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Art Against Dehumanization
A Call to Arms
A few days ago, I woke up to some news that delighted me. The band Metal Church had released a song with the same title as my most recent book, Making Monsters. Scrolling down the article, I found that this was more than a happy coincidence. Quoting the band’s vocalist Marc Lopes, it stated that the song is
Just a dark, creepy, heavy ass driving tune that is lyrically based from the book Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization by David Livingstone Smith – a truly terrifying read. It’s based on actual real-life research. The dehumanizing of others that transforms them into something so terrifying that they must be destroyed. Deep, philosophical and psychological stuff here, just another day in my train of thought.
This was a dream come true for me. I write about dehumanization because I want to change the world. I want to wake people up not only to the atrocities that are unfolding today in Ukraine, Ethiopia, and other places, but also to prepare humanity for the horrific social and political consequences of climate change that are just over the horizon. Artists are, I believe, the chief agents of social change, so I have for a long time wanted artists—be they musicians, playwrights, graphic artists, or others—to support the cause of drawing attention to the dangers of dehumanization.
Historically, art has served the dehumanizers more than the victims of dehumanization. During the middle ages, dehumanizing representations of Jews were proliferated through passion plays picturing Jews as evil, and iconic emblems such as the Judensau or “Jew-pig” that decorated churches and public buildings. These images were of creatures with pigs’ bodies and heads, or Jewish people sucking the teats of a sow. Sometimes, they depicted a Jew copulating with the pig, eating its feces, drinking its urine, or caressing its rectum. Sometimes, Satan is also in attendance. By the seventeenth century, these images had become a popular topic in broadsheets and pamphlets, often accompanied by the caption “sauff du die milch friß du den dreck, das ist doch euer bestes geschleck” (“You guzzle down the milk and you devour the filth, this is after all your favorite dish”).
Centuries later, artists served the cause of White supremacy in song, performance, and image. One of the best examples is the 1915 blockbuster movie The Birth of a Nation, which inspired the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. Artistically, it was a masterpiece that took cinematography to a new level. But it was also a vile and toxic creation, presenting Black men as grotesque, primitive, monstrous beings.
Decades later, the Nazis used visual art, including cinema and illustrations to promote the dehumanization of Jewish people.
That was then, and now is now. Art can be a vital tool for opposing the powerful dehumanizing currents that are rampant in the world. Because of its influence, art is uniquely significant in this struggle. Artists, please embrace this historic role, and join me in pushing back against those that would have us see others as less than human. I need you as allies!