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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.

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.

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