making the cut.

In 2017, Rhiannon Neilsen illuminated a new concept for genocide prediction that helps separate the noise from the dangerous: toxification. Neilsen defines toxification as the “cognitive perception of the target group as fundamentally lethal to the furtherance of the perpetrators’ survival and society”. Nielsen’s crucial distinction between toxification and dehumanization is that “the group is perceived to be not simply inhuman or inferior, as with dehumanization, but as a toxic presence that must be cauterized and destroyed”.

Illustration by Holly Scala, 2021

In other words, toxification is a subset of dehumanization that surpasses perceiving targets outside of the perpetrator’s sphere of moral obligation, where killing them is permissible; rather, toxifying rhetoric denotes the necessity of the target group’s destruction. For example, describing targets as “cockroaches” or “vermin” (as Tutsis were often portrayed in the extremist Hutu publication, Kangura), does, indeed, strip the humans to which they refer of their humanity. But the lethal connotation these terms carry is mistakenly attributed to “dehumanization”, when it actually represents “toxification”. This essential distinction can help us to tease out the gravity of the metaphors humans often employ when describing their enemies, big or small.

Cover of “Kangura”, a Hutu-led propagandistic publication known for portraying Tutsis as lethal and inciting their destruction. Source: Genocide Archive of Rwanda © Copyright AEGIS TRUST 2015

According to Neilsen’s propositions, toxifying rhetoric should skyrocket before the first days of a genocide. However, my research on toxification leading up to and during the Rwandan Genocide indicated otherwise. Instead of high levels of toxification in the months preceding the first days of slaughter in early April 1994, toxification wildly increased as the Interahamwe and Hutu extremists began to lose to the encroaching Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the rebel forces they were fighting against, in mid-summer. This seemed to be an attempt to convince individuals who had not yet become perpetrators to play on Hutus’ fears of “evil” Tutsis and rally the troops for an all-hands-on-deck effort to win the war against the RPF. Although my research didn’t support Neilsen’s propositions in terms of timing, the escalation in toxifying language did serve to justify some of the deadliest days of the genocide by playing on Hutu’s survival instincts.

Why should we pay attention to such a seemingly hair-splitting nuance? Because language is one of the most ubiquitous warning signs society has access to when it comes to predicting an impending genocide. When we hear our friends and family call each other names like “snakes”, or elected officials, when referring to immigrants as “an invasion”, it is not only an opportunity but a duty to call those people out on account of using genocidal language. Incorporating toxification into our understanding of violent language can and must raise our sensitivity to the abhorrent and potential genocidal repercussions of our words.


Click here to read Holly Scala's complete thesis, “One Would Think Satan Has Invaded the Place” Toxifying Language and the Genocidal Process in Rwanda published in 2020.


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