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The Dehumanization Debate

Why do people commit acts of cruelty?

Oliver Traldi

Survivors of a bombing during the Siege of Sarajevo (1992–96); Jacky Chapman/Alamy Stock Photo.

Curio · The Hedgehog Review | The Dehumanization Debate

Why do people—social animals that we are—commit acts of cruelty? One proposed answer is “dehumanization”: Perpetrators of acts of violence often perceive or otherwise categorize their victims as lacking in some essential human characteristics. Thus (for instance) the classic use of propaganda, in the run-up to acts of mass terror and genocide, in which members of minority groups are often denigrated as animal pests. The dehumanization construct corresponds, too, with feminist thought that emphasizes “objectification,” since to see a person as an object entails failing to see them as fully human.

But this theory does not satisfy everyone. In her 2016 article “Humanism: A Critique,” feminist philosopher Kate Manne criticized dehumanization theory for overstating the extent to which “recognizing other human beings as such…actually dispose[s] us to treat others decently.” And last year, Harriet Over, a psychologist at the University of York, published a paper titled “Seven Challenges for the Dehumanization Hypothesis,” pointing out (among other things) that the sort of rhetoric associated with “dehumanization” is not univocally negative; that being nonhuman is not always to be at risk of harm (take dogs or pandas); that the “dehumanizers” will often, almost in the same breath, talk about their targets in ways that indicate that they do in fact see them as human; and that certain acts of “dehumanizers,” like torture and humiliation, in fact only make sense if they think of their victims as human.

In On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It, philosopher David Livingstone Smith lays out his particular view of dehumanization and attempts to respond to the critiques of the concept made by scholars like Manne and Over. Smith’s arguments represent an improvement on competing theories of dehumanization. However, they are not sufficient to rescue the theory from the obstacles they are meant to address.

As alluded to above, two broad kinds of dehumanization, animalization and objectification, are attested to in the literature: Smith focuses on the former. There are two ways in which such dehumanization might occur, he writes. One might treat others as less than human, or one might see others as less than human. Smith is concerned about ways in which we might see others as less than human. This is the right concern to have. To say that we sometimes treat others as less than human is just another way of saying that we sometimes treat others very poorly, and that is the phenomenon that dehumanization theory seeks to explain, not the means by which it could explain it.

How does Smith do at responding to Over’s challenges? The first one he manages ably. First, the negative aspect of most of the animal comparisons evoked by dehumanizing rhetoric is obvious from their context. Further, dehumanization theorists needn’t say that dehumanizing rhetoric alone causes people to associate minority groups with nonhuman creatures. They can say instead that it is dehumanizing rhetoric in combination with some sort of motivation, perhaps financial or political, that renders the associations actually dehumanizing. For Smith, dehumanizing ideologies are “reproduced because they promote the oppression of some group of people while benefiting another group. Ideologies are for oppression.” That is, ideologies have a function. If some piece of rhetoric doesn't serve this function, dehumanization theory need not imply that that piece of rhetoric will end up actually dehumanizing anybody.

Smith’s reply to the other kinds of challenges, about the fact that the way dehumanizers speak and act seems to indicate that they do think of their victims as human, is much less satisfying. Smith accepts that the “dehumanizers” still think of their victims as human. He simply says that, simultaneously, they think of their victims at not human: “The thing is that people can believe a contradiction. Of course, it’s logically true that a statement and its opposite can’t both be true, but human psychology can’t be squeezed into the rigid rules of logic.” However, the problem with the “believing a contradiction” solution to Over’s challenges is not that it’s impossible, but that it doesn’t fit with the theory of dehumanization as Smith has developed it. Recall that the theory of dehumanization is supposed to explain why we, naturally very social beings, can commit such heinous acts against each other. Smith writes that dehumanization removes inhibitions: “Our inhibition against killing other human beings gets switched on automatically when we recognize another person as a human being. And when this mechanism gets overridden, dampened down, or switched off entirely—whether by dehumanization or some other process—this clears the way for viciously destructive moral fury.” But if we never stop recognizing the other person as a human being, then by Smith’s lights the inhibition should never turn off. It’s Smith who seems to end up stuck believing a contradiction.

There are other aspects of Smith’s development of dehumanization theory that don’t fare so well. These other problems center on Smith’s opposition to the existence of a stable idea of what it is to be human, and his opposition to there actually being anything important at stake in being human. He writes that “to resist dehumanization, it’s important to resist, and help others to resist, the fantasy that we are objectively ‘higher’ than those plants and animals whose lives we take.” The plants? If I really thought that it was an illusion that human lives were more valuable than the lives of plants, I don’t think I’d write about dehumanization at all. I’d probably write something like For Goodness’ Sake, Please Stop Mowing Your Lawn!

Smith doesn’t think there is any real fact of the matter about who is human and who isn’t. He writes that “the category of the human is a social construction,” continuing, “Anthropologists [have] noticed that there are many cultures in many different parts of the world that refer to themselves and only themselves as ‘the human beings’ or ‘the real human beings.’ As the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss put it in an often-quoted passage, “‘Humanity is confined to the borders of the tribe, the linguistic group, or even, in some instances, to the village.’” But if this is correct, then much of the elaborate machinery of dehumanization theory—its focus on propaganda and rhetoric and on certain unconscious psychological mechanisms—is unnecessary. Smith writes elsewhere that “there’s no reason to think” that “we are natural-born dehumanizers.” But this just isn’t consistent with his invocation of anthropology and the idea of social construction. If it is natural for a culture to think of outsiders as not human, then we are natural-born dehumanizers. If it is not natural, then Smith’s argument from anthropology that “the category of the human is a social construction” falls apart.

Even Smith himself seems to fall into the trap of “dehumanizing the dehumanizers.” He cites British psychoanalyst Roger Money-Kyrle, who wrote of Hitler’s rallies, “The people seemed gradually to lose their individuality and to become fused into a not very intelligent but immensely powerful monster.” Either the citation is misguided or “dehumanization” must sometimes be reasonable.

Why does all of this matter? The dehumanization debate fits into a broader context about the relationship between human rationality, or irrationality, and politics. The sorts of examples drawn on by dehumanization theorists, and the lessons they take from these examples, are also found in recent scholarship on propaganda, rhetoric, and ideology. All of this work takes for granted that the contents and processes of our own minds are foreign to us. Smith writes, “Rather than overtly referring to a group of people as animals or monsters, [propagandists] describe them in ways that evoke these images in the minds of their listeners.… Nudge listeners in that direction by using the right sort of evocative language and they’ll connect the dots all by themselves. They’ll form an image of the targets of this rhetoric as subhuman creatures, sometimes without even realizing that they are doing so, without the speaker ever having uttered an animalistic slur. And the purveyor of dehumanizing speech has plausible deniability on his side. He can say that he had no such thing in mind.” This gives us a picture of human thought as something like a Rube Goldberg machine, full of little gadgets that the clever dehumanizer can take advantage of, rather than a vehicle, transparent to introspection, by which reasoners try to get to the truth. To a certain degree, the theorists of propaganda, rhetoric, and ideology find common cause with theorists of “cognitive biases” like Jonathan Haidt, who hold that our instincts for tribalism, as well as evolved features of our cognition like the propensities for motivated reasoning and confirmation bias, make us especially poor and manipulable reasoners when it comes to political matters.

Philosophers have recently contested this kind of picture in two very different ways. One of these we might call pessimistic, the other optimistic. One kind of pessimist argument against propaganda contends not that ordinary people are rational and good but that they are rational and often quite bad: that they aren’t being tricked by master manipulators but that, rather, they are “in on it” with the propagandists and rhetoricians, and that they consciously participate in dehumanization and other oppressive projects in order to further their own interests. Cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier says something along these lines in his book Not Born Yesterday. Another kind of pessimist simply argues that individuals’ beliefs are not important factors in political outcomes: They refuse to, in the words of Georgetown University philosophy professor Olúfémi Táíwò, “grant explanatory relevance to…mental representations.”

The optimist, on the other hand, thinks that human rationality is capable of seeing the intentions behind propaganda and that people generally do want to do the right thing politically, not just further their own interests. This position is represented by a professor of philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, Kevin Dorst, whose essay “A Plea for Political Empathy” asks us to question “irrationalist narratives about human nature.”

I’m excited about the optimists’ project. But the real difficulty facing them is to explain precisely the sorts of phenomena Smith is concerned with in his book. Human history is rife with examples of people doing horrible things to their political enemies, as well as to members of other ethnic groups and socioeconomic classes. These people must have been making some sort of mistake. Perhaps, as the irrationalists would have it, they got something wrong—they made a mistake about how the world was. Or perhaps, as the pessimists would have it, they did something wrong—they knew how the world was and chose to commit horrible acts anyway. Or maybe it was both.

While On Inhumanity doesn’t vindicate the theory of dehumanization against the powerful objections raised against it, it does remind us eloquently just how difficult it is to retain an optimistic view of the human being as a political animal in full light of the history of our species.