When I was in high school, a group of religious fanatics started a rumour that a certain girl was a devil’s agent. They called her “Queen of the Coast”, a shape shifter who sucked blood and stole souls. Her roommates left.
Students cleared the path and whispered as she passed by. She was alone and friendless. One day she broke down and called her mother.
Her mother came rushing like a raging fire. A school assembly was called.
Her roommates were forced back into their beds. A punishment was pronounced on anyone who was caught talking about the girl. The rumour died down. The girl began to enjoy the normal life of a fifteen-year-old again.
This is how normalization works. A person filled with hatred for a certain ethnic group which we shall call the Midu makes a biased statement: “Those Midu people are nothing but snakes.” Someone hears it and repeats it to another. It then spreads among a few groups of people and when no one stops it, it spreads to a mass population.
It is now in homes, schools, churches, and government buildings. An employee complaining to his wife about his Midu boss refers to him as a snake. His child hears it and one day during a schoolyard fight with his Midu friend, he calls him a snake. It becomes the norm.
The Midu people are now unofficially but popularly known as snakes. They start suffering discrimination in ‘small’ proportions. No one pays much attention.
Teenagers start bullying Midus at their schools, writing “snake” in their books and hissing at them as they pass by.
A Midu woman goes to fetch water and someone pierces her jerry can with a thorn.
A Midu university student angers his roommate and the roommate calls his friends to “come and help me beat a snake.” They beat him within an inch of his life.
One day, someone says: “We should completely eliminate the snakes.” And so it begins; a mass murder of innocent civilians by their neighbours, spouses and friends. Outsiders stand by, shocked at the callousness with which human life is being taken.
But this is the power of normalization. When it becomes normal to call a person or group of people snakes, cockroaches, it becomes normal to dehumanize them. And as the sacred face of humanity is stripped away, the moral integrity and responsibility to respect, preserve and protect their life also diminishes.
They become animals, things that can be eliminated without remorse.
The good thing about the power of normalisation is that it can also be harnessed for the greater good. Children can be taught right from the start to value character over ethnicity.
They can be taught that the normal thing to do is to treat everyone with respect and to avoid discrimination. A country can outlaw discriminatory statements and identification because it is already specific enough to say that you’re Rwandan.