Calling a roach a roach is no insult.
March 7, 2018 7:45 AM   Subscribe

What if we're wrong about dehumanization being the root of cruelty? The thesis that viewing others as objects or animals enables our very worst conduct would seem to explain a great deal. Yet there’s reason to think that it’s almost the opposite of the truth.

[W]hen we’re dealing with another person as a person, we can’t help experiencing such attitudes as admiration and gratitude, resentment and blame. You generally don’t feel this way toward rocks or rodents. Acknowledging the humanity of another, then, has its risks, and these are neatly summarized by Manne, who notes that seeing someone as a person makes it possible for that person to be a true friend or beloved spouse, but it also makes it possible for people to be “an intelligible rival, enemy, usurper, insubordinate, betrayer, etc.”
posted by MiraK (20 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
And a possible counterpoint.
posted by MiraK at 7:48 AM on March 7

Of course bigots don't think the objects of their fear and contempt are actually animals, but they sure don't think those people are quite like "us."
posted by turkeybrain at 8:02 AM on March 7 [2 favorites]

Yes, but the question is if that's actually dehumanization, or if it's just social grouping.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:13 AM on March 7 [4 favorites]

It may be that what we have labelled "dehumanization" is really a sort of mutually-agreed-upon pretending.
posted by Jpfed at 8:14 AM on March 7 [4 favorites]

This doesn't seem that complicated to me. We often dehumanize the other to avoid inflicting pain on ourselves. So, if I'm a slave owner, not seeing the humanity of my "property" protects me from the moral pain of my own actions.

On the other hand, there are some people that enjoy inflicting pain on others. Such folk likely delight in the humanity of their victims; it enhances rather than reduces the pain.
posted by SPrintF at 8:15 AM on March 7 [4 favorites]

Yes, but the question is if that's actually dehumanization, or if it's just social grouping.

It looks like it's the same thing, to the mind that tends toward bigotry.
posted by turkeybrain at 8:18 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]

W]hen we’re dealing with another person as a person, we can’t help experiencing such attitudes as admiration and gratitude, resentment and blame. You generally don’t feel this way toward rocks or rodents..

I am fully capable of expressing and (anthromorphising of course) applying those same traits towards trees, inanimate objects like rocks, and rodents (or more generally animals). Isn't the study of architecture an appreciation of rocks?
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:19 AM on March 7 [6 favorites]

Isn't the study of architecture an appreciation of rocks?

That's an interesting insight. Architecture as exploration of the inanimate. Hmm.
posted by SPrintF at 8:22 AM on March 7 [2 favorites]

I think the author here misses some of the point about objectification/reification. When we 'dehumanize', it isn't that we literally see the dehumanized as not a human being (though sometimes people make that argument, what they always mean is: the slave, the jew, is not *fully* human). They're not seen as some other species, but rather as a defect. But more importantly, it's about the valuation that person is given as a means or as an end. To objectify someone is to see them entirely as subject to external ends, usually your ends. We see them as people, sure, but deny them their humanity insofar as we reject their inner purposiveness. They are means to some end for us: we slaugther them to purify, or we use them to please us, we mock and torture them to amuse ourselves. We can only do that if we have a possess a certain coldness that denies the validity of their own goals and desires (to leave in peace, to be happy and free). A human being is an end in themselves, a thing is a means to an end. To dehumanize is not to say: this person is a rock, but to say, this person is a means to my own ends.
posted by dis_integration at 8:37 AM on March 7 [24 favorites]

It seems as though what's missing from both articles is the addition of the third term fargroup to the ingroup/outgroup binary, where our ingroup is "us," our outgroup is "them" (near our space, but not-us: the rivals, the enemies, the betrayers), and fargroup is... just folks way over there, the set of entities you can afford to regard with a sort of misty, theoretical benevolence because they don't really threaten your space at all.

In the article linked by MiraK, adding a few contacts with Latinos at a train station nudged preferences in favor of restrictive immigration because it moved immigrants from the fargroup into the outgroup. Whereas living in tightly integrated communities moved them one step farther into the ingroup. So it's not a simple dichotomy between humanization and dehumanization, it's a sliding scale of closeness, with an anxious uncanny valley where people become close enough to me to be threatening, but not yet close enough to be allies.

One reason why I think the third term is important is that there's a sort of preening cosmopolitanism that consistently mistakes the easy mental action of assigning a population fargroup status ("I love Thai food and I definitely Facebook-like lots of humanitarian causes in Africa!") with the much more virtuous action of actually accepting those people into one's cheek-by-jowl ingroup. The two might have the same rhetorical features, in that both cases would carefully refuse to adopt language that denigrates the group in question, but they're really different moves, both in moral terms and in terms of the predicted consequences should one group actually come into quasi-competitive contact with the other.

I haven't yet met anyone of any ideological persuasion who didn't have an outgroup (a set of nearby people they hated, feared, stereotyped, actively dehumanized), and unless we actually come into daily contact with a set of people, I honestly can't see how we can tell in advance whether we'd be generous enough to humanize/ingroup them, or not.
posted by Bardolph at 8:39 AM on March 7 [19 favorites]

A week ago, I stood in my kitchen at 2AM looking at a ~3" long American cockroach that had emerged from under the stove. Rather than killing it or trying to put it outside, as I have been on and off for years now, I said, "you are a worthy foe" and went back to bed.

They are very good at what they do.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:41 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]

I think that this is a good article with perhaps too simplistic of an emphasis on dehumanization as the root of cruelty being RIGHT OR WRONG. I think that the point about "dehumanization" that is really humiliation, revenge, etc. is well-argued. But I don't think that this is an either/or proposition with the more literal dehumanization that allows people to justify black slaves as subhuman animals and disliked ethnic groups as vermin.

The limitations of the dehumanization thesis are hardly good news. There has always been something optimistic about the idea that our worst acts of inhumanity are based on confusion. It suggests that we could make the world better simply by having a clearer grasp of reality—by deactivating those brain implants, or their ideological equivalent. The truth may be harder to accept: that our best and our worst tendencies arise precisely from seeing others as human.

See, I was totally with them in this concluding paragraph until the last sentence. It's not "The Truth," "best" and "worst," or "precisely" one thing.
posted by desuetude at 8:59 AM on March 7 [2 favorites]

My pathway to loving other human beings begins with seeing them as animals.

I never have had violent or cruel impulses toward animals, but I have them toward human beings all too often.
posted by jamjam at 10:04 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]

I have often wished I could consistently extend the same compassion and patience to my fellow-humans as I do to dogs. But something in my brain accepts that dogs, even when they are causing the most havoc, are simply acting according to their nature, and not out of malice or laziness, and just will not accept the same thesis for humans. So there's a kernel of a point here, but, yes, I agree the article simplifies "dehumanization" too much.
posted by praemunire at 10:05 AM on March 7

I always defer to The Human League on this.
posted by w0mbat at 10:32 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]

Hitler loved his dogs. Maybe it could be instructive to make a connection between humans and other animals. I've often seen the phrase "unconditional love" proffered as one of the endearing attributes of dogs. But dogs don't give unconditional love. If you brutalize them they'll fear you, and cower in your presence. More so with cats. But dogs can forgive and so can humans. Trust can be reestablished.

It may well be that too much credit is given to "humanizing." It seems to me that humans have an ability to switch off the part of their being that empathizes with other creatures. To be sure our ignorance can be willfully applied, as in when we refuse to see past the end of the cattle prod when we apply it to our future T-bone steaks. We suspend our understanding that cattle can be miserable at our hand. Maybe we can even grow to like watching them twitch. Our dog doesn't really hurt when we beat him. Or, we simply are schooling our children when we beat some sense into them. The beatings will continue until moral improves. Our creativity in this regard seems to be boundless.

What sort of psychological or physiological mechanism kicks in to produce the "other" effect? Is it simply a sliding scale of evil (or sickness) that distinguishes the wife beater from the guy who kicks his dog? Does this topic apply to the soldiers or policemen who make a decision to use deadly force? Can we apply a sliding scale of, let's say, moral turpitude to account for those who like to kick dogs and those who like to stomp bugs? After all, no matter how dim its awareness, each creature is the primary subject in its own universe.

I'm not a vegetarian. One of my ex-wives became one during our marriage. She was fond of telling me that she no longer would eat anything that had a face. I used to taunt her by saying, yeah, me too--I rip that part off. That was a long time ago, and I've since become less inclined to be flip about some things.
posted by mule98J at 11:44 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]

This isn’t quite to vindicate the dehumanization thesis, but rather to situate it in the context of the messy human mind. It appears possible that it is both true that some of our very worst conduct is enabled by our tendency to see others as animals and objects and that this conduct also depends on conceiving of our targets as sharing uniquely human capacities. The apparent tension here dissolves once we recognize the presence of that all-too-human trait: irrationality.

This quote is from the response article, which I think fairly sums up some of what I'm thinking about the first one. Part of what helps some of these people sleep at night is to not view their victims as people, but the most effective tortures are probably those only imagined if you in some way conceive of them as human. But humans, especially in groups, are capable of holding multiple contradictory views towards whatever ends.

The New Yorker article had a particularly interesting point, though, about the way that we dehumanize perpetrators of violence either to justify their treatment (violence in return or punishment at the hands of the state) or to separate them from "normal" people to make violence seem extraordinary rather ordinary, monstrous rather than human.
posted by cui bono at 1:09 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]

Moreover, in being capable of rationality, agency, autonomy, and judgment, they are also someone who could coerce, manipulate, humiliate, or shame you. In being capable of abstract relational thought and congruent moral emotions, they are capable of thinking ill of you and regarding you contemptuously. In being capable of forming complex desires and intentions, they are capable of harboring malice and plotting against you. In being capable of valuing, they may value what you abhor and abhor what you value. They may hence be a threat to all that you cherish.
The Hedgehog's Dilemma.
posted by gucci mane at 7:24 PM on March 7

Count me among those for whom this article kinda misses the point.

I am so grateful to two long-term tendencies in my life — a Zen practice rooted in Taoism, and the past few years a fascination for actor-network theory, object-oriented ontology and related speculative realisms — for helping me understand the entire phenomenal world and everything "in" it as possessing subjectivity and agency.

One concrete outcome of this understanding has been that I now always mentally footnote most appearances of the word "ethics" as meaning "ethics-for-humans." And it seems to me that an abiding feature of most systems of ethics-for-humans is that they conceive of human beings as being apart from, and very definitely above, anything else in the world that might have a claim to subjective consciousness. It is worse to harm a human being, these systems hold, than it is to hurt an animal, or a plant, or an assemblage of insentient matter.

Questions of conscious sadism aside, then — and consistent with the enduring human need to construct one's own self as not merely the story's protagonist, but its actual hero — it's always going to be necessary to first transform those you wish to harm into objects. And I think history bears this out in an abundant amount of detail, as other folks here have mentioned, whether it's the centuries-long history of dehumanizing rhetoric Raul Hilberg adduces in The Destruction of the European Jews, the terrifying descriptions of Tutsi broadcast over the Hutu-controlled Radio Libre des Mille Collines leading up to the Rwandan genocide, the accounts of serial killers, or indeed the continual descriptions of immigrants as a "flood," a "swarm" or even straight-up "cockroaches" in contemporary right-wing discourse.

We have, in other words, such an overwhelming accumulation of evidence that this happens, from various times, places and situations, that I think the empirical case for rhetorical and psychic dehumanization as a necessary step toward/leading indicator of the decision to commit actual physical harm is very, very strong.

So, yeah: it'd be wonderful if we could stop doing that. What would be even more wonderful, though, from my perspective, would be if we could cast a much broader net where questions of sentience and suffering and deservingness are concerned — not merely ensuring that all humans are accorded human privilege, but similarly concerning ourselves with a far vaster constellation of entities with subjectivity and the right to coherence.
posted by adamgreenfield at 2:47 AM on March 8

Fuck, that was longwinded. tl;dr: We should definitely stop treating people like objects, and one way to make progress toward this might be to reconsider the subjectivities and even rights we accord objects.
posted by adamgreenfield at 2:53 AM on March 8

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