Humanity Violated

Sunday, August 20, 2017
First Aired: 
Sunday, December 21, 2014

What Is It

People tend to treat other people who differ from them, even in seemingly small and insignificant ways, as less than fully human. Our tendency to dehumanize the "other" has sometimes led to great atrocities like the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, and the slave trade. It is arguably responsible for such widespread social ills as racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Where does our tendency to dehumanize others come from? Is it based on bad arguments hat can be rationally refuted, or are its origins deeper in the human psyche? Are we bound to see the "other" as less than fully human? John and Ken take a human approach with David Livingstone Smith from the University of New England, author of Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others.

Listening Notes

John and Ken open the show discussing historical examples of dehumanization such as the Nazis degrading the Jews to vermin or parasites and the Founding Fathers writing the Declaration of Independence while owning slaves that were regarded as less than fully human. John thinks that the human race is unique in its abilities to dehumanize each other for their own purposes, but Ken is skeptical since there doesn’t seem to be any biological support for John’s claim. Ken worries that if there is indeed such a biological or genetic basis for the human dehumanization of his own kind, then the ability to educate our citizens to act kindly to each other and live in harmony would be nearly hopeless.

To find out if there is a basis for Ken’s worries, philosopher David Livingstone Smith and author of Less Than Human joins John and Ken. Because Smith grew up in the segregated in the South and comes from a Jewish family, he became very sensitive to the dehumanization of minorities at a very early age. John asks Smith if the dehumanizing terms are really literal or if they are just metaphorical. Smith responds that it is important to understand that it is not metaphor, and that is a very important distinction to make if we are to fully understand the effects of dehumanization. Ken pushes back, skeptical of the notion that, for example, Hitler really thought of Jews as nothing but vermin, without an after-thought. Smith responds by arguing that it is a deliberate delusion that successfully convinces people to see others as less-than-human, such that they can gain the benefits that come with the ability to dehumanize other humans, such as discarding with the inconvenient guilt that may come with enslaving another human. To Smith, the concept of human is defined as along the lines of “a member of your own kind,” where the use of “kind” varies from culture to culture and individual to individual. Ken now agreement, further fleshes out, that there is a biological kind in the background that we ought to map our moral concepts to. Ken presents a hypothetical world in which dehumanization no longer exists and then asks Smith if our problems of human-on-human harm would be eliminated. Smith responds that certainly not, and that human beings would only find other means to overcome their inhibitions to harm others.

John asks Smith how we might eliminate dehumanization in the modern world. Smith responds that it is a very difficult question to answer, since dehumanization has yet to be fully studied, but certainly one place to start is political propaganda and rhetoric. Smith argues that our minds are configured in such a way that dehumanization holds an unfortunate sway over our minds. One of the ways that dehumanization affects us is by creating a moral and emotional distance from one another. Does our modern technology help us in bridging this distance? But then again, does drone technology further aggravate this moral and emotional distance? John concludes with a reflection on how widespread dehumanization was in the 20th century, and how institutionalized dehumanization remains today. John and Ken agree that there is a lot of moral catch-up to do.