Stop Dehumanizing and Demonizing Your Enemies!

Stop Dehumanizing and Demonizing Your Enemies! December 4, 2023

In a world fractured by war, let’s bring “peace on earth, goodwill to humanity.” Let’s stop dehumanizing and demonizing our enemies.

Stop Dehumanizing and Demonizing Your Enemies! Man in black hood behind white mask
Image by Sammy-Sander from Pixabay

I am a butcher. As a writer, I learned to kill my darlings. This literary phrase means that a writer must be willing to rip their favorite sections of writing out of their books if they don’t drive the narrative. Back in the days of typewriters, my bedroom floor looked like a charnel house, littered with the corpses and entrails of my darlings. Whole chapters gone—sacrificed on the altar of the main point of the writing. It’s a hard thing to do, to butcher your own work.


Killing Your Darlings

Killing your darlings also means that a writer must be willing to slice and dice the language if it’s necessary to make a point. In my spoken word as well as written, it drives me nuts to end a sentence with a preposition. But sometimes I must kill my darling grammar rule if breaking a rule to make a point is what my sentence is all about.


My Darling Etymology

So, today I’m going to slaughter another love of mine—etymology—just to make a point. I’m going to present to you two words as if they have an etymological relationship with one another, which they don’t. But then, I’m going to pretend that they do. The first is the word “human.”  Etymonline, the best etymology website of which I’m aware, says this:


“Human,” According to Etymonline

Etymonline gives the origin of the word “human” (adjective) as:

mid-15c., humain, humaigne, “human,” from Old French humain, umain (adj.) “of or belonging to man” (12c.), from Latin humanus “of man, human,” also “humane, philanthropic, kind, gentle, polite; learned, refined, civilized.” This is in part from PIE *(dh)ghomon-, literally “earthling, earthly being,” as opposed to the gods (from root *dhghem- “earth”), but there is no settled explanation of the sound changes involved. Compare Hebrew adam “man,” from adamah “ground.” Cognate with Old Lithuanian žmuo (accusative žmuni) “man, male person.”


“Demon,” According to Etymonline

The next word is “demon,” (noun) which has no actual etymological relationship to the above word. Etymonline says this:

c. 1200, “an evil spirit, malignant supernatural being, an incubus, a devil,” from Latin daemon “spirit,” from Greek daimōn “deity, divine power; lesser god; guiding spirit, tutelary deity” (sometimes including souls of the dead); “one’s genius, lot, or fortune;” from PIE *dai-mon- “divider, provider” (of fortunes or destinies), from root *da- “to divide.”

The malignant sense is because the Greek word was used (with daimonion) in Christian Greek translations and the Vulgate for “god of the heathen, heathen idol” and for “unclean spirit.” Jewish authors earlier had employed the Greek word in this sense, using it to render shedim “lords, idols” in the Septuagint, and Matthew viii.31 has daimones, translated as deofol in Old English, feend or deuil in Middle English. Another Old English word for this was hellcniht, literally “hell-knight.”

The usual ancient Greek sense, “supernatural agent or intelligence lower than a god, ministering spirit” is attested in English from 1560s and is sometimes written daemon or daimon for purposes of distinction. Meaning “destructive or hideous person” is from 1610s; as “an evil agency personified” (rum, etc.) from 1712.


A False Linkage That Works

Now, I’m going to play with language and suppose that the two words are linguistically linked, even though they’re not. But roll with me because there’s a natural progression from human, to de-human, to demon. Here’s what I mean:


Dehumanizing and Demonizing Our Enemies

When we think of a demon, we generally envision a human-shaped creature that’s been twisted into a hideous and fearful condition. You could say that to be a demon is to be de-human. Less than human. To make someone your enemy, you must demonize, or de-humanize them so that you can hate them entirely. It’s hard to hate a person who loves their family, has hopes and dreams, and puts their pants on just like you. We find it easier to warp someone you hate into a gargoyle shape, so you don’t have to acknowledge their humanity. It’s easier to kill a demon, or someone you view as less than human.


Dehumanizing Language

This is why Nazi Germany referred to Jewish people as an infestation, so their soldiers could view genocide as the extermination of vermin, rather than the murder of their neighbors. Westboro Baptist Church’s “God hates f—s” signs are designed to do the same thing–to remove the humanity of LGBTQIA+ folks and turn them into something warped and less than human. If God hates them, then we can, too. Every time we use (or permit others to use) racial epithets, gender-disparaging language, or hate speech directed towards people of other nations, languages, or religions, we remove their humanity so we can justify hate.


“Good Guys” Dehumanizing Enemies

Before you say, “Well, of course I don’t do that—that’s what bad guys do,” let me remind you that everyone sees themselves as “good guys,” even “bad guys.” And even “good guys” dehumanize their enemies. In World War 2, it was easier for Allied soldiers to kill “K—s” instead of “German people.” US soldiers referred to Japanese people as “J—s” or “N—s” so it that they didn’t have to see them as fully human. Just because you see yourself as a “good guy,” that doesn’t mean you are—especially if you must demonize someone to make yourself better than them.


Demonizing Language

Even though the word “demon” is unrelated etymologically to the word “dehuman,” it makes sense to conceptually link the two. To demonize a person is to make them less than human. It identifies them as a problem to be solved, rather than a person to be loved. It justifies our abuse and mistreatment of them because we’ve turned them into enemies instead of friends. Recently, I heard a theory that the seven “demons” cast out of Mary Magdelene were actually seven unhelpful (human) friends of hers, who left her once she started to follow Jesus. Whether this is true or not, it’s a good example of how we tend to demonize people we don’t like and portray them as something worse than they are. Do you have anyone in your life that you demonize and dehumanize?


People-First Language

The good news is that we can fix our speech so that we don’t dehumanize others who are made in God’s image. People-first language recognizes the humanity of a person before it talks about the ostensible problem they are experiencing. Instead of referring to “the homeless” as a problem, people-first language refers to them as “people experiencing homelessness.” This recognizes their personhood above all else. Instead of calling somebody “an addict,” people-first language considers them a “person with an addiction.”

Even if you put the word “person” second, you can make the descriptor an adjective instead of a noun. When you do this, “slaves” become “enslaved people.”  “Prisoners” become “incarcerated people,” and so on. This moves people back up the ladder from demon, through the middle ground of de-human, to reinstate them in our minds as re-human. When we see people who are different from ourselves as equals in the eyes of God and co-bearers of the divine image, it changes the way we treat them.


Love Your Enemies

It’s easy to dehumanize and demonize our enemies. In fact, it’s practically necessary to do this, if we want them to remain enemies. But Jesus says in Matthew 5:43-44, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” You can’t love your enemy and dehumanize him at the same time. You can’t pray for your enemy and hate her too.

If you dehumanize or demonize your enemies, you are doing the same thing to Jesus. In Matthew 25:40, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.” There’s a spark of the divine in every human being. This means that every one of your enemies is made in the image of God. When we honor the presence of God in all people—even our enemies—we expand the realm of God in this world. In a world that is fractured by war and hatred, let’s do our part to bring “peace on earth, goodwill to humanity.” Let’s treat our enemies the way we would want them to treat us. Let’s stop dehumanizing and demonizing them, and see God in them, instead.


For related reading, check out my other articles:


About Gregory T. Smith
I live in the beautiful Fraser Valley of British Columbia and work in northern Washington State as a behavioral health specialist with people experiencing homelessness and those who are overly involved in the criminal justice system. Before that, I spent over a quarter-century as lead pastor of several Virginia churches. My newspaper column, “Spirit and Truth” ran in Virginia newspapers for fifteen years. I am one of fourteen contributing authors of the Patheos/Quoir Publishing book “Sitting in the Shade of another Tree: What We Learn by Listening to Other Faiths.” I hold a degree in Religious Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University, and also studied at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. My wife Christina and I have seven children between us, and we are still collecting grandchildren. You can read more about the author here.
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