Language, dehumanisation, rehumanisation

Wednesday April 25th 19.00-21.00

Litteraturhuset, Wergelandsveien 29, 0167, Oslo

A limited number of tickets are available via Picatic until April 24th 2018 – registration may close earlier if the event fills up before this date. Please note that the tickets are non-refundable. This event will be in English.

Ethno-nationalism is on the rise in today’s world, largely driven by politicians and the media. Othering is based on the conscious or unconscious assumption that a certain identified group poses a threat to the favoured group.

Human attributes such as race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, language, gender or sexual orientation are made salient, and are manipulated to dehumanise groups and categories of people. Dehumanisation can take the form of demonising certain ‘others’ (Livingstone Smith 2011), or that of making them invisible – indistinct elements of a mass, devoid of subjectivity (Auestad 2015).

Trump’s language and rhetoric has begun to both define and normalise dehumanisation. When Mexicans can be called “rapists and drug dealers”, calling for their deportation becomes a much easier step, and for the building of a wall to divide people. After the Portland stabbings, in response to a horrific and high-profile hate crime, the US president said absolutely nothing for three whole days, before finally offering a condemnation so half-hearted that many white supremacists assumed it came with a wink and a nod.

A UN report, published by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, concluded in 2015 that the Norwegian authorities are doing too little to combat the threat of racism and far-right extremist violence. The report states that Norway has failed to take the connection between right-wing extremist violence and hate speech seriously enough. This situation still prevails, one in which racist and islamophobic hate speech proliferates and has been normalised by politicians, intellectuals and journalists. Thus Victor Klemperer’s modern classic feels relevant once more in its call for increased and constant vigilance about language: wherever the machinery of atrocity is in motion, the misuse of language will be supporting it: “But it’s not simply that language composes poetry and thinks for me, it also drives my feelings, it directs my entire spiritual being, the more self-evidently, the more unconsciously I give myself up to it. So what happens when the language of the educated is composed of poisonous elements, or bears poisons? Words may be little doses of arsenic: they are consumed without being noticed; they seem at first to have no effect, but after a while, indeed, the effect is there (Klemperer 2000).”

The political and habitual use of language to shapes how we think, or fail to think, of human dignity. We will focus on the contemporary relevance of this issue in short talks followed by a general discussion.


Auestad, L. (2015) Respect, Plurality, and Prejudice. London: Karnac.

Klemperer, V. (2000, first published 1957) The Language of the Third Reich. London: Bloomsbury.

Livingstone Smith, D. (2011) Less than Human. New York: St Martin’s Griffin.

UN (2015) Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination considers the report of Norway, Aug. 18th

About the speakers:

Lene Auestad (PhD in Philosophy from the University of Oslo) writes and lectures internationally on ethics, critical theory and psychoanalysis. Books include Respect, Plurality, and Prejudice: A Psychoanalytical and Philosophical Enquiry into the Dynamics of Social Exclusion and Discrimination, Karnac, 2015 and Shared Traumas, Silent Loss, Public and Private Mourning, Karnac, 2017.

Yacoub Cissé is an author who has written about black presence, racism and identity. He has published the book Afrikanere i Norge gjennom 400 år (Africans in Norway through 400 years) with Ann Falahat. He has also contributed with a chapter in the book Les Africains et leurs descendants en Europe (Dieuddonne Gnammankou and Yao Modzinou Eds).

Camara Lundestad Joof is a Norwegian/Gambian documentary performance artist and playwright. Her political and artistic work focuses mainly on decolonization, intersectionality and norm critique. She is currently a house playwright at Dramatikkens Hus in Oslo.