We rarely think of comedians as experts.


But there's one topic they know better than almost anyone else.

Stephen Fry is a great comedian. And the way he sees it, language is the key to understanding racism. Which in turn, is the key to understanding genocide.

Because all genocides in recent history have had one thing in common:

From the minute the Nazis came to power, they knew ordinary Germans would have a much harder time getting on board with the wholesale slaughter of Jews and Roma and other "undesirable" groups if they thought of them as fellow people. So they started referring to them as...


And...

And...

You see the same pattern in Rwanda in the '90s. And elsewhere. Time and time again, one of the first steps taken by the leaders of genocidal movements is to control the way certain groups of people are discussed. Because when you think of someone as less than human, it becomes much easier to treat them in unspeakably cruel ways.

Martin Luther King Jr. said it best:


Which is why it's so important to protect the free flow of language and ideas.

The whole speech is completely fascinating. I highly recommend taking a look:

View transcript Hide transcript

Stephen Fry: It is no exaggeration to say, I think, what one of the angst that most of us would agree was a supreme low point in the history of our particular civilization in the last 100 years certainly was the mass extermination of 8 million Jews and Gypsy's and others by the Nazi's. The [Foreign Language] as they call it, the final solution of the Jewish problem in Europe. Now, it is a massively difficult thing to get your head around. How ordinary people-- and German's are ordinary people just like us and if we don't believe that then we'll be doing to them what they did to the Jews. We would be ascribing a racist characteristic just to Germans that is unique to them. I think we can all be grown up enough to know that it was humanity doing something to another parcel of humanity. That it was very extraordinary. We've seen examples of it in our own lifetimes in Rwanda and Burundi and we've seen it in other places where massacres of quite extraordinary brutality have taken place. In each one of these genocidal moments or attempts at full genocide, each example was preceded by language being used again and again and again to dehumanize the person that had to be killed in the political eyes of their enemies.

In other words it began in the 1930s, in fact it began a littler earlier than that but, the Jew's were rats, were vermin, were lice, were aformension[SP], ape-men, untamension[SP], which is subhuman in German. They were subhuman, they were ape-men, they were rats, they were vermin, they were a basilisk, they were a virus, they were anything but a human being. The same thing happened on the radios, the Huchu[SP] and the Tujuh[SP] were slaughtering each other. Again the word rats was used, vermin and lice, insects. If you start to characterize week after week after week after week after week, you start to think of someone, you're slightly sullen and disagree--you don't like very much anyway, you're constantly getting the idea that they're not actually human. Then, it seems, it becomes possible to do things to them that are, we would call, completely un-human, inhuman and lacking humanity. Oddly enough, we're the only species that does it.

It is interesting and important to remember that it is language that not only guarantees our freedom, free exchange of ideas such as this and which one is allowed to say anything. Which one would hope everybody observes the decencies of debate and of good nature and is not cruel and unkind and mocking and derisory, unpleasant, vicious, or indeed whipping up violence. But as long as ideas are exchanged freely then we can more or less guarantee some level of stability within our society. The moment we begin to use special language for special people and special terms of insult for special terms of people then that's, we can see very clearly and history demonstrates it time and time again, that's when perfectly ordinary people are able to kill.

There's an amazing book called [Foreign Language], which has recently, I think, been translated under the title "Those Were The Days." It is a quite horrific thing to read because it is so ordinary. It is simply the letters home from the guards and soldiers and SS members and officers of the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka, home to their families. A typical letter might read "Oh, you would have been so proud of the men, we had an extra special action come in today on the train that we hadn't been warned about. It was a whole 700 extra that had to be processed. The men never complained once, they went about their business. I was so proud of them, especially because it was so hot. Do tell young Claus that I've seen the results of his History exam and if he doesn't get a better grade I shall be very cross with him. Meanwhile, here is a bottle of Plum Brandy." And you look at that and you know that that special action, that [Foreign Language], meant that 700 people had come in, men, women, and children, had come in to be gassed and killed and burned. And he's writing home. It's a father writing an affectionate letter to a mother. It's so human that it makes one gasp at how this can have happened. And languages is at the root of it. I suppose that's why we have to be careful about our language or at least it's why we have to be alert to it and we have to think about it.

There may be small errors in this transcript.
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This video features the brilliant Stephen Fry and was uploaded by YouTube user Ed Reeves.

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