Last week I helped you compassionate folks who want to help with the concentration camps at the border to think through how to help out without freezing up or looking away. One of those options I suggested was to speak up against authoritarian religio-political rhetoric. This week, I will provide a brief analysis of unhealthy immigration rhetoric in Dr. James Dobson’s July Newsletter piece (here’s a link that hopefully won’t give his site credit!) about his visit to one such camp in order to help you identify and call out this kind of thing for those who might have ears to hear.
In addition to this primary goal I also have a secondary aim here: I hope that both Christians and others who aren’t on board with this kind of dehumanizing rhetoric will be persuaded that the compassionate voices and actions need to speak up more loudly than voices like Dr. Dobson are. It’s definitely not the time for the spirituality as accommodation problems I outlined in the “Toxic Sides of Christian Nice” series here, which started with this piece.
Note: Dr. Dobson’s piece had an incredible amount of factually inaccurate information that could be fact-checked easily through a Google search. In the interests of brevity, I’m choosing not to address those aspects here.
Instead, I will focus on the biggest shift that takes place within the document itself as it progresses—the shift from Dr. Dobson calling the situation at the camps a pitiable “humanitarian crisis” to demonizing “illegals” who are portrayed as untrustworthy, disease-ridden criminals who can’t even speak our language and are invading us and fraudulently outright gaming our system.
This whole movement seems to me highly designed to not only look away from the migrant crisis, but to leave its audience justified in atrocities against migrants because of how much it accuses them of. That’s the kind of rhetoric–and the policies that accompany it–that it’s ridiculously important to keep fighting right now. I’m hoping that this analysis will leave you feeling more agency over understanding the tricks of dehumanization so you can combat them and speak up more loudly for policies that humanize.
Okay, so in order to understand the following analysis, it would be helpful to know some terms I’ll be using.
Defining God Terms and Devil Terms
Let’s start with “god terms” and “devil terms.” We’ve had a whole series on the blog starting with this piece here if you want to read more in depth, but in short, a “god term” is used by rhetoricians to mean something to be defended at all costs, while a “devil term” is something that needs to be fought at all costs.
In this piece Dr. Dobson portrays himself and his side as fully righteous and trustworthy with a variety of other parties as increasingly not to be trusted. As I gestured at above, the most dramatic transformation in the piece is how he gradually portrays the migrants as shifting from seemingly good or at least as suffering objects to be pitied to seeing them as completely untrustworthy criminals.
In this shift, the rhetorical attempt at propaganda seems to be to get a compassionate audience to gradually see the migrants as inhuman non-Americans that are inherently flawed and less-than and actually deceitful and monstrous invaders that need to be expelled.
If you carefully follow how positive or negative the ways all of the characters are being presented throughout—especially who is presented as telling the truth or “good people” vs. those who are untrustworthy and the terms that are used to attack their character—you too can watch this shift from migrants as god terms to migrants as devil terms to occur in real time!
Defining the Halo and Horns Effects
In the piece I did on abortion rhetoric I added the communication studies terms “halo effect” and “horns effect,” and those apply here as well, so let me quickly define them again before I show you how they work in the Dobson newsletter piece and its shifting rhetoric about both migrants and other parties.
In short, the “halo effect” is the process by which when we know one good thing about a person or group, we automatically presume a lot of other good things about that person or group. The horns effect is the opposite—once you know one bad thing about a person or group, you start associating all sorts of bad things with that person or group.
Applying the Halo and Horns Effects
In the Dobson piece, you can very clearly see halo and horns effects starkly being applied in concert with god terms and devil terms being applied and enacted. In the piece Dobson uses existing long-standing god and devil terms to invoke existing halo and horns effects in his audience’s mind.
Specifically with the migrants, though, his shift from halo effect to the later really striking horns effect gains a lot of momentum as he goes.
Since terms criminalizing and othering groups are often associated with genocide and, well, Nazism, it’s not surprising to me that he builds gradually to using terms like illegals much later in the piece.
The Seemingly Most Bizarre Horns Leap
It’s also not at all surprising to me that he waits until his audience’s suspicions of the migrants are already engaged and their critical thinking probably not working quite as well before he makes the most illogically striking suggestion that those coming across the border in waves—even the adults!—are disappearing into the country to themselves morph into somehow-legal “anchor babies” (a disparaging term often used by white nationalists) who then are going to go on and magically be citizens who can invite all of their family to come very quickly to invade us all.
You may not be very up on all the immigration laws—they’re really hard to follow, so I get it—but it should not be hard to figure out that the man is making an impossible leap in his logic at this point.
What I see him doing here in his logic is leaping so quickly from associative horn to horn of the horns effect in his audience’s minds that he hopes they won’t pause and notice that it is impossible for migrant adults to actually become legal babies. Even outside of how badly he’s mangling the facts about the immigration system here, it’s key to take a pause and recognize that associational logic—suggesting that if migrants aren’t trustworthy that they’re also doing things that humans can’t literally do.
Making Immigrants into Monsters
At first I thought as though this might be an error, but there’s also another possibility. This argument truly makes migrants not only criminal but truly monstrous—which is a great way to demonize using a mélange of devil terms and horns effects. The rhetoric of conspiracy I studied during my PhD was FULL of such associational leaps.
Also, it’s helpful to note while looking through the piece’s language the way the migrants move from being faceless parts of a “human tragedy” to that the opposition is “lying about” to being traumatized prop-children who need toys being denied by the opposition to being dehumanized people at the whims of the political opposition’s cruelty (and the helplessness of the good border agents, who simply are only doing what they can with these border facilities!).
The “I Love You” Hinge
I don’t think it’s an accident that Dobson has his odd line about him telling them through the translator that God loves him and he does too, and expresses that his heart aches for him, directly before he starts on his rhetoric about the need for a wall.
To me it feels like at least some readers would feel led to led Dobson’s voice be their full feeling that they didn’t look away from concentration camps–but instead let Dobson’s voice and action be their own proxy action, leaving them free to move on to the dehumanization and suspicion portion of the article.
From there Dobson moved into them being deceptive people being told to lie by lawyers in their untrustworthy countries (the suggestion that people at the US southern border might be from Pakistan and Bangladesh is truly striking in this regard!) to being a mix of criminal and monstrous invaders coming to displace existing Americans.
The speed of this danger is emphasized throughout, and the terms illegals and anchor babies don’t come until toward the end, when the audience might have already anticipated them because other halo effects have been gradually replaced by horns effects throughout.
Building From Trusting Compassion to Distrust
As I said, I could go on and on with this, but I’ll stop after just one more set of terms I’m going to layer onto this—and that’s how the question of suspicion frames and the whole movement from god term and halo term to devil terms and horns effects.
It’s really key to look at the fact that Dobson’s shifting narrative about the migrants hinges in pretty much the middle from seeing the migrants as a faceless but needy cause for sympathy to being a pretty shockingly monstrous force by the end of the piece.
Not Just about Distrusting Migrants–Other People Too
It’s important—and helpful—to track this next to how he tells you how other parties are also to be mistrusted, which unwraps other dimensions to how the rhetoric is working in the piece. But most importantly, I think it’s key that this shift is at the center of the piece.
After all, Dobson starts with common ground with the person who sees themselves as the type of person who loves their neighbor as themselves and has the fruits of the Spirit. It’s key to note that he has no compunction also tying into a sort of “Christian Mean” (as opposed to “Christian Nice”) in which he directs ad hominems at all sorts of people.
Early Trust for the Migrant
But he doesn’t start out with this with the migrants, and if he wants to persuade compassionate people to buy into the stuff he is into by the end of the piece, it’s honestly smart to build through all the stages to try to take his more compassionate and reluctant audience members with him–again, right up to the part where he tells the migrants that God loves them and he does too.
Dobson’s Abuse of Little Folksy Asides
He even offers little folksy asides to manage his audience’s potential concerns as he goes (as all writers tend to—but most aren’t trying to demonize vulnerable people, hopefully!!!).
For instance, when he is talking about the family separation process, he very flatly says in language that is eerily evocative of every concentration camp narrative I’ve ever heard that “they are segregated by sex and age and placed in the fenced-in areas to be held for the next 20 days until they are processed.” Just after that, he adds “If that seems inhumane, what would you or I do? There is simply no other place to ‘house’ them.”
Introducing Suspicion and Criminality into the Picture
The scare quotes around housing are key at this point, because Dobson’s rhetoric has already made the turn toward suspecting “these people’s” motives for coming here. He has already moved from suggesting the traumatized children were victims to suggesting that “some of the vulnerable children are ‘recycled’ repeatedly to help men gain entry to this country.”
He went on to say from there that “An unknown number of these men are hardened criminals and drug runners.” These unknown numbers are really powerful, it seems, because they both escape detection and make their way across the border.
In light of all this unhealthy criminalizing rhetoric that paints the children as stooges of adult hardened criminals, it’s perhaps not shocking that Dobson thinks his audience might be ready for these “fake families” to be dehumanizingly separated a few paragraphs later. Especially since the seeming reward for *only* 20 days of age and gender-separated detention is to get to be reborn as citizen anchor babies who can magically invite their real families here right away.
Deep Sigh of Lament.
There is much more to say about this piece, but I hope what I *have* unwrapped using these three sets of terms will be enough to help you understand some of the unhealthy rhetoric about immigration and how it builds gradually throughout Dobson’s piece.
It’s key to be able to trace such movements, and to be able to explain them to others. But most of all, it’s important to look out for the signs of the language that implies devil terms and horns effects that imply untrustworthiness and criminality in vulnerable populations. If you want more details on this, I strongly encourage you to read through the blog series here on devil terms (again, it starts with this piece).
After all, for those of us standing up for the common good and against human rights violations need to be able to identify these kinds of effects as well as how these shifts occur in propaganda pieces if we want to speak up against them. And we really must speak up against them, friends! It is so important that these rhetorical moves not be the only narrative out there! Let’s keep looking back at that article from last week and figuring out however we each individually can not look away wherever we are as we can with what we’ve got!
One Final Note
Feeling like you’re on top of these rhetorical moves but want to figure out how to ethically and courageously speak up when you’re engaging with people who are out to push your buttons? Sign up for our email newsletter in the top bar of this site or by commenting on this article and checking the box, and once you’ve confirmed your email address we’ll send you a link to the “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” in the final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around.
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s keep speaking up as we can, where we are with what we’ve got. Let’s keep working toward a healthier world for us all, especially for immigrants and other vulnerable populations. We can do this thing!