Human, Subhuman, or Both?

13 December 2019

I’ve been researching and writing about dehumanization for the past ten years or so. During this time, I’ve argued that people dehumanize others by conceiving of them as less-than-human beings—in a literal rather than a figurative sense. Some scholars are skeptical of my claim, and hold that dehumanization, as I’ve described it, doesn’t exist. One important reason for their skepticism has to do with a seeming contradiction. Those who describe others as less than human also implicitly (or even explicitly) acknowledge their victims’ humanity. The skeptics conclude that these people don’t really think of these others as subhuman animals, and that they’re really just trying to degrade or humiliate the targeted group of human beings by characterizing them as inferior, subhuman entities.

This position is nowadays associated with the work of Cornell University philosopher Kate Manne (see her 2018 book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny), but it’s actually been around for a long time. The eminent historian of racism Winthrop D. Jordan devoted a whole section of his 1968 book White Over Black to an account of Europeans’ descriptions of Africans as soulless, subhuman brutes, but then concluded that “American colonials no more thought Negroes were beasts than did European scientists and missionaries” because: 

Even in the plantations, the Negro walked and hoed and talked and propagated like other men. No matter how much slavery degraded the Negro, every daily event in the lives and relationships of Negros and white men indicated undeniably that the Negro was a human being.

There’s so much historical evidence that many Whites thought of Black people as subhuman that Jordan had a hard time upholding his own skeptical position. We see this in his statement that “the discouragingly expensive mortality among the Negroes, especially in the West Indies and also in the rice swamps in South Carolina, tended to make Negroes seem almost non-human,” and: 

The cruelties of slavery inevitably produced a sense of disassociation. To the horrified witness of a scene of torture, the victim becomes a “poor devil,” a “mangled creature.” He is no longer a man. He can no longer be human because to credit him with one’s own human attributes would be too horrible.

Here’s the problem. On one hand, there’s evidence that slaveholders accepted that Black people were human beings, but on the other there is evidence that the very same people believed that Black people are subhuman. Faced with this contradiction, it’s tempting to conclude that Whites didn’t truly believe that Blacks were subhuman, and that that the women and men who described Black people as less than human couldn’t have meant this literally. 

Although this conclusion might seem solid, it’s based on a shaky foundation. In the realm of pure logic, a proposition and its opposite can’t both be true. Logically speaking, nobody can be both human and subhuman, because each of these conditions rules the other one out. But dehumanization isn’t logical. It’s psychological. And human psychology is riddled with contradictions. Trying to squeeze facts about human psychology into the rigid framework of logic does violence to our understanding of ourselves and gets in the way of coming to grips with some of the most destructive features of human life—including (but not limited to) dehumanization.

It’s a fact that dehumanizers acknowledge the humanness of those whom they dehumanize. And we can use this insight to deepen our understanding of the dehumanizing process. Yale University historian David Brion Davis was on the right track when he argued in his 2014 book The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation that Whites were in a contradictory state of mind when they dehumanized Blacks. “Since the victims of this process are perceived as ‘animalized humans,’” he wrote, “this double consciousness would probably involve a contradictory shifting back and forth in the recognition of humanity.” It’s quite common to find racist writers of the past referring to Black people both as men and as beasts, sometimes in the space of a single sentence (for example, Hegel’s characterization of the African as an “animal man,” a man who exists “in a state of animality”).

The same contradictory attitude is plain to see more recent outbreaks of dehumanization. In 1993 residents of the Romanian town of Hadereni attacked Roma residents. A mob of around five hundred people burned down thirteen houses, clubbed a Roma man to death and burned two other men alive. A woman named Maria, who proudly took part in the pogrom, told a reporter from the British newspaper The Independent: “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.” Notice how Maria swings back and forth between characterizing Roma as human and characterizing them as subhuman. First, she refers to them as “people” and then says that they’re “not really people.” Next, she calls them “criminals”—a term that’s reserved for humans, but follows this with the claim that they’re “sub-human, vermin.” We can see the same pattern in Donald Trump’s remark about MS-13 gang members that “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.” 


As insightful as Davis’ position is, I think that he still concedes too much to human rationality. He describes dehumanizers as alternating between conceiving of others as human and conceiving of them as subhuman, but there are good reasons to think that dehumanizers think of those whom they dehumanize as simultaneously human and subhuman. This is blatantly irrational, but crucial for understanding how dehumanization works. I’ll explain why in next month’s installment.



Image by Shaun Finn from Pixabay

Comments (2)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, December 16, 2019 -- 3:26 AM



This is fantastic! I can't wait. If I thought you would answer I'd tear it to shreds, and try to take it apart.

Instead I will wait to see where you go. But I have shredding in mind and history to garner for the shredding.

Instead I would share a bit of life I lived not too far back on a social media called 'Nextdoor'. This is one of my favorite repositories of human thought, next to Reddit - which is also fair game for my philosophizing.

Some gentleman took it upon himself to unzip and pee all over a public street. I have the social media to prove it happened because the person was so so utterly dehumanized as to have his picture posted on Nextdoor - which is a 'social' media that defies sociality routinely and with bald faced ignorance of what it is to be human or social at least. Before, if ever, I divulge the origin of this pee let me assure you it was not me.

The story is in the telling... I'm not sure I can get this out here... but your essay has brought about a cascade of thought this media has been hatching for so so long. I think you are on to something here that is going to be epic. Please don't go wrong in your explanation.

I love this essay.

There is no greater story of dehumanization than the expedience-cum-deterrence transition of the severance of children from their mothers at the TexasNewMexicoArizonaCalifornia border that is glibly summarized by the transition of Obama Trump. I would offer another hateful image in the treatment of the homeless.

You have chosen to put a cockroach on a bed of ants at your post head. Why did Kafka write Gregor just so? Disgust is a human thing or no?

Slavery is the pit. Let's root that out... but animals are the brunt clear and present victims of a deeper atrocity that will boil our children's children's blood.

This essay is fantastic. I love it. Have I said it already.

Go on...

Dear Reader - David is no relation.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, December 20, 2019 -- 12:28 PM

This is pretty illustrative

This is pretty illustrative of the sorts of things Pinker wrote about in his THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE, in which he made his case for claiming violence has diminished over the centuries. We all have the capacity for human, inhuman and subhuman behaviors. Whether there is truly a distinction between inhuman and subhuman is a matter for argument between/among sociologists, psychoanalysts and linguistics experts. It really depends on what kind of mood one is in on a given day, during a given year or during a given century. If some cro-magnon troll steals the BMW, or better, the Mclaren Speedtail, things could get pretty ugly pretty fast. That is just how we are.