Who v. That--A Serious Issue

One of the most disturbing aspects of this past election year is the successful use of hate speech by Donald Trump to stir up support for his presidential run. Hate speech is intended to divide. It deliberately aims to build barriers between people—to create an “us” on one side and a “them” on the other. It removes human faces from view and replaces them with horror masks to make the so-called threat they pose more vivid, more absolute. It is a politics of fear, exclusion, objectification, and dehumanization. Instead of creating unity, it fractures our society into fearful, vengeful tribes and stokes them to violence against each other.

To go even farther, Trump wants to build a physical wall to keep illegal immigrants from Mexico—all “rapists,” “criminals,” and “drug dealers” in his mind—out of the US. In adding bricks and mortar to hate speech, though, Trump is following well-known, and rather disturbing, precedent. Think of the Warsaw Ghetto, a step on the way to genocide. Think of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, which closed off the West from Eastern Europe and allowed the Communist regimes to vaunt their superior, enlightened “workers’ paradise,” even as their societies rotted from within. Think of the Separation Barrier between Israel and the West Bank, which has virtually eliminated interactions between average Israelis and Palestinians, so that extremists on both sides now are free to spew venal caricatures of each other—“animals,” “Arabs,” “Zionists”— deliberately perpetuating the cycle of violence that has infected that region for so long.

The barriers of exclusion that hate speech creates enable bigotry, racism, and worse—sometimes far worse. We owe it to ourselves, to our society, and to the values our country was founded on, to combat hate speech at every turn. But how? Legislation and governmental enforcement are inadequate. There is no miracle cure from on-high. Rather, the cure must start at ground level, in the small daily interactions between individuals.

Let me suggest something small we can all do, something that requires no kind of grandiose, top-down political gesture to lead or inspire us, but a simple change of habit that I hope might have wide ramifications, if not for everyone, then for those who want to bring people together, not force them apart.

For several years now, I have noticed a trend in self-expression, not just in conversations, but also in the speech of public officials, the print and broadcast news—and especially in social media. We all now tend to describe others using the word “that” instead of “who,” as in “the woman that was raped” or “the man that was arrested,” and so on. This may seem like a petty distinction, of importance only to obsessive editors and linguistic snobs, but hear me out.

English, unlike either of its linguistic parents—English and French—uses the relative pronoun “who” to refer only to people, and uses “that” for everything else. People on the one hand, animals and things on the other. (As with everything else in English, of course, there is an exception. The possessive “whose” is universal. There is no “thatse.”) All non-human living things, all inanimate objects, ideas, you name it, are “that.” Only people merit a “who.”

As with much linguistic evolution, we are probably making this shift to make things easier on ourselves. Using “that” allows us to avoid using the now rather awkward and snooty-sounding “whom,” just as we have come to use the word “impact” as a verb to save ourselves the effort of learning the difference between “affect” and “effect.” In general, of course, simplification makes sense. Who wants to say, “rank in order of priority,” when, thanks to the late Secretary of State Alexander Haig, we can save syllables with “prioritize”?

But “who” has more than a grammatical function—it recognizes its subject as a person, as a human being. Replacement of “who” by “that” converts the subject into an object. Take the sentence, “The Muslim who was walking down the street looked right at me.” The Muslim is clearly recognized as a person. Now replace “who” with “that.” “The Muslim that was walking down the street looked right at me.” What is the Muslim now? We don’t know. A threat? What sort of thing is a Muslim? The very humanity of this Muslim is now up for grabs. Even if you say “The man that was walking down the street . . ,” there is a distance. Animals are male and female after all, but does anyone ever say, “A cat who . . .”? “Who” implies a connection between that subject and ourselves as fellow human beings. Using “that” creates distance, something else, something at best not one of us, not quite human.

The power of small distinctions in word usage was first impressed on me in the late 1960s. In those days, there was a search on in the African-American community to replace the word “negro” with something more affirming, something less tainted by past connections with slavery and segregation. A school friend of mine, who was a person of color as we now say, taught me to use the phrase “black people.” Not “blacks,” which smacked of separation and implied inferiority, but “black people,” an expression of difference, yes, but, after so long, an assertion of inclusion, of equality. “Black” receded into being a mere adjective. The affirming noun was “people.” We now use “African American,” more affirming still, a parallel to “German American,” “Irish American,” or “Italian American.” The operative noun is “American,” this country’s most unifying word.

And it isn’t just politics where we need greater affirmation of our common humanity. We too often take others for granted in our daily lives, treating so many simply as objects of convenience or irritation. “The garbage man that drove by.” “The policeman that gave me a ticket.” These people who interact with us in so many mundane ways—the woman at the checkout counter, the nurse who takes our temperature, firemen, waitresses, plumbers—these are people, not objects. They are overwhelmingly dedicated, and hard working, just like us. Using “who” when we think or speak of them reminds us continually—subtly but firmly—of what we need to remember: we have humanity in common. And would this simple change of habit in the way we think and speak make it easier for us to treat them better?

Using “who” instead of “that” is very simple gesture. It is not any sort of ultimate solution by itself, of course. But it is a change of direction away from the objectification of others. And if we all use it—consciously, deliberately—it might prove to be a first step toward inoculating ourselves and our country against the all-too-contagious infection by hate and its messengers.

Timothy Niedermann is an editor and novelist and has taught writing at Yale and McGill.

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