I've noticed people using the word 'dehumanise' a lot recently. We all understand the very basic idea of it - eg calling groups of people 'cockroaches' or 'animals' which conceptually strip the group of the qualities that give them 'humanness' which then turns them into ‘legitimate targets’... But when I see people use the word 'dehumanise' a lot and THEN see them constantly dehumanise others, I'm interested in exploring it a bit.
There are a lot of common domains where dehumanisation takes place: ethnicity and race, sex and pornography (ie the dehumanising/objectification of women), disability, medicine, technology... Without previous knowledge about the idea of dehumanisation, most of us could come up with examples of how individuals are dehumanised in each of these areas.
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There are, however, other types of dehumanisation that take place in ways that can cause people - even those seemingly outspoken against 'dehumanisation' - to dehumanise others in ways that aren’t immediately recognisable. You may even engage in it sometimes.
Delegitimising beliefs is one way of dehumanising people in an 'outgroup'. So, for example, “labelling a group as inhuman, either by reference to subhuman categories … or by referring to negatively valued superhuman creatures such as demons, monsters, and satans”. This would include ascribing 'evil' intentions to those who hold different or alternative opinions to you about political topics. I see this a lot from those on the Far Left or Far Right. A Corbynite can't seem to understand that 'a Tory' will have a logical structure for their political beliefs and it's simply 'the structure' of their beliefs that differ. Instead they will claim that a Tory policy was done INTENTIONALLY to hurt or harm people, thereby turning "Tories" into one dimensional cartoon characters, stripping them of their capacity to be rational actors capable of human emotions.
Morally excluding groups of people is another act of dehumanisation. This can happen when we stop seeing people as individuals with full emotional lives, able to make choices, as part of groups of other individuals who all care for each other and instead see their choices and group affiliations as being 'immoral' and all stemming from a desire to 'hate'. They can even be accused of 'dehumanising' others simply because they are seen as existing outside of an 'approved' moral structure (‘they are so immoral, they don’t even think we are human!!’). Moral exclusion makes it easier to enact violence on those outgroups as they are denied human emotions.
Dehumanising can be instigated by the idea that an outgroup's values are so different from the in-group's that they are seen to lack a shared sense of humanity. If one group values the 'prosocial behaviours' of 'helping, sharing and co-operating' and another group values the prosocial behaviours of 'obeying the rules and conforming to socially accepted behaviours', the first group could see the second group as 'lacking prosocial values' and therefore lacking 'humanness'... despite the fact that the second group values things that are considered to be 'prosocial values' (eg following the rules and engaging in socially accepted behaviours are fundamental to a stable society)!
We can also dehumanise people by denying members of an outgroup are capable of more complex 'secondary emotions'.
"Leyens and colleaguesalso provided a tool to measure humanness. In their research they differentiated between primary or non-uniquely human emotions that are believed to be shared with other animals (e.g., surprise, anger, joy, and fear) and secondary or uniquely human emotions that are only expressed by human beings (e.g., hope, regret, enthusiasm, and remorse). Focusing on these emotions they found that people commonly attribute more secondary emotions to their ingroup than to outgroups but do not differentially attribute the primary emotions (e.g., Leyens et al., 2001). Given that secondary emotions are an ‘‘essential’’ aspect of what constitutes a human being (Demoulin, Leyens, et al., 2004), this bias reflects people’s tendency to reserve full humanness to describe their own group, attributing a somewhat lesser humanity to the outgroup." (From We are human, they are not: Driving forces behind outgroup dehumanisation and the humanisation of the ingroup.)
In the act of 'dehumanisation', what is being denied the other? Well... humanness obviously... But what is that? Haslamsays there are two sense of Humanness, "Uniquely Human characteristics define the boundary that separates humans from the related category of animals, but humanness may also be understood noncomparatively as the features that are typical of or central to humans. These normative or fundamental characteristics might be referred to as Human Nature."
Research has found that we tend to think that humans are unique in their "openness to experience (e.g., imaginative, intelligent, cultured) and conscientiousness (e.g., industriousness, inhibition, self-control)". Other research has found that we consider Unique Human traits to be "morally informative, cognitively saturated, internally caused rather than responsive to the environment, private (i.e., relatively invisible to observers), and emerging late in development." Generally, we consider Unique Human traits to be those that show "cognitive sophistication, culture, refinement, socialization, and internalized moral sensibility".
Human Nature is thought of differently to Unique Human characteristics: "…Human Nature characteristics would be expected to link humans to the natural world, and their inborn biological dispositions. [...] Human Nature characteristics [eg warmth, cognitive openness, passion, imagination, emotion and will etc] should be seen as deeply rooted aspects of persons: parts of their unchanging and inherent nature. Human Nature should be seen as that which is essential to humanness, the core properties that people share “deep down” despite their superficial variations. In sum, Human Nature should be essentialized, viewed as fundamental, inherent, and natural. Unique Human characteristics may not be essentialized, in contrast. As they are seen as acquired rather than inborn (i.e., the “veneer” of civilization), and as likely to vary between people and cultures, Unique Human characteristics might even be perceived as nonessential."
As there are two conceptually separate ways of 'Being Human', there are two separate ways to dehumanise people. If one values Unique Human characteristics more - that is, the social characteristics which can vary between people, cultures and groups - then denying outgroups of those characteristics make them more 'animal-like' (as these are conceptualised as the traits that separate us from animals). If one values Human Nature characteristics more - so things like emotional responsiveness, warmth, curiosity, flexibility, agency, depth - then denying outgroups of these characteristics turns them into machine-like "objects" guided by "inertness, coldness, rigidity, fungibility, and lack of agency".
This means that groups not normally associated with being victims of prejudice can be dehumanised and seen to be "unrefined animals" or "soulless machines". Researchhas shown that artists are more likely to be denied Unique Human traits and seen as associated with animals and businesspeople are seen as "rational and self-controlled [...] unemotional, hardhearted, and conforming" and associated with automata.
These two different types of dehumanisation are enacted in very different ways, drawing on different emotions. Groups seen as lacking Unique Human characteristics - so seen more as animals - elicit emotions related to disgust and revulsion, as animals are seen as dirty and, well, animalistic. Groups seen as lacking Human Nature and considered to be 'machine-like' elicit 'indifference' rather than 'disgust'. They are seen as incapable of having feelings.
Someone can easily recognise one type of dehumanisation and find it immoral, while simultaneously dehumanising different groups in the opposite way. For example, someone who is actively an 'anti-racist' could be very aware of the long history of the dehumanisation of different ethic and racial groups and the use of dehumanising terminology that denies these groups their Unique Human traits and associates them with animals (eg use of words such as rats or cockroaches to refer to different groups)... AT THE SAME TIME they could also see groups of people who operate in a sphere dominated by logic, intellectual enquiry, cognitive sophistication, culture, refinement, etc as 'machine-like' and accuse them of lacking empathy and purposely, unemotionally inflicting distress and emotional pain on others.
Dehumanising people by denying that they have characteristics associated with Human Nature (ie emotional responsiveness, warmth, curiosity, flexibility, agency, depth) and seeing them as more 'machine-like' means that it's perfectly OK to 'cancel' them. They have no 'human nature' anyway, right? They don't feel ‘real’ emotions. These ‘cancellers’ clearly don’t believe that 'the cancelled' are actually human because banishment from 'the group' or society is a particularly cruel form of punishment. Humans are social animals. We need each other. By attempting to force an individual into exile- to remove their friends, their family, their ability to support themselves- we are removing their access to an important part of their humanness. The thinking seems to go “They aren’t really human, so it’s fine to remove their access to a vital experience of humanness. They won’t even care. They can’t care. They have no ‘soul’.” In fact, some people have so deeply rationalised the 'cancelation' of this type of 'non-human' person that they deny that 'cancel culture' exists at all. Some imply that 'the cancelled' deserve it - they are simply facing the consequences of their actions. A bit like shutting down your computer if it’s been behaving strangely.
So, someone states that 'biological sex is real' (which it is) and the consequences they need to face are ostracisation, social isolation and loneliness, which leads to higher anxiety, depression, and suicide rates? Stating that female mammals give birth is so Bad that at least a few people who say that publicly should kill themselves??? Really??
These are not 'kind' people...
Earlier this year, someone Tweeted a “quip” (now deleted) that said it would be great if we could put Tory MPs through a Voight-Kampff test… This is from Blade Runner. It is a test that works out whether an individual is a ‘replicant’ (an advanced type of ‘robot’) or a human, as you can’t tell just by looking. If they fail the test, then a Blade Runner is hired to hunt them down and ‘terminate’ (ie kill) them.
So… I thought that coming 9 months after MP David Amess was killed and a few months after Channel 4’s Dispatches on the violence MPs face, it was really super fucking uncool and not at all funny. I challenged him about it. That didn’t go down well.
He recently posted about this saying that I (without naming me, but I clearly live rent free in his head. Good.) had accused him of ‘dehumanising the far right’… Firstly, ‘Tories’ aren’t ‘the far right’. Secondly, I was ACTUALLY concerned that he thought ‘the murder of MPs was worthy of a quip’. Thirdly, yes, he WAS dehumanising people - he was trying to equate actual human beings with machines. Disagreeing with someone’s political views does not mean they aren’t human (and should therefore be ‘terminated’). They are a different person, with a different life, different experiences, different influences, different likes and dislikes, they have loads of people they love and loads of people who love them. They aren’t MACHINES for fuck’s sake. They are human beings who think about something differently than you do. If your first thought- hell, if your one hundredth thought- is “This person needs to be destroyed/disappeared/ended/terminated” YOU are the bad guy. I don’t care how Good, Empathic, Righteous you believe yourself to be, you are the Bad Guy.
And it’s interesting how so many people like this guy think the same way. They make jokes about ‘terminating’ (stabbing, setting on fire, slitting their throat, stomping on their heads, ‘unaliving’…) people they disagree with, they make violent threats, sometimes sexually violent threats towards people (often women) who they disagree with and then ACCUSE women/us/me of ‘dehumanising’ others simply because we disagree. They scream about us ‘debating their right to exist’ - when we’re discussing things such as changes to the law. They scream that we have a ‘phobia’ of them - when we’re talking about how we conceptualise ourselves. They scream that we are consumed with ‘disgust’ for them - when we’re talking about language. And it always just sounds so… bizarre and extreme and detached from reality… Their accusations have nothing to do with what others are saying or thinking. They ascribe evil intentions when there are none. They twist words or meanings in order to turn ‘the accused’ into a target. They claim ‘the accused’ is associated with other groups they’ve already dehumanised and turned into ‘legitimate targets’ and imply ‘the accused’ is guilty by association (an association they invented). All the while they go on and on and on about how ‘the accused’ is guilty of dehumanising others as if chanting an incantation…
Turning people who disagree with you into automatons that lack human emotions is an act of dehumanisation as despicable as any other.
It’s as if these people believe they are the centre of the universe and we are all here because of them. They believe they are Good, they are Correct, they are Perfect. They believe their thoughts are reality and anyone who doesn’t agree with all of their thoughts exists somewhere on a scale that goes from Bad to Evil to Should Be Terminated. They can’t believe that anyone else has emotions that are as Pure or as Important as theirs. They believe that What They Say somehow overrides reality - this allows them to behave like total hypocrites without breaking their stride. They can say they are Good, Kind, Caring, Charitable, Empathic and then behave terribly to other people- including friends, family and colleagues- because in their world That Type of Person (ie someone who isn’t them, basically) deserves it. EVERYONE ELSE deserves it. They don’t. They only deserve agreement, approval, adulation, flattery, sycophancy... worship. They are the Centre of the Universe, the Star, everyone else exists to support them. They are the only Real Being. They are Pure Good… the rest of us are machines.
Haslam, N. (2006). Dehumanization: An Integrative Review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(3), 252–264. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327957pspr1003_4
Bar-Tal, D. (2000). Shared beliefs in a society: Social psychological analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
Leyens, J-Ph., Paladino, M. P., Rodrı ́guez-Torres, R., Vaes, J., Demoulin, S., Rodrı ́guez-Pe ́rez, A., et al. (2000). The emotional side of prejudice: The attribution of secondary emotions to ingroups and outgroups. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4, 186–197. doi: 10.1207/S15327957PSPR0402_06
Leyens, J-Ph., Rodrı ́guez-Pe ́rez, A., Rodrı ́guez-Torres, R., Gaunt, R., Paladino, M. P., Vaes, J., et al. (2001). Psychological essentialism and the differential attribution of uniquely human emotions to ingroups and outgroups. European Journal of Social Psychology, 31, 395–411. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.50
Demoulin, S., Leyens, J-Ph., Paladino, M. P., Rodriguez, R. T., Rodriguez, A. P., & Dovidio, J. F. (2004). Dimensions of ‘‘uniquely’’ and ‘‘non-uniquely’’ emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 18, 71–96. doi: 10.1080/02699930244000444
Haslam, N., Bastian, B., & Bissett, M. (2004). Essentialist beliefs about personality and their implications. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 1661–1673.
Loughnan, S., & Haslam, N. (2005). Animals and androids: Implicit associations between social categories and nonhumans
I have experienced almost exactly this, at several levels. From benign social interactions through to EDI sessions with first year undergraduates (the Tory example is almost verbatim). If one was in a relationship with a person like this, you would regard it as emotionally abusive and run for the hills (or the next). Ta for referencing btw, have just pulled down a few of Leyen recent articles on the mind and dehumanisation! As a humble biology/stats type, one rarely gets to dip the toe outside of the field.
Hope you and the family had a most excellent Christmas, and I look forward to more of your writing in 2023!
Sometimes right, sometimes wrong, always interesting, intelligent and passionate