President Donald Trump called MS-13 gang members “animals.”
E.J. Dionne from the Washington Post disagreed, saying that “It’s never right to call other human beings ‘animals.’”
And writing for the National Review, Dennis Prager responded that Dionne reveals “the moral sickness at the heart of leftism.”
Dionne thinks his position is beyond debate: “No matter how debased the behavior of a given individual or group…dehumanizing others always leads us down a dangerous path.”
Worse, “Dehumanizing those he and his core constituents see as radically different is central to Trump’s project.”
Prager, however, writes that dehumanizing some people actually protects the rest of us. He continues, “By rhetorically reading certain despicable people out of the human race, we elevate the human race. We have declared certain behaviors out of line with being human.”
Prager means human in the moral, not biological sense. Otherwise, what meaning does the word “inhumane” have? Would Dionne not see the Nazis as inhuman?
Prager clarifies that inhumanity should be based on behavior and not “directed at people based on their race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or any other immutable physical characteristic.”
Dionne deals in absolutes: never and no debate. But the problem with absolutes is a lack of nuance. However, Prager doesn’t add enough nuance to this discussion. He still imputes inhumanity to individuals based on group membership. Certainly joining the Nazi party or MS-13 involves a serious moral compromise. But some Nazis and gang members commit worse atrocities than others.
We have all harmed others. A key question is: At what degree of harm do we lose our moral status as human? And what must we do to gain it back? Too often the answer is self-serving and lacking in self-awareness.
We are all animals. Biologically and morally.
Homo sapiens evolved over millions of years. And like our chimpanzee cousins, we can be vicious. Even bonobos may not deserve their peaceful reputation. And we still carry this evolutionary heritage with us. But we also evolved frontal lobes capable of inhibiting violent behavior—capable even of reason when we are at our best.
We are all animals. But we can do better.
Prager’s statement about the sickness at the heart of leftism highlights the problem. His us-vs.-them attitude seems to assume that progressives are sick and conservatives are morally elevated.
Does Prager recognize that he too is an animal?
The animal within can too easily escape if we fail to admit we too are capable, under certain circumstances, of inhumanity. Those who fail to understand this are in danger of becoming the monster they seek to destroy.