"Why do we dehumanize people" Why? Radio episode with guest David Livingstone Smith
5:49PM Nov 13, 2023
David Livingstone Smith
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Hi, I'm Jack Russell Weinstein, host of why philosophical discussions about everyday life. Today we are asking David Livingstone Smith, why we dehumanize people. The world isn't doing very well right now. There are dozens of wars and conflicts, many in which civilians are the majority of victims. There is an increase in hate crimes, including both spontaneous and organized attacks on people in property. There's poverty and homelessness, domestic abuse and sex trafficking, slavery and crushing debt. There's an endless amount of racism, sexism, anti semitism, homophobia and xenophobia, religious and ideological fanaticism has pit neighbor against neighbor in what feels like an endless cycle. Neighbor. That's a complex term, it means so little and so much at the same time. Literally, it just means the person who lives next to you, someone can be your neighbor and have no interaction with you at all. But in this context, it means much more. Someone you cohabitate with someone you look to for help someone to whom you're supposed to be generous. If the tornado sweeps through your town or the tsunami envelops your land, or the enemy's tank rolls down your street, you and your neighbor are in the way together, because you both share the same fate. But who is our neighbor? This is a question that has plagued history. Every culture it seems, has some conception of Us and Them human beings are tribal, and neighbor denotes the people who are raised like us who are familiar and understandable. It takes a leap of the imagination to ask for something more. It is an act of will to persuade ourselves that foreigners are only accidentally them that they aren't intrinsically other. If the world had been just a little bit different. If the river had sloped a mile to the right or the grove of trees had been larger, or those invaders had stopped killing a week earlier, our tribal community our neighbors would look quite different. Culture is great power is making the arbitrary feel objective. It takes the accidents of history and makes them feel inevitable. It gives the stories of our lives meaning weight, explanation and ideology and provides after the fact justification for the behaviors and attitudes that feel automatic to us. As if, as if the difference between peoples were natural instead of artificial, as if there were no other way to see the world as if we had no choice in the matter. Culture was also conservative it defends itself first, creating complexities to hide its illogic and penalties to those who challenge it. It doubles down on us in them until the question of who is our neighbor becomes what is our neighbor, and then all hell breaks loose. What is so much more antiseptic than who it is a typology, clinical violent, the destruction of a what may be a regret, but it's not a tragedy. It may be a mistake, but it's never a sin. Which is why when we attack our neighbors, they become our neighbors no more, they become less, so much less. On today's episode, we're going to look at the process of dehumanization, the way we turn who's into watts, we're going to examine how our experience ideology, culture and personal belief, take people and convert them into things, or in the words of our guest the way in which we make monsters. A monster is the negation of a neighbor. It's something that we dread its proximity is a threat, its existence is a travesty. What was once human becomes subhuman. We define ourselves in opposition to them not in sympathy. But as our guests will show, it's not the monsters that we should attend to. It's the making of them that concerns us. Monsters are created not discovered. They are manufactured using our culture, our ideology, our power, our anger, our hatred and our disregard. And once we make them, we get to destroy them with glee and entitlement. This is dehumanization. What does it mean to dehumanize someone and to regard them as subhuman? Why do we need to do this? Is it possible to resist how much freewill do we have in the face of culture and ideology which comes first, the desire to destroy our vision of who we are destroying? These are the questions we will face head on. Before we begin though, it's important to be reminded that human relationships are reciprocal, and that what we do to others we do to ourselves. When we make monsters we become monsters awesome them goes both ways. This means again, as our guests will argue we have to be generous to others, but we also have to be generous to ourselves as well. To see past the monstrosity standing next to us. We have to see past the one in the mirror. Who makes a monster we do who makes a neighbor If we do as well, how do we stop the process of politically, socially religiously dehumanizing our neighbors? By finding the monsters in our ideologies and excising them? Only then will there be monsters no more. Only then can we truly welcome the neighbor. And now our guest, David Livingstone. Smith is a professor of philosophy at the University of New England. He's the author of numerous books, including most recently on humanity, dehumanization, how to resist it, and making monsters the uncanny power of dehumanization, he speaks widely in both academic and non academic settings, including being the guest at the G 20 Economic Summit, where he spoke on dehumanization and mass violence. David, welcome to why.
Oh, thank you. Thank you so much for inviting me here.
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It is. It's very unpleasant indeed. But in my view, that's exactly why they should be written and they should be read.
I think my biggest surprise is that even before you discuss how dehumanization works, you actually have to make the case that it exists in the first place. Isn't this Yeah, I don't know a bit obvious.
Well, you'd think so. But but it isn't really so. No one disputes the fact that people use language, which suggests dehumanization. No one denies as far as I know that people refer to one another as disgusting animals or dangerous animals or monsters or demonic beings. But what many people seem to have difficulty with is the idea that these statements are meant seriously. So some philosophers think that when we characterize others as subhuman, this is simply a way of putting them down. They don't really believe it. It's just sort of using words as a weapon to humiliate or degrade others. And I think it's much more than that.
So are you saying that dehumanization isn't a metaphor? That's something more?
Yeah, it's not merely a metaphor, there are metaphorical aspects to it. So you know, when Nazis characterize Jewish people as rats or vermin, they didn't think they were literally, you know, little four legged rodents, or little arachnids, but they thought of them as something akin to those things. That's where the metaphor comes in. But what I'm gonna say is, when people really demonize others, they really do think of them as sub human creatures. That bit is not metaphorical.
How do you think of someone as a rodent, but still see them with two legs and two arms and a human face? How is that possible?
Well, that's a key question. And that that claim of mind is one that gives rise to a certain amount of skepticism because it seems so weird, doesn't it? Like, you could look at me and outwardly indistinguishable from anyone you would regard as a human being but if you were dehumanizing me, you would, you would accept all of that outward appearance. But say that on the inside, I'm something different, something lower something dangerous. So this has to do with the way we think about what things really are. So we're quite comfortable. And I can go into this into this in considerable depth later on, if you like. There's a body of psychological research about it. We're quite comfortable of with thinking that the way a being looks is not necessarily corresponding to what they really are on the end. sight, just as, say a counterfeit $20 bill looks like a real $20 bill but isn't really one. When we do humanize others, that's the sort of thinking we bring to bear. Yeah, sure they look human. But that's near appearance that's in their facade on the inside. They're less than human. They're subhuman. So in effect, dehumanize others think of those whom they dehumanize as counterfeit human beings.
You give an example in I think it was William Smith memoir killer of the dream, where a young girl is perceived as white, but she's really black. Can you talk about that to illustrate what you mean? Sure.
So if you look at how race works, and I write about race, because race and dehumanization are very intimately linked. In the most dangerous most toxic forms of dehumanization, the dehumanized group is first racialized, that is thought of as a fundamentally different an alien race race. So in the story from from Lillian Smith, Lillian Smith grew up in, in Georgia, more than 100 years ago, she became a civil rights activist, brilliant woman, wonderful woman. And then this memoir, she describes how, at one of the weekly meetings of the ladies of the community, they would get together and have coffee and talk. One of them said, there's a little white girl, in the black section of town, these, this was the time of segregation, right. So there was a white section of town, and there was a black section of town. And they reported this to the sheriff and the sheriff had assumed that this child had been kidnapped by the men and the woman who were acting as the child's parents. So the child was taken into care. And eventually, a call from an African American orphanage made it clear that this little girl who was described as looking, quote, very white indeed, and of quote, What's black? Now, you might think, how is this possible? Well, this is actually typical of racial thinking, race, in all cultures, that use the construct of race, race isn't how you look. A person's appearance might be symptomatic of their race, but their race is supposed to be something that they are on the inside. Think of these two statements, she looks white, or she is white, they have very, very different meanings. So a person's race is supposed to be say something about their essence, the kind of person that they are, whether they look like that kind of person or not.
You will remark that, that when we see someone as subhuman, we see them as both human and non human at the same time. Are you suggesting that this is endemic in our culture, and that we do this with with people of race all the time?
No, not all the time. So I'm very fond of making distinctions. And I think that every day racism is different from dehumanization. dehumanization is something I sometimes characterize as racism on steroids. It's much more extreme. But the two things are related. So in my view, racism is built into the very idea of race. That is when we racialized people, when we when we consider them to to be them racially, other than us. Part of what goes on is a sort of demotion. They're seen as having less value. Their lives don't matter or don't matter as much as the lives of our group. So, when people get racialized, they are seen as lesser humans. There they are. They are lowered on the scale of humanity in the minds of the racialized dehumanization takes that a step further. These others are not merely lesser humans, they are less than human. They are excluded from the category of the human all together. But as you mentioned, I've also said that when we humanize others, we see them as human and sub human simultaneously. But that is the product of, in a way, it's a product of the failure of the effort to see them as simply less than human animals. And I can explain how that works, if you like,
I would, because I would imagine that some of your critics might hear this and say, You're talking in contradictions, that it doesn't make sense that you can't look at someone and see them as human and subhuman at the same time. That that that's what the analytic philosophers might called nonsense. How do you respond to that?
Yeah, well, there's a difference between logic and psychology. And of philosophers, particularly analytical philosophers, and I'm an analytical philosopher. So I'm not, I'm not dissing the tradition. often don't get that we human beings are perfectly capable of entertaining and sustaining contradictions. In fact, I think this is one of the main things you learn when you study philosophy that you're committed to contradictions that you didn't realize you're committed to. So there's a difference between the nice, clean, regimented world of logic where contradictions are always false. And the real world of human behavior and human psychology, where we are perfectly perfectly capable of sustaining contradictory views. And I think that's what happens in dehumanization. When we demonize others. We, on the one hand, think of them as subhuman animals, like vermin. But on the other hand, and this is interesting, and ultimately hopeful, we can't help but see them as human. This is something which, if anything, is hardwired into the human mind. This is when we look at another human being. It's just automatic. If we see a human face or a pair of human eyes, it's bang, we see human. So on the one hand, when people are humanized, they're thought of as subhuman, as less than human creatures. And on the other hand, they're thought of as human and this is precisely what turns them into monsters.
You you use the example of a wax figure and the uncanny valley. Can you explain how this elaborates on this idea?
Sure, sure. There's a literature. And I won't bore you with all the details, but it's important to set out the landscape just a little bit. There's a literature on the on what we call the uncanny going back over 100 years. It starts with a guy named Aaron stanch, a German psychiatrist who wrote a great paper published in 1906. called on the psychology of the uncanny. And then in 1970 masa here a more more Mori, a Japanese roboticist wrote his little paper on the uncanny valley. And that that research into this phenomenon that both of these guys described, has really taken off. So let me try and set out what it is. First of all, that word that Yen's used, he wrote in German, and the word he is his own Heimlich which gets translated as uncanny, but it has, the way he used unheimlich somewhat more disturbing. implications. I like the word creepy for when Jaime. Similarly, when Moray in 1970 wrote his paper on the uncanny valley, the Japanese word was Boo Kimi, which can also be translated as creepy. So what these people are doing is trying to understand a disturbing kind of feeling. It's different from fear. Right? You people are frightened of dangerous, physically dangerous things. You might be frightened of a bear charging at you, which I imagined happens in North Dakota. Occasionally, but you're not creeped out by it. So what's going on when you when you're creeped out by something when, when, when you're deeply disturbed? Well, the analysis, I think, is pretty clear. We find things that are uncanny when Heimish buki me creepy, when they seem to straddle two different incompatible categories of things. And we see this a lot in in horror movies. So think of zombies, zombies, what makes them be so disturbing is they're dead and alive at the same time. Logically speaking, that's impossible, right? If you're dead, you can't be alive. And if you're alive, you can't be dead. Zombies are dead and alive. Their corpses, the rotting corpses that can walk. And they have metabolisms they tried to, you know, eat your brains and stuff like that. Likewise, creatures like werewolves, they're human and their wolves at the same time. Notice, if we go let's go back to the zombie example for us for a second. It's not like the zombie is partially alive and partially dead. It's not like their legs are alive, but their arms are dead. They have completely alive and completely dead. So you watch a movie like that. And it's, it's easy to resonate with, you know, we, we don't act like an analytical philosopher would say yes, but that's impossible. No, we can resonate with that. And it elicits that disturbing feeling in us. Because human psychology is such that we we are able, psychologically speaking, to accept these contradictory beings as as being perfectly real.
I think that that's a really, really useful account. And when we get back from the break, I'm going to follow up on this because I want to talk about the idea of the medieval mind seeing a Jew and thinking of them as creepy, or the uncanny aspect of Nazis thinking that the Jews are human and vermin at the same time. But before we do that, we have to take a break you're listening to David Livingstone Smith and Jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life We'll be back right after this.
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You're back with why philosophical discussions in everyday life and your host Jack Russell Weitzman, I'm talking with David Livingstone Smith about the process of dehumanization, how it works, and how we are supposed to think about it philosophically. And I promised right before the break that I would ask a follow up question, but I'm gonna put that aside for just a second, David, because we're going to end up talking about some dark stuff. And I want to ask you a process question first. You have two books that have both have come out recently, one in 2000 21,021. The first one on in humanity is for general audiences. And the second one making monsters is for more scholarly audiences. What was the difference in the two books in writing for those different audiences? Is it just a matter of explanation? Or do you think that the philosophical process itself is different when you're writing for the general public rather than scholars and doesn't change your account of dehumanization at all?
So my account doesn't change from the first of those books to the second. In fact, I saw writing the first one as a way of doing the research for for the second one. So I could identify various literature's I wanted to draw on and so on. And so In everything I write, I try to be engaging and accessible. So although the making monsters is definitely a more scholarly book than on in humanity, I hope that making monsters is accessible to the non specialists, reader, maybe with a little bit more effort on their part, when you're writing, for academics, even if it's a crossover book, from trade to academic, particularly philosophers, you have to be a little bit more careful. Because, you know, philosophers have, particularly, you know, analytic philosophers are always looking for problems. So, there's much more, I made much more of an effort to anticipate objections and to neutralize those objections, but not excessively. So because then things get really, really boring. You know, when you're trying to anticipate every possible objection that someone may have, you never get a chance to really paint a compelling picture. And that's what I want to do here. I don't see this as an exercise in splitting hairs. I see this as an effort to address what I think is a very urgent, very morally significant problem, which philosophers have paid scant attention to.
Why, why is something that seems to have its roots in such important philosophers like Kant, and mutual respect, and even just the greatest traditions of what it means to be a human individual? Why are philosophers so reluctant to talk about this?
I really wish I knew. But the philosophical literature until quite recently, and I like to think partially in, in consequence of my three books on the subject. The philosophical literature was very, very, very thin on the ground. There was a literature coming largely out of feminist philosophy with its roots in in Kantian, thinking on objectification, but objectification is something different from the humanization, in my view, so I don't know. I think one of the problems is that the category of the human is too taken for granted by philosophers. So, philosophers generally think of human as equivalent to homosapiens, a biological species and is pretty unproblematic, and in their moral thinking, they talk about persons instead of humans. But that's a mistake. I mean, it's a mistake to think that the notion of the human is just straight up clear, biological notion. And so if you don't have a proper grasp on what, how the how the concept of human works, it's becomes more difficult, not impossible, but more difficult to entertain ideas about dehumanization, about seeing other members of our species, as sub human beings. That seems like a contradiction, but it isn't really.
This, this was actually one of the things that I think hit me the hardest in doing the readings was I walked away from it really, for I think maybe for the first time, acknowledging that I have no idea what a human being is. That it's that it's some sort of social construct, and a different kind of construct than race or something like that. You use the example of of weeds to sort of talk about what a construct is, in this sense, not a natural kind, but, but a different kind of grouping. And I will say just just for the record and for our listeners, both books are exceedingly clear. Your sentences are crisp and very understandable. There is nothing that a person who wanted to pick up the more scholarly approach wouldn't understand it was very, very patient. Very, very deliberate, really wonderful, especially on this At this level, the difference is how much you attend to the discourse and how much you attend to disagreements. And so when when you get to a topic like human being to sort of be faced with the fact that I, I've been talking about subhumans, or I've been thinking about sub humans, and I've been thinking about personhood as a political philosopher and all this sort of stuff, and I don't know what a human being is, that that's that made me feel a little unmoored.
Good. I like that it made you feel unmoored. Because this notion of the human really shouldn't be taken for granted. So if you say to most any educated person, including most philosophers, what's the human being? And they'll say, Oh, it's a member of our species. If you look human up in the Oxford dictionary, it will say either homosapiens, or a member of genus Homo. Well, right there, we've got a little uncertainty, right? Because that would include, say, Neanderthals, and Homo erectus. And other earlier members of our lineage as as human. So we've already gone beyond the species concept. If you look at the actual biological literature in the Paleo anthropological literature, it's all over the map the use of the word human. It's applied to lots of different categories. So you know, the Smithsonian website has an article about 20, I, I might be getting this slightly wrong. But in substance, it's, it's right. 20 different. Early humans are all different species. Some of them are different geniuses, and so on. So what's going on here? Well, what's going on is that human isn't a scientific category. It's a folk category. And it doesn't have any strict systematic relationship with biological taxonomy. So you mentioned weeds, it's kind of like the concept of a weed. So what what's a weed? Well, it's a plant that is growing someplace where we don't want it to grow. If there wasn't agriculture or horticulture, there wouldn't be any weeds. And the same plant that's growing in my yard as a weed, if it's growing in the woods behind my house, it's not a weed, it's just a plant. So the category weed is, is is constituted by our practices, our social practices, of gardening, of agriculture, and so on. Well, I think the concept of the human kind of works like that, too. When we use the term human, I think what's going on is we mean something like our essential kind. And that can be filled out in different ways. So say, You're a Nazi, our essential kind, when the Nazi says human, and the Nazi says our essential kind, they mean things like members of the Aryan race. For many of us, including myself, and very, almost certainly you, when we say human, we mean, all of the members of our species. So it, it, the way human works is it picks out all of those beings that we consider to be our kind in a very fundamental sense of our now. What follows from that is when we dehumanize others, we exclude them from that magic circle. Right? They are fundamentally alien, they are essentially alien, they are not of our kind. So that's why I think that if we understand humans properly, then dehumanization becomes a little bit less perplexing.
So let's then go back to this example of creepiness of the uncanny valley of the idea of someone being human and subhuman at the same time, is the attempt to and we'll stick with the Jewish example, is the attempt to imagine in the 15th century Jews as creatures with horns and tails as children of Satan, as John as the gospel, John calls it as as the human side of that the Jewish pig, as the Nazis call it. If This is an attempt to push them out of the circle. Is it in order to destroy our morality? Or is it in order to protect our morality? Is it permission to act immorally? Why do we have to do this? What purpose does it serve?
Okay, well, there's a question around the question that you're asking that I need to address. But first, the question about morality. Here's something I think is super important. When people, dehumanize others and persecute them, even to the extent of exterminating them, they think that they have a moral obligation to do this. When there's a monster in your mists, an embodiment of evil, what you should do, what you're obligated to do is destroy the monster. Right? You're saving humanity in virtue of doing that. And you can take any genocidal episode in history, and you'll find this highly moralistic tone, including the Holocaust. And, you know, lets your listeners get the wrong idea because of my hyper Christian name. I am Jewish. So, the Nazis thought they were doing the right thing, it was a fundamentally kind of moral imperative to destroy the Jews, who were seen as monstrous and demonic enemies of civilization. So the question I said, that was sort of around your question, or next door to your question, or behind your question, is the question of how does this happen? Like, how is it that at some point, some at some historical juncture, one group of people starts thinking of another group of people, as human monsters? Well, this is something I didn't understand when I wrote my very first book on humanization, called less than human. But I think I've come to understand. We don't spontaneously dehumanize people. We don't wake up in the morning and think, oh, just it doesn't just pop into our heads that these others are subhuman creatures. In fact, the inclination is to do the opposite. And the reason our inclination is to the opposite to do the opposite, that is to see them as fellow human beings has to do with the fact that our our species is extraordinarily social. There is no other primate no other mammal that is anywhere near as social as Homo sapiens. And one of the consequences of that is something I mentioned earlier, when you when we look into a pair of human eyes, into a human face, we just can't help resonating with with that we just can't help seeing human. But we're also cultural beings. And one of the very important features of culture. Something which makes human culture possible is what philosophers call the division of cognitive labor. So we have experts, we have people who are placed in the position of authority or given the status of those who are supposed to know. And these experts, whether they merit that title or not, can tell us that things aren't what they seem. That the world may seem one way to us, but it is really different. And as long as we regard them as credible experts, we defer to them. We, again, the jargon term is epistemic deference, we defer to their presumed superior knowledge and understanding. So not to belabor the point but to illustrate it. I'm sitting on a chair talking to you. And this chair seems perfectly solid and without gaps to wooden chair. But the micro physicists will tell me that this chair is actually mostly empty space. It's atoms floating In the void. Now I accept that even though my eyes tell me something different, I accept it because I regard the physicist as an expert, as someone who's supposed to know. Now, that's all good. And well, I mean, it's, it's perfectly rational thing to do. The problem is when the expert is someone like Joseph gobbles, who tells me that these Jews, although they might eat, look human aren't really human. Well, who am I? I'm imagining myself an ordinary German citizen there to challenge Joseph Goebbels. And even more extreme examples in 19th century Germany, the premier biologist, the the man who really got Darwinism going in Germany was a man named Aaron staple. Aaron's Hegel was an extremely, extremely racist man, and wrote textbooks, basically representing African men, as great apes, diagram, you know, of a tree with a gorilla, chimpanzee and a Ranga. Tang sitting in it, as well as an African man. Now, suppose you're a student in Germany in 1885. And you, you see this, well, you're gonna take it on board, it's perfectly rational for you to take it on board. Because Hegel was the, you know, the supreme authority. So when that happens, when we get people in positions of authority and power, and influence to our politicians, or religious leaders, or radio talk show hosts, or you know, whatever. And they tell us that these others are not really human, and they're dangerous, they're monstrous, they need to be stamped out. It behooves us to believe that. Hence, on the one hand, we see them as less than human if we accept these kinds of characterizations. And on the other hand, because of our ultra social nature as Homo sapiens, we can't help seeing them as human. And that gives us this eerie, uncanny combination of human and subhuman. And if we add to that mix, that these others are dangerous, they're malevolent, they're violent, which is typical of the sort of propaganda that encourages us to demonize others, then we've turned them into monsters.
So there's a really important philosophical shift in there, because a lot of the tradition and a lot of people generally assume that human beings are violent creatures, and that we're always on the verge of hostility and hatred and destruction. And that what culture does is tamp down this natural, dislike or fear or distrust of the other. But you're actually saying the opposite. You're saying that human beings are fundamentally social, that our instinct is to share to trust it to identify with fellow humans, and that what the apparatus actually does is pull us away from that, that the culture that the forces have to have to counter this natural tendency. I'll use this term, although it's ambiguous towards peace, in order to move us towards violence. Is that? Is that right? And if so, what does that process look like?
Yeah, it's partially right. But it's also so I don't want to deny that human beings have violent impulses. That would be a Pollyanna ish. But look, we're social animals and every social animal needs to have inhibitions against doing terrible harm to fellow community members. For obvious reasons, right? You you can't maintain a cooperative community existence if you're perpetrating horrific acts of violence on your neighbors. So these inhibitions have to be there and they are there. Every social animal has them. Even the ants have these inhibitions that in the case of ants are mediated by chemical signals. chimpanzees have them. meerkats have them, all social animals have them. We because we are highly, highly, highly social, because we're Ultra social, have to have extremely powerful inhibitions against impulses to do harm to others. You know, we're so social, in fact that I think we're inclined to extend our sociality, far beyond the immediate group. In a sense, everyone is part of the human community as far as we're concerned. So it's part of our nature, to find it difficult to perform these acts, we might have the impulse to do it. But it's difficult to do it. And there's a lot of evidence for that, I mean, people who kill other people, for the most part, find the act of killing when it's up close and personal, very difficult psychologically, and very traumatizing. Of course, there are exceptions. There are, you know, people who, for whatever reason, simply don't care. But that is the exception. It's difficult to train people up, to go to war, and kill others. The fact that it requires military training is evidence of that. The problem here is that we also have these great big brains are able to think instrumentally. And we're able to think, yeah, but there is some real advantages to doing harm to others, we can steal their resources, we can enslave them, we can just wipe them out and and take over their territory, and so on. So we can think in this fashion. But then you see, you're in between a rock and a hard place right on the one hand there inhibitions against terrible acts of violence that could just come as part of the human package. And on the other hand, there's a recognition that terrible acts of violence can be advantageous to you and yours. Over time, we clever primates have found ways of selectively disabling these inhibitions. And these are their various means there are technological means there are, there are chemical means. And there are psychological means of, of disabling inhibitions against violence, selectively dehumanization is one of those methods. It's not the only one is, as I've just implied, there are other ways of, of doing it. But it's a very powerful and very effective one. Here's, here's the thing about culture, culture is double edged, I see it as a way that human beings have developed to engineer their own behavior. So we because we're cultural animals are capable of doing things that no other animal would do. subjecting yourself to a surgeon's knife, for instance, I mean, that's, that's a remarkable feat. No chimpanzee would lie down to be cut into as as we are routinely. And so culture can engineer us. Or rather, let me put it differently. We can use cultural means to engineer our own behavior, in really awful ways to sort of, to dis inhibit the the impulses, which if left to our own devices, would be kept in check. So that that's really a more detailed way of making the point you began with and you put it nicely and, and starkly and dramatically, that culture has the power to subvert us into doing really, really, really bad things.
I want to use two examples, to sort of double down on the sociality thing to underscore your point. And again, I wonder, I want to make sure that I'm interpreting you correctly. The first is you point out that that when we talked about the Holocaust, and the final solution, that one of the reasons why they ended up gassing the Jews, is that the Germans actually found it really hard to mass murder people, that the experience of shooting them was was scarring even to Himmler and that they would use alcohol and they would use political pressure. And now of course, there's a lot of evidence that they were using heavy drugs. And another example, which seems a little absurd It is, you talk a bit about lynching in the book. And in our civil rights discourse in this country, we have, again, this is sort of a weird way of putting it, we have a very antiseptic notion of what lynching was, we think of it as, you know, the the person putting a, a rope around someone's neck and hanging them for the tree. But in fact, as you describe lynching, it's so much more horrible. It's better called a barbecue, which it's sometimes called, people are burned alive, their extremities are cut off, their genitals are cut off and fed to them. People are going through the ashes to find souvenirs and things like that. So that even when we talk about the most horrible things, we still err on the side of sociology of sociality, of making it less violent than it is. Am I getting this? Right?
Yeah, no. Well, you certainly are, I mean, the United States. Let's contrast the United States with with Germany, I mean, Germany lost. In the end, they had to face what they did, it took a while, you know, initially it was it was wall to wall denial. It took a while, but Germany had to face that. Rwanda had to face its genocide. The United States was never brought to its knees, for its treatment of, of African American people. So it's been possible for Americans, predominantly white Americans, but there are, there are a lot of black Americans who don't understand this history either. To sort of to clean it up. And indeed, if all of your education is from movies and TV, you're going to have a very, very misleading picture of lynching because frankly, lynching as it occurred, was much too horrific to depict cinematically. So you're absolutely right. Often lynchings were small events where someone was taken and hung, but even there, they would be tortured, castrated, had multiple rounds of bullets shot into their body. What I described in a lot of my work, though, are were known as what has become known as spectacle lynchings. These were public events, festive public events, attended by hundreds or 1000s, sometimes up to maybe 15 or 20,000 people where the victim was tortured, publicly. And an often burnt alive and often burnt alive slowly after being dismembered. So, for instance, and I'll try not to be too too graphic here. The lensing of Jesse Washington who was a mentally challenged teenager is 16 years old, in 1916, involved him being suspended from a chain and pit and lowered into a fire, but not enough to kill him. It'd be lowered into the fire on the chain, and then raised and lowered and raised and lowered and raised. He tried to climb up the chain and the members of the crowd who were in charge of the lynching, simply dealt with that by cutting off his fingers, so he couldn't climb up the chain. And he was eventually burned to death in screaming screaming agony. Now these were pretty common events they were often held on Sundays. They are often held in in in churchyards, actually on Sunday. So the congregation get out of church and attend to lynching. These were festive events, they were advertised railroad companies put on extra trains to transport people to to witness the lynching peep. There were vendors of of snacks, men, women and children. Were were in attendance at these events, if they are mind bogglingly horrendous they're they're about as horrendous as you can get. You know they are comparable to to events during the Holocaust, and in many respects worse than many of the events during the Holocaust. Now, part of my interest in in this is what an obvious question is raised. How can people do that? How can people do this to other people? And one of my methods is to go through the old newspapers, which reported on these lynchings and look at how the victim was described, and the victims of lynchings were routinely described as subhuman beasts, as monsters in human form, as as horrendous demonic beings, these are, you know, 90 per 790 7% of the lynchings were of of African American men. So there you have this concordance between the brutality and the way that the victim was characterized.
Is there a difference between how we dehumanize the people who live among us and the people who don't? I mean, is there are there patterns for looking at the integrated population? For African Americans, black people in America, Jews in Germany, and people who live you know, the the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, or our enemies Japanese during World War Two people who don't live among us, but who we still have to kill, we still have to treat us somehow less than us?
Well, one of the implications of my my theory of dehumanization is that demonization should be more common amongst those who actually get their hands dirty. Or let's to use a different metaphor, who get blood on their hands. See, violence at a distance is not so difficult. We can be cheerleaders safe in our homes. And we're not confronted with the triggers that would produce the inhibitions against violence, which dehumanization then is a way of subverting. So my theory predicts that those at the front as it were those who are exposed to the people who are being harmed are the ones most likely to dehumanize. So if you have a group of people who are treated as other but are living amongst us, so African Americans in the American South choose in in in Germany and Poland, and the Soviet Union. Then the impetus for dehumanization, I think is is greater. While
you talk about other examples in the books, you talk about the Roma, you talk about the Rohingya, the vast majority of discussion are about blacks and the slave trade, and and Jews. Are these the paradigm cases? How much of those two instances really the sort of the textbook case of what it looks like?
Well, I think they're they're very useful cases. They are my paradigm cases, I don't want to say they're the paradigm cases, they're very useful for for several reasons. One is they are separated geographically. They're they're very different cultural scenarios, even though the Nazis were inspired by American racism, and, and the American genocide of Native Americans, by the way. So there was some influence going from the United States to Nazi Germany. But they're, you know, they're fairly segregated from one another. And it's that which throws into relief, their commonalities their extensive commonalities. So that's one reason I think these two cases are useful. But really and truly, I mean, I'm a monolingual person and these two cases are very, very extensively documented in the English language. So I have no doubt that say, a scholar in India might choose a different paradigmatic case, I would predict that it has fundamentally the same features as anti black dehumanization in the United States and anti semitic humanization in Europe. Yet a final reason is that called Generally speaking, of course, anti black racism is paradigmatic in the United States In the United States. When people talk about race, they mean white and black. Just as anti semitism is the paradigmatic example of race in Europe. So we have two immensely culturally significant examples of of dehumanizing violence.
How much of this is fueled by mass media and by the way in which our culture is fed to us, through radio through television now through the internet, how necessary are these sort of collective experiences of being on the receiving end of the mass media for? I'll call it collective dehumanization, what the culture who the culture decides to attack.
So with every improvement in in communication, in the transmission of information, there's also an improvement in the transmission of misinformation. So if we look historically, we'd look at the Middle Ages and the proliferation of the dehumanization of Jews say in the German speaking lands, it was really slow and crude. People could come into a city and see sculptures of the Union sell the Jew pig. They could attend Easter passion plays, where Jews are represented by actors as demonic, villainous beings and so on. But it's a very, we could call that medieval mass media, right? It's but it's very inefficient. Once the Gutenberg press was invented, and and written documents and illustrations, wood cuts in the light could be distributed much more widely. dehumanizing propaganda could also be distributed much more widely and much more effectively, much more quickly than in the 18th century with widespread literacy in Europe. This became even more marked. Part of the genius of the Nazi propagandists, and really Gubbels was to harness the power of the radio. So the propaganda could be piped into each home and in fact garb, one of gurbles projects was to produce inexpensive radios that ordinary Germans could afford, precisely so that the Nazi propaganda could enter into everyone's home. And then, of course, as we go on, we have television and now we have the Internet where demonizing representations can spread with almost at the speed of light around the world. Now the Internet is a very wonderful thing as a scholar I so depend on it for getting information a lot of my research is on online using online sources. But the other side of that it cuts two ways is that dehumanizing propaganda, dehumanizing representations of others, also spread with great rapidity and great facility.
Part of what the mass media does is articulate and explain and reinforce the ideologies that we live under. And then midst of your discussion of ideology in on humanity, you have these the beginning of a paragraph I want to earn read out loud because I want you to explain it because it's counterintuitive. You right? Most of the people who benefited from slavery weren't moral monsters. In fact, paradoxically, it was precisely because they weren't moral monsters, that they performed or would complicit in morally monstrous acts. The way that people tend to think about the humanization Is that what it does is it corrupts your morality so that you act immorally and then going back from Plato onward, because you don't know any better because you've been manipulated because it corrupts your agency, but you're actually making the claim that the ideological structures don't make us into moral monsters in this way. What What do you mean by the fact that most people who benefited from slavery weren't moral monsters?
Oh, well, they they but Let me put it very simply and make a larger point. I think there is much too much emphasis on the role of hate when we're looking at these things, hate crimes, hate speech, etc. Most of the people in the grip of racist ideology don't hate those whom, who they oppress. Rather, they sincerely believe that these beings are inferior beings. And in fact, they often think that by oppressing them, for instance, by enslaving them, they are doing them a favor. This is an idea that goes back to Aristotle, in fact, the idea of the natural slave. So when when we think of others in that sort of way, when we think of them as less than human, then if, of course, it becomes mandatory, really not not to treat them in the ways that we would treat human beings. So, you know, look, think of pet owners. They don't hate their cats and the dogs and the goldfish, but they don't accord them. The respect and autonomy for the most part, there are exceptions, that that they accord, other human beings. And it's very important this that, look, when people are in the grip of racist or dehumanizing ideologies. They are sincere in their beliefs. It's not like, Oh, this is a means to an end. That is, I'm believing this in order to harm or oppress or exploit these people. There are people who, who have had and do have those views. But these are not people who are in the grip of the ideology. If you're in the grip of the ideology, you really, really do believe it. And when these acts of oppression, benefit you, as you know, I was gesturing towards in the paragraph that you were reading from, when they benefit for you. It's more and more attractive to believe these things.
Would you elaborate on that? Because I think that's a really important point, what why isn't more attractive?
Right? So let's say I'm a blacksmith. And suddenly there's a big market and manacles, chains and manacles. And that allows me to, it gives, it's good for my business, and it helps me put food on the table for my family and so on. When when things advantage us. And in particular, when it would be costly for us to push back against them, then there's an incentive, a motivation to, to believe, to believe in them to justify that, you know, the human mind is prone to to selfish biases, right? So look, if What if what you're doing is pleasant, pleasant for me, is something that I enjoy, it's something I perceive as benefiting me, my moral threshold is likely to be I guess it would be higher rather than lower. That is it I don't, as readily condemn what's going on. In fact, I'm inclined to justify it, to idealize it. In and so on. Look, I often tell my, my students that commercial chocolate is very often harvested by child labor, and sometimes by slave labor. But I say you'll go on eating it. And they will. They will that, you know, it'll that my words will be out of their minds. They won't remember, or somehow they won't take it seriously, even though these are students who are horrified at the at the institution of slavery, modern slavery, and at practices of child labor. So,
it seems to me that there ought to be some way to resist these tendencies of dehumanization, and you've elat you've alluded to, to, to incentives to make to To make it better for individuals that they love, live with whatever their neighbor, this is actually what one of the arguments for for global free markets, discussions of capitalism side that you get more by trading with partners than by warring with them. And then there's this sense of education which education towards pluralism and things like that. What do you think about these solutions? And I know you're you are especially in on on inhumanity you end by saying you're you're reluctant to talk about the resistance a little bit. But how do we resist these tendencies? What what threads do we have to pull to minimize, and possibly, eventually eradicate dehumanization?
Well, you know, that's a very important question. And there's no magic solution to this. So I can go through a few of these things briefly. One is we have to recognize that the human mind is configured in such a way that under the right circumstances, we are all potential dehumanizes. And I think education, psychological education there is really important. That is, we need to know about those aspects of human psychology, which make us vulnerable to dehumanization. We know there's no vaccine, we can't be inoculated. But we can be vigilant. Related to that is we need to resist the impulse of dehumanizing dehumanize others, to say that, you know, Hitler was a monster, or gurbles was a monster, or this person was a monster, that person was a monster. Because monsters are fictional. And when we make that move, what we're doing is trying to morally distance ourselves from the perpetrators of awful acts. And that's not helpful. Rather, we should see them as illustrating what the rest of us are capable of under the right circumstances, to encode assert, inculcate a certain amount of moral humility. Similarly, I think it should be the burden of every nation nation, to teach history to young people properly. You remarked on the widespread ignorance of what lynching was about. I mean, this is a case in point. Every nation or virtually every nation is born in violence. And virtually every group of people has blood on their hands somewhere along the line. And it's very important for people to recognize that of their own group. Because it's when you recognize that you realize that you're not exempt, you know, that, in our case here in this country, that American Exceptionalism is a myth. And if you realize that you're not exempt, then you realize there's an ongoing danger of you and yours, that group of people that you identify with, doing the same damn thing again. So those are two things. Another thing is to support social institutions that, that that offer a modicum of protection, freedom of speech, a free press, and so on. Both of which can be very easily subverted. By the way we saw that in Germany. Finally, and this have come to realize as as really key and it's not one that I mentioned in on in humanity, propagandists who manipulate us into dehumanizing others make use of a sense of human vulnerability, they frighten us, basically, they use fear as a way of incentivizing to, you know, dehumanizing attitudes, and and the atrocities that flow from that. That's easier for them to do if there are real objective insecurities. In one society, if people are objectively vulnerable, that is, if if they can't put food on the table if they can't get health care if they can't find work, if they're victims of crime, and so on. So building societies where people are secure, in my opinion, I hope I'm not wrong about this works against the intentions of those who would wish to play on our sense of vulnerability to convince us to dehumanize others.
I think that that's a really important place to end because it allows us several different places to get involved, right? It allows us to, to focus on ourselves and do the work for self awareness and culpability that we are responsible for. But also it gives us a political project and ways we can work with others, to build the institutions to build the society that that minimizes the opportunity for dehumanization. This was a very interesting and really difficult discussion to have. David, thank you so much for joining us on why.
Oh, thank you so much for for giving me the opportunity to speak to your listeners about these matters.
You have been listening to David Livingstone Smith and Jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life. We'll be back with a few more thoughts right after this.
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You're back with why philosophical discussions with everyday life. I'm your host Jack Russell Weinstein, we were talking with David Livingstone Smith, about dehumanization about how it works and why we should take it literally why the process of seeing someone as human and subhuman, as a human being and as a monster can't happen at the same time. And why our psychology why our ideology, why our culture, why our history allows us to perpetrate these horrible crimes and feel as if they are almost necessary. And this subverts the traditional picture of dehumanization, where we are broken people who are always at the brink of doing terrible things. Instead, what David wants to point out is that we are very social folks, but that we are faced with this apparatus, these fears, these manipulations to do the worst things. And I think that one of the most powerful things was what he said at the end, when he pointed out that that resisting dehumanization involves recognizing what the rest of us are capable of that we need a certain kind of moral humility, we need to be able to say, I am culpable. I could possibly do this. And I think that that's where we should start instead of looking at the history of the atrocities instead of trying to figure out why the Germans did this or why the slave owners did that or why the Buddhists attack the Rohingya Muslims and people like that. Ask yourself, What are you capable of? What am I doing? That leads to the possibility of dehumanization? What do I hold? Not just what hatreds do I have because that's too simplistic, but what what lessons have I learned what words have I used, what stories have I held on to that takes other people and makes them less than human? Philosophy has held on to the idea for a long time that there is an order to the universe in his books, he refers to the great chain of being where sentient animals are, are higher up than non sentient animals, and that human beings are higher up than non human beings. And we have a tendency to think that there are human beings that are better than or more human than other people. This is a very, very dangerous place to go. And we have to recognize that this is a philosophical way of looking at people that can be changed. I don't want you to ignore the history. I'm not suggesting we shouldn't learn about the Germans or the Buddhists or the or the or the racism of the United States. But what I am saying is, don't think about it as something that only happens elsewhere. Think about something that that happens here. Something that happens to us and saying that we can build our own way of resisting to make the world a better place and to acknowledge the fundamental humanity of other people. With all of that said, if you've been listening to this episode on Sunday evening on pretty public please know that a longer version with almost 30 more minutes of discussion is available online and as a podcast Visit why radio show.org To listen or subscribe for free. For everyone else rate us on iTunes and Spotify to help spread the word about the show. Follow us on all the usual social networks our handle is always at why radio show and please help us continue broadcasting by making your tax deductible donation at y Radio show.org. Click donate in the upper right hand corner to go to UND alumni is donation portal. We exist solely on the money you provide. Thank you again to my guests. The folks at Prairie Public especially skip wood are long suffering engineer. I'm Jack Russell Weinstein signing off for y radio thanks for listening. As always, it's an honor to be with you.
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