Some time ago, my brother and I were visiting our ailing grandmother at a Toronto hospital. She was put in a room on the main floor which contained about five beds, each separated by privacy curtains. There was only one other patient in the room, on the bed next to hers, and I caught a glance of him as I entered the room. He was a teenager, tattoos covered his arms, he was dressed basically in rags, had long hair and was ridden with grime. He looked catatonic. I took no further notice of him.

While conversing with my grandmother, I overheard a quiet conversation between a doctor and a nurse at the doorway. The nurse was explaining to the doctor that the person next to my grandmother had overdosed. The doctor gave some instructions and ended with, “After that, get this thing outta here.”

I was more astonished than disturbed. The vehemence in his tone took me aback. Here was a man of medicine, with a duty to recognize the dignity of the patient, uttering words that turned the patient into an inanimate object. Soon after, my grandmother asked me some questions, and I was temporarily distracted. I had, however, convinced myself to confront this doctor – charitably, of course. Unfortunately, he disappeared quickly into the hall.

So, once again I was placed in a dilemma where I could not express my views and instead had to wage an internal mental argument. It began on the drive home from the hospital. Had this doctor considered that the patient was in his condition because, perhaps, he lacked a good family life? Who were his friends? Did he even have any? Was there anyone to guide him in times of crisis? Was he ridiculed because of his appearance?

While I was still being cognizant of the need for personal responsibility, I asked: were opportunities (educational and employment-wise) made inaccessible to him? Could not the cumulative effects of these finally led this person to drug use? Might they have led him to a hospital room where he lay alone, unwanted, mostly unloved and in despair, there only to have scorn poured upon him by some unsympathetic doctor?

I am no bleeding-heart liberal and fully understand that doctors have stressful lives, and that they must undergo many years of rigorous training to qualify for their vocation. As such, they deserve a special honour in society. Certainly, most physicians are unlike the one I have just discussed. It could also be that this particular doctor was having an especially troublesome day when I happened to hear his comment. Still, this does not excuse his vicious words.

True, the practitioner must work in a disinterested fashion to objectively provide an exact diagnosis. As a physician, and thus a scientist, he must distance himself from emotional involvement to properly assess the malady in question. But one must never forget that a patient is a person with dignity and inalienable rights. Nor must one let the social status or even the physical appearance of the patient, irrespective of how repellent it may be, interfere with his work. Neither must these pre-determine the quality of care administered.

I have gone through all of this to underscore two points. First, the situation between the patient and doctor just described epitomizes contemporary society’s apathy, if not disdain, for the lowly and weak. The young person I saw in the hospital, in a very vulnerable state and oblivious of the doctor’s comments, was, due to his drug-induced paralysis, referred to as if he was a piece of refuse. Indifferent was this doctor to the pain and distress that this person most likely underwent.

In my view, it appeared that right reason was momentarily discounted by the doctor. Respect was due to his patient. He failed to make a distinction between the person and the actions, wrong as they were, which led the teenager to overdose on drugs. Hence the doctor did not acknowledge the pain and suffering of his patient – the very things that he as a physician was obliged to alleviate. But pain and suffering must be affirmed, not denied, and an unequivocal “yes” must be resounded for each and every human life.

Second, I want to show that the danger associated with using language in a manner the doctor did works only to dehumanize the most vulnerable persons in society, be they children in the womb, individuals suffering from a debilitating affliction such as Down syndrome, or the elderly enduring cancer. To dehumanize someone, a devaluing form of language must be utilized to disconnect the person from any intrinsic worth. Given a conductive amoral circumstance, now more ominous in our relativistic culture, a person is later determined to be merely a physical entity, a crass quantity, a statistic. Afterwards, “this thing” can further be translated into an “animal,” a “parasite,” a “nonperson” or a waste product.

After such linguistic characterizations come into commonplace usage, it is then an informal task to dispense with or eliminate “unwanted” persons from view. In the past, as with Hitler and Stalin, the murder of innocents was accomplished by wide-open and uninhibited means. Today, the situation – no less evil and violent – is only more polite, subdued. But mostly, it is private. It is very quiet inside the abortuary and Jack Kevorkian probably rents secret hotel rooms to commit his malevolent deeds.

On the subject of linguistic dehumanization, I recommend William Brennan’s bookDehumanizing the Vulnerable, an indispensable compilation of statements by prominent persons who attempt to nullify the incalculable value of the human person.

I also highly recommend this book to the doctor who provoked me to write this article.