People tend to treat other people who differ from them, even in seemingly small and insignificant ways, as less than fully human.
This week we're thinking about Humanity Violated -- the tendency of some people to think of other people as less than fully human. Humans do that to each other way too often. Nazis despised their Jewish victims as little better than diseased rats that deserved to be eliminated for the public good. Slave-owners saw their slaves as little better than pack animals.
Of course, maybe we should avoid over-generalizing. Nazis and slaveholders were uniquely evil. Most people wouldn’t go nearly that far. That said, the tendency is more widespread than we think. Rush Limbaugh called the prisoners humiliated by the U.S. military at Abu Gharib as quote, “subhuman”. Michael Savage called them “vermin”. Neal Boortz called Islam “a deadly virus.” And Maureen Dowd said that Muslim terrorists “replicate and come at us like cockroaches.”
Do we really think Dowd or Limbaugh meant those words literally? After all, they’re not ignorant or uneducated. They know that, biologically speaking, human beings constitute a single species. Surely they know that biological or ethnic differences between different groups of people are superficial and morally insignificant. Maybe they just got carried away with distasteful and repugnant metaphors.
But then take Thomas Jefferson. He famously said that all men are created equal. So how do you explain his slaves toiling away in the fields like animals? I think Stephen Douglas got it right in his debates with Abraham Lincoln. He claimed that Jefferson and the founding fathers weren't refering to what he called quote, “inferior or degraded races”. Douglas is denying that the founding fathers saw black slaves as fully and equally human.
You could say that was just false consciousness. All you have to do is open your eyes. You'll immediately see that other human beings are just that -- other human beings. They aren’t Martians or monkeys or pack animals. They speak. They feel pain. They reason. They love. They hope. Humanity is pretty hard to miss.
But it's not hard to miss if you start out thinking of others as snakes, parasites, or leeches, the way Hitler did with the Jews in his book, Mein Kampf. Even if Hitler was just using pernicious metaphors, they proved to be pretty dangerous. Look where that supposedly “metaphorical” thinking led to.
Where would such ideas come from? Given that humans are in fact a single species, why do some people think of groups of other people -- whether literally or figuratively -- as not quite fully human?
If we're wondering whether we’re the only animal that does this sort of thing, that's hard to say. We do know that fighting amongst groups of the same species is fairly widespread, from ants to chimpanzees. The question is whether fighting chimps … “de-chimpanzee-nize” each other, for lack of a better word.
My guess is the ability to make morally-based discriminations among the members of one’s own species is another one of humankind’s great accomplishments. It’s enabled us to far outstrip more primitive creatures when it comes to hate and cruelty. So if genuine biology provides no basis for our dehumanizing theories, do we just make them up?
Consider religion. We start with God, then the angels; humans are third in line as to perfection, but then some of us somehow or another fell off even that perch. Now obviously not every de-humanizer is a religious believer. There’s always science -- or better, pseudo-science. Genuine evolutionary theory teaches that all humans are a single highly evolved species. But that leaves the door open for pseudo-scientific racists to hypothesize that certain humans belong to certain less evolved, more animal-like subspecies.
This can be depressing stuff. I don’t want to believe that our tendency to dehumanize is inevitable. I’d like to believe that through education and just more people to people contact, we might put an end to it. I don’t want to believe that the urge to dehumanize the other is so deep in our psyches that it can never be changed. Presumably our guest, David Livingstone Smith, author of Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others can help.