In recent times words like ‘pests’, ‘monster’, ‘animals’, ‘cockroaches’ and other derogatory terms have been used to refer to law-breakers. While this is intended to show so-called ‘strength’, ‘tenacity’, ‘resolve’ and ‘grit’, there is something called the Law of Unintended Consequences. This means that sometimes words and actions mushroom into something that we never intended.
Public figures, such as the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and so on ought to be extremely careful with the use of language in the public domain, especially the language that is meant to dehumanise another human being.
Dehumanising language on the radio talk-shows, social media posts, in the home or at school and, in the everyday conversation impact wider culture and therefore behaviour and attitudes. Behaviour and attitudes are directly correlated to crime.
There is a basic principle that says “the way you see someone determines the way your treat someone”. It also follows that the way you speak of people determines how you treat them. If we refer to people as ‘monsters’, ‘animals’ and pests such as cockroaches, we may very well treat them like sub-humans.
The use of the phrase “weeding out cockroaches” was systematically used on radio stations in Rwanda as part of a hate campaign that preceded the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Although the hate and rivalry of the genocide had a more complex socio-economic and political history, the use of dehumanising language did not help heal the already-fractured nation. Eight hundred thousand Tutsis— men, women and children—were massacred, literally eliminated like cockroaches.
Poor use of language by any public figure will not help our polarised nation.
In social psychology there is something called the self-fulfilling prophecy. Simply put, people become who they are told they are by society.
The human psyche is complex. In some cases people live out the labels that are placed on them. Anecdotally, when young men are told they are monsters and animals they may well behave like animals; this will not help the crime situation.
As much as the Commissioner of Police may be commended for the zeal and passion that he brings to his job, he ought to temper the language he uses at press conferences and in the public domain.
Moving away from use of language by our public figures, all citizens ought to temper how we speak to and about each other. Crime has many seeds. One seed of crime is to be found in culture, that is, in our general attitudes not only to law and order but also to one another.
Good laws protect people and institutions. The spirit of the law is about protecting people, individuals and groups. If we respect one another, we would not break the law in many instances.
Our attitudes towards each other of different races, creeds, and income brackets sometimes affect our attitude to law and the chances of our breaking the law. For example, our attitudes to other motorists and pedestrians affect whether we break traffic laws.
All of us are called to examine our attitudes to the human person, to each other. Every human person has dignity and worth that is not contingent or situational.
Respect for one another in speech, thought and deed may well help the Commissioner of Police in his desire to bring down the unacceptable levels of crime.