BOOK REVIEW – You are not human: How words kill

by James Mannion


TL;DR: Read this book and buy a copy for everyone you know and love. Also, start teaching ancient rhetoric in all schools, like yesterday.

I first came across Simon Lancaster at an Oracy conference a couple of years ago. He was giving a talk on rhetoric – a variation on his TEDx talk Speak like a leader which, by the way, is well worth 18 minutes of your time. As well as providing an entertaining and accessible tour through six rhetorical tricks of the trade ( Lancaster works as a speechwriter for politicians and business leaders – he also rails against the way in which ancient rhetoric, the ‘language of power’ that used to be taught in all schools, has somehow become the almost exclusive preserve of a small number of elite private schools. Regular readers of this blog will know that we’re fully on board with the mission to reverse this trend at Oracy Cambridge; Lancaster’s message is music to our ears.

One of those tricks of the trade is metaphor, which You are not human: How words kill puts under the microscope like never before. The first thing you learn is that metaphors are everywhere – on average, we use a metaphor once every 16 words. Just look again at the sentences above: accessible tour… rails against… exclusive preserve… on board… mission… music to our ears… under the microscope… So perhaps the first thing to say is that this book should come with a health warning: once you pop, you start spotting metaphors everywhere. But this is no bad thing.

In my experience, all people are fascinated by language in some shape or form. This book is no exception. Over Christmas, I found myself reading passages to friends and family on numerous occasions, prompting hours of sometimes heated discussion. I’ve also bought copies for several friends and family members so we can really do it justice when next we meet.

The first half of the book looks at metaphors that people have used over the years to position others as being less than human in some way – vegetable, bitch, scum et al – while the latter chapters deal with metaphors that portray people as superhuman in some way: angel investors, titans of tech, superstar celebrities. The chapter that explores Brexit through the lens of family – illuminated by Lancaster’s years as a political insider – is worth the price of admission alone.

That we use colourful language to describe ourselves and others is not, in and of itself, surprising. So then what’s the big deal? Well, Lancaster’s central argument is that the language we use to describe others affects our beliefs about those people, and our beliefs in turn affect our behaviour. This sounds simple and maybe even obvious, but it can have deadly consequences.

Lancaster is a big fan of the tricolon, and so to illustrate I’ll share three short excerpts from the book. This will make this book review longer than is considered polite for the online audience, but I make no apologies because I think this stuff is about as interesting as things get.

Exhibit A: Humans = Vegetables

One might have expected the language of vegetation to fall out of favour along with the Nazis, but it reappeared in 1972 when Scottish neurosurgeon Bryan Jennett and American neurologist Fred Plum wrote an article for the Lancet called ‘A syndrome in search of a name’. This article had set out to find a name for those patients whose ‘responsiveness is limited to primitive postural and reflex movements’. Jennett and Plum concluded that these patients ‘are best described as in a persistent vegetative state”. (1)

With this paper, Jennett and Plum hadn’t just given the syndrome a name, they had established an incredibly potent way of seeing and thinking about such patients. They had created the canvas. It wasn’t long before a number of others stepped forward, paintbrushes in hand, ready to add further details to this emerging picture.

In 1973, bioethics professor Joseph Fletcher lamented the ‘incorrigible human vegetables eating up private or public financial resources in violation of the distributive justice owed to others’. (2) In 1976, the philosopher John Lachs expressed distress at the ‘gardens that flourish in our major hospitals – the thousands of human vegetables we sustain on life-preserving machines. I cannot make myself believe that the unconscious vegetables in our hospitals are in any sense human’. (3)

When language changes, so do attitudes, and finally behaviour. So it was that just a year after the publication of Jennett and Plum’s paper, the previously unthinkable occurred: two doctors at Yale University, Doctors Duff and Campbell, deliberately withheld treatment from forty-three babies born with ‘birth defects’. All of the babies died. The doctors defended their decision in an article entitled ‘Shall this child die?’ in Newsweek on 12 November 1973. They admitted breaking the law, but argued that the law had to be changed to deal with such so-called ‘vegetables’. The doctors said, ‘the public has got to decide what to do with vegetated individuals who have no human potential’.     

I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as a pretty convincing illustration of how using a dehumanising metaphor can have swift and deadly real-world consequences. If you aren’t convinced, consider this. In writing the book, Lancaster had a researcher ask 200 people whether Alfie Evans, a comatose child whose tragic case went to the High Court last year, should have his life support switched off. They were all asked the same question, with one key difference: half the respondents were told that Alfie had an ‘unknown degenerative neurological condition’, and the other half were told that he was in a ‘semi-vegetative state’ – both phrases used by clinicians to describe Alfie in court. The results of the poll were chilling: the use of the word ‘semi-vegetative’ more than doubled the number of people who thought he should have his life support switched off (from 23/100 to 47/100). It’s not the biggest sample size in the world, but that is some swing and the psychological literature is awash with similar findings: dehumanising language presses our buttons like nothing else. Take another recent example:

Exhibit B: The Calais Jungle

By locking dehumanising imagery into the name of this refugee camp, it’s become impossible even to speak about it without conjuring up the image that the occupants are not human. How can any compassionate conversation take place about the occupants when it starts from that point?

… Why was it called the Calais Jungle? Why not the Calais Enclosure, the Calais Dungeon or the Calais Internment Camp? The ‘Jungle’ implies scary, unknown animals – and of course the majority of people living there were people of colour. Descriptions of the people in the camp invariably added to this imagery, with inhabitants frequently characterised as wild, ferocious, beastly.

This certainly seems to have affected the way they were perceived and treated. A report by Human Rights Watch reported police were interrupting the delivery of vital aid to the camp, including food, water, clothing and blankets. Ninety-seven per cent of children surveyed said they had experienced police violence. And of course, when the Jungle was removed, with young children tear-gassed and their homes set on fire, no one much objected. It’s not often we burn down people’s homes, but this is considered (just about) OK to do with a jungle. In fact, for many thousands of years we have understood that demolishing jungles clears the path for civilisation.

It wasn’t just the police who saw the refugees as subhuman; many members of the public did too. Lorry drivers along the A16 near Calais have been frequently uploading videos to YouTube showing themselves deliberately driving into and shouting abuse at the refugees who walk along these roads. These videos are attracting millions of views; many of the commentators celebrate the drivers, describing the refugees as wild animals and savages. This is not just a game they’re playing. Dozens of refugees have now been killed along this stretch of road.   

Again, there doesn’t seem to be much room for argument here. As the founder of a refugee crisis charity put it at the time: “The way that the French people treat the refugees sometimes can feel very much like cattle, it can feel very dehumanising.” One has to wonder: to what extent did the metaphor of the “Jungle” contribute to the appalling treatment of these human beings?

Exhibit C: The Snake in Raqqa

In August 2013, David Cameron put a vote before Parliament, seeking approval to use military force in Syria:

Cameron [took] a measured approach to that debate. His rhetorical style was sober and statesmanlike, almost as if he was trying to distance himself from the hyperbolic, almost hysterical Tony Blair, who had led Parliament to support the fateful invasion of Iraq back in 2003. Indeed, Cameron referenced that debate, acknowledging it had ‘poisoned the well of public opinion’. He continually underlined the differences between the position Blair took then and the stance he was taking now, stressing ‘This is not about invading, it is not about regime change’.

He maintained this measured and moderate position throughout the debate and, for his troubles, he wound up being defeated – 285 votes against to 272 votes for – the first time that a Prime Minister had been refused by the House of Commons on a request to take the country to war in the whole of British History.

In December 2015, he tried again:

He wasn’t going to take any chances this time… Out went the mild, measured Cameron of 2013. In came a new furious and feverish Cameron: it was Blair 2003 with bells on.

Cameron opened the debate by linking recent terrorist attacks in Paris to “the head of the snake in Raqqa”.

Having planted the idea of a snake at the beginning of the debate, so that image continued to develop in the ten-and-a-half-hour debate which followed. I counted twenty-seven references to snakes, monsters and barbarians in various forms.

Summing up, Cameron hammered the point home, again emphasising the need to “target the head of the snake”. This time, the motion passed by a huge majority of 397 to 223.

So it was that the bombing commenced. Today, Raqqa is flattened. Look at the drone footage on YouTube. There’s nothing left. It is like Hiroshima, Mỹ Lai or Ground Zero. And yet there is no evidence the head of any snake was killed in this operation. This was primarily a civilian city. We do, however, have evidence that many hundreds of civilians were killed. (4)

OK so words can kill… so what?

I don’t know about you, but I for one am persuaded that here we have three pretty strong examples of how dehumanising language can claim lives. There are plenty more in the book, which, it should be noted, takes us to some pretty dark places: the section on Guatemala in the ‘Troll’ chapter is absolutely jaw-dropping, and not in a good way.

So, where does this all leave us? Well, that’s a doozy of a question. If the book has a shortcoming, it is that the thorny question of what is to be done about all this devastating, dehumanising language is left entirely unexplored. Actually, that’s not quite true: at one point, Lancaster laments that Cameron was not called out for using “genocidal” language in the “head of the snake” debate, and elsewhere he mentions that we ought to “clean up” our language. But it’s not clear how.

I’m down with the diagnosis. Using dehumanising language is not cool. Words shape beliefs and beliefs shape actions and in this way, words can kill. But what of the prescription? If words can kill, then we should surely at least entertain the idea that “something should be done” to mitigate the extent to which this happens. But what might such a “cleaning up” of language look like in practice? It’s extremely difficult to see how the use of metaphors could be policed in any formal way that wouldn’t set the internet ablaze with arguments about free speech from here to the Gates of Hell.

When you’re a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Well, I’m an educationalist and so to my mind, this looks a lot like a learning problem. I think that rather than going down the “language police” route, our best bet is for as many people as possible to learn about how words can kill. In that way, the next time a politician uses dehumanising language in a debate about whether to bomb people in some distant land, he or she can be called out on it – not only by professional speechwriters on Twitter, but by their fellow MPs in the chamber – and by their constituents in the community and at the polling booth. And this isn’t just about the politics of war: a glance at the amount of dehumanising vitriol on social media and on our streets suggests that we all would do well to reflect a little more carefully on the language we choose to describe our fellow travellers.

Here are two easy steps toward achieving this urgent and necessary goal:

  1. Read this book and recommend it to all your friends and family. Discuss it with them at length: knowing what we know now, how should we speak, what should we believe and how should we act? How should we respond when we see Presidential candidates referring to asylum seekers as poisonous snakes, for example? 
  2. Start teaching ancient rhetoric in all schools again, providing regular opportunities for children to use rhetorical devices in speech, and to discuss and reflect on their use. We don’t need to wait for the government to green-light this, by the way. If you’re a teacher, you can weave in a bit of rhetoric every time you ask your pupils to address the class. Starting from… now!


(1) Jennett, B., Plum, F. (1972) Persistent vegetative state after brain damage. A syndrome in search of a name. Lancet 1:734-737 2.
(2) Fletcher, J. (1973) Ethics and Euthanasia, in R. H. Williams (ed.), To Live and to Die: When, Why and How?, Springer-Verlag, New York.
(3) Lachs, J. (1976) Humane treatment and the treatment of humans. New England Journal of Medicine, 294, 838–840.

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