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The Denial of Dehumanization
Some researchers claim that dehumanization is not real, but we deny its reality at our peril
In an interview with journalist and co-founder of the far-right website Counter-Currents, Michael Polignano reported in the Guardian last week, Polignano described himself as “part of this whole antisemitic right that’s where you see Jews as this alien race … as less than human and just kind of different creatures from humanity.”
It’s reasonable to assume that Polignano’s remarks expressed belief that Jews are less than human. They weren’t just words. They expressed something deeper—the belief that Jews are subhuman creatures in human form. If Polignano’s comments were just words—just a way of denigrating Jews—then although they would still be vile, I wouldn’t consider them to indicate dehumanization. That’s because on my account, when people dehumanize others, they actually conceive of them as subhuman beings. Sure, these others might resemble human beings, but this is a facade; they are subhuman entities to be exploited, despised, enslaved, segregated, incarcerated, or exterminated.
Historical resources unequivocally support the reality of dehumanization. Over the centuries and all over the world, people have thought of others as less than human.
Some scholars are skeptical. They think that something very different is going on when people seem to be dehumanizing others. Such critics (for example, Cornell university philosopher Kate Manne) argue that dehumanizing rhetoric is nothing more than an attempt to denigrate others. In contrast, I think that in cases of dehumanization, the dehumanizer actually conceives of the other as subhuman. In other words, it’s not just words.
Dehumanization skeptics think that the very act of characterizing others as “animals,” “lice,” “cockroaches,” “apes” etc. presupposes their humanity. After all, we never say “You’re a filthy rat,” to a rat. So, when people target others with this sort of language, it’s not because they believe that they are rats. Rather, it’s because calling a human being a rat is a way of degrading that person. As Manne puts it in her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny:
“One simple point is that dehumanizing speech can function to intimidate, insult, demean, belittle, and so on…since it helps itself to certain powerfully encoded social meanings. And that human beings are widely (if erroneously) held to be superior to nonhuman animals, denying someone’s humanity can server as a particularly humiliating kind of put-down. When a white police officer in Ferguson called a group of black political protesters ‘fucking animals’… he was using this trope to demean and degrade the protesters and reassert his own dominance.”
To be sure, critics like Manne have got something right. It’s all-too-easy to attribute dehumanizing attitudes to others promiscuously. Epithets like “cockroach” and “rat” are often used in exactly the manner described by Manne—as a means of humiliating and denigrating others. But the fact that people sometimes use animalistic slurs as rhetorical weapons isn’t enough license the conclusion that dehumanization is therefore a myth.
There are two other considerations that lead the skeptics to deny the reality of dehumanization. One is the fact that dehumanization is very strange. How is it even possible to think that other humans are really subhuman creatures? The very question boggles the mind. Dehumanization is so strange that it’s tempting to assume that it can’t be or is extremely unlikely to be real, and that we should instead prefer a simpler, more down-to-earth, explanation.
This isn’t unreasonable. After all, it’s a methodological rule in science, as in all other forms of systematic enquiry, that simpler explanations are better than more complicated ones. Aristotle expressed this principle of parsimony over two thousand years ago,"We may assume the superiority, other things being equal, of the demonstration which derives from fewer postulates or hypotheses." But notice the key phrase “other things being equal.” The idea is that when confronted with two equally powerful explanations, we should choose the simpler one.
The problem is that the two candidate explanations are not always equally powerful. Sometimes interpreting dehumanizing speech as reflecting an underlying belief in others’ subhumanity is far more plausible than interpreting it as nothing more than a slur. Polignano’s remark quoted above seems to fall into that category. He seems to be making the claim, intended to be taken quite literally, that Jews are an alien, subhuman species.
I have documented many such examples in my three books on dehumanization. When the 13th century bishop Peter the Venerable opined “Really I doubt whether a Jew can be human….” he meant it. When physician-ethnologist Josiah Nott wrote in the 1850 tome Types of Mankind, that “The horse, the ass, the zebra, and the quagga, are distinct species and distinct types: and so with the Jew, the Teuton, the Sclavonian, the Mongol, the Australian, the coast Negro, the Hottentot….”, he meant it too. In an 1854 speech, Frederick Douglass stated, “The first general claim that may here be set up respects the manhood of the Negro,” which, he said “is fiercely opposed.” Douglass went on to cite an article from the Richmond Examiner which claimed that although even poor Whites possess the inalienable right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, “the Negro has no such right—BECAUSE HE IS NOT A MAN!” Lydia Maria Child began chapter six of her 1833 abolitionist book An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans with the words, “In order to decide what is our duty concerning the Africans and their descendants, we must first clearly make up our minds whether they are, or are not, human beings….”
Another argument fueling the skeptical position is what I call the Argument from Humanity. Its point of departure is the observation that people who ostensibly dehumanize others seem to also recognize that they are human. Sometimes this is implicit, as when dehumanized people are described as “criminals” (only human beings can be criminals). But it is often explicit, as when the philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel described the African as an “animal man,” a man who exists “in a state of animality.”
One of my favorite examples comes from the testimony of a woman named Maria, who took part in a pogrom against Roma people in the Romanian town of Hadareni in 1993. Flip-flopping between referring to the victims as human and as subhuman, she told a reporter from the British Independent newspaper:
“On reflection, though, it would have been better if we had burnt more of the people, not just the houses'….'We did not commit murder - how could you call killing Gypsies murder? Gypsies are not really people, you see. They are always killing each other. They are criminals, sub-human, vermin. And they are certainly not wanted here.’’
Notice how Maria first refers to the Roma as people, next claims that they are not people, and then calls them criminals (a term reserved for people), before claiming that they are subhuman vermin. This alternation between human and subhuman is typical of dehumanizing discourse.
Here’s how I set out the Argument from Humanity in my book On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It.
“The argument is based on the principle that people can’t believe contradictions. For example, try as you might, you can’t believe both that someone is more than six feet tall and that they’re less than six feet tall. Your mind just won’t play ball with this. So, when people like Goebbels say that certain other people…are subhuman, and they also say, or at least imply, that the very same people are human beings, it can’t be that they believe both statements. It must be that they believe one of them but not the other. But which one do they believe? It’s most straightforward to suppose that when Goebbels talked about Jews as human he meant that literally, but when he called them animals he was expressing his contempt and hatred of them.”
“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. People believe in contradictions a lot. Sometimes it’s because they don’t notice they believe two things that both can’t be true. For example, a person might be opposed to abortion on the grounds that it’s morally wrong to take innocent human lives, and yet support a war that’s certain to result in children’s deaths. Sometimes, when people see that they’re committed to contradictory positions, they decide to let go of one of them. But sometimes they can’t let go of either of them, because both seem to be equally true. They manage to live with the contradiction.”
I have argued at length in my book Making Monsters that when people dehumanize others, they see them as both human and subhuman. I don’t mean partially human and partially subhuman, like the mythical centaur. I mean totally human and totally subhuman. As I explain in the book, this fact, and its psychological ramifications, provides an indispensable key for making sense of the distinctive phenomenology of dehumanization, including why it is that dehumanization underwrites such extreme cruelty and violence.
Dehumanization is bound up with the most ghastly atrocities that human beings have perpetrated against one another. That does not mean that we should not take a critical stance towards the research literature. Of course we should! The psychologist Harriet Over has incisively diagnosed methodological shortcomings in the social psychological literature (see here and here). I’ve also contributed to the critical literature (here and here).
It can’t be ruled out future research and better arguments may demonstrate that the very notion of dehumanization is flawed and should be abandoned. That’s how science works. But it’s precisely because the stakes are so high that we must make every effort to unravel the nature and causes of dehumanization, rather than denying its reality.