Rehumanization is a Shared Responsibility
What do dating, climate change, and dehumanization have in common?
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We all watched with faces twisted in horror as an angry mob breached the barriers and scaled the walls of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. I shudder to recall the makeshift gallows amid chants of “Hang Mike Pence!” I was shocked at how quickly we turned on our own, but not surprised; it’d been seeded for years.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump routinely referred to immigrants as rapists and criminals. In 2018, his rhetoric accelerated: “These aren’t people. These are animals.” In 2020, Asian Americans became the scapegoat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By January 6, Trump was ready to cash in on his chips. He encouraged a crowd south of the White House to “walk down to the Capitol,” adding, “you will never take back our country with weakness.” And, “if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore."
Last week, he revisited that language of dehumanization.
In the bill that extended government funding through December, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) tried to amend a measure to stop aid for Afghan refugees who were evacuated to the United States. Donald Trump called on Republicans to oppose the bill, calling it “a major immigration rewrite that allows Biden to bring anyone he wants from Afghanistan for the next year—no vetting, no screening, no security—and fly them to your community with free welfare and government-issued IDs.”
Trump claimed they would bring “horrible assaults and sex crimes.”
Dehumanization will be made worse by climate change
It should send chills down our spine anytime we hear rhetoric like this. But as this week’s infrastructure debate demonstrates, we in America often fail to include the context of climate change in our politics and governing.
In the coming years, the nexus between climate change and rising global autocracy will certainly create a refugee crisis like we’ve never seen and that will test the limits of global governance and international cooperation.
This will give demagogues even more fodder for dehumanization, and make the possibilities and their consequences even more chilling.
Dehumanization is a self-reinforcing process
David Smith, author of Less Than Human, describes dehumanization as a response to conflicting motives. Smith explains that we have very deep and natural inhibitions that prevent us from treating other people like animals. Dehumanization, then, is a way of subverting those inhibitions.
Dehumanization often starts with creating an enemy image. It is defined by Michael Maiese, the chair of the philosophy department at Emmanuel College as ‘'the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and therefore not worthy of humane treatment.”
Once we see people on 'the other side' of a conflict as morally inferior and even dangerous, the conflict starts being framed as good versus evil. Maiese writes, “Once the parties have framed the conflict in this way, their positions become more rigid.”
So that creates moral exclusion: there’s an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ Groups targeted based on their identity — gender, ideology, skin color, ethnicity, religion — become the ‘them’ and are depicted as subhuman, criminal, or even evil. The targeted group(s) eventually falls out of the scope of who is naturally protected by our moral code.
During the Holocaust, Nazis described Jews as rats and as untermenschen - subhuman. During the Rwandan genocide, Hutus called Tutsis cockroaches. Serbs called Bosnians aliens. It takes time for this rhetoric to stick, but once it does, history shows us that it works.
In her Pulitzer-prize winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power demonstrates that brutality often comes with plenty of warning, and both citizens and officials are prone to dismiss omnipresent omens. In every case, they were convinced that bloodshed could not happen there, that it could not happen then, or that it could not happen to them. Because dehumanization is such a long game, threats and outright violence become normalized via increasing exposure over a long period of time.
That long, slow burn is one of many factors that led us to January 6. But that attempted coup wasn’t the endpoint. It was the appetizer. It was the warning shot.
We’re still burning; the house is still on fire.
What do people gain from dehumanization?
Enforcing our place in a hierarchy is often a balm for fear and the dull ache of perceived powerlessness.
As wealth inequality grew over the last four decades, and younger generations became more liberated and diverse, it created a politics of angst; a vague existential ache. Wannabe despots and social media companies capitalized on this perceived loss of power.
“Human beings have long conceived of the universe as a hierarchy of value,” says David Smith. That hierarchy has God at the top and inert matter at the bottom, and everything else in between. Smith doesn’t think that model of the universe makes scientific sense, but nonetheless, for some reason, we continue to conceive of the universe in that fashion. Indeed, we are conditioned to see human differences in simple, binary opposition to each other: good/bad, dominant/submissive, superior/inferior.
I know what it’s like to feel like an ‘other.’ The experience of not-belonging has revisited me throughout my life like a trusted companion. My early childhood was marked by poverty and abuse. I was bullied in school for being poor and talented and talkative and smart. In my extended family, I felt like both the golden child and the black sheep.
So, I got really good at fitting in. I became a shapeshifter, a chameleon, a people pleaser, a performer, an overachiever. I did and said whatever was needed to feel like part of the group. And in that lonely process, I became a stranger to myself. I lost me.
In dehumanizing others, we are dehumanizing ourselves
“When we engage in dehumanizing rhetoric or promote dehumanizing images, we diminish our own humanity in the process.” – Brené Brown
My response to preserving my position in the hierarchy was to dehumanize myself. Many of us face the pitfall of being seduced into joining the oppressor under the pretense of sharing power. To feel worthy of love, I felt like I had to erase my authentic self and paint it over with what everyone else wanted from me. The toll for joining the in-crowd was self-violence.
This strategy helped me survive in early life but eventually became too painful to sustain. I wrote a poem about it and these lines accurately capture the feeling:
“…So I stuffed myself into a magic lamp
shapeshifting – a performance art
an act of violence by my own hand
granting everyone’s wishes but my own
Bruxism – a coping mechanism
braided my wounds like sour candy straws up to the hinge
eventually metastasizing to lock-jaw
until the great agony forced me to bare my teeth”
It was also self-sabotage. By not connecting authentically with myself, I wasn’t connecting authentically with others. For example, I wondered why I kept attracting partners who couldn’t accept me for who I really was. Much to my chagrin, I discovered it was because I couldn’t accept me for who I really was.
When we feel like we must edit or revise our true selves to find love, the results offer diminishing returns. Sure – you can find someone to make you feel “loved” and less alone, especially in the short term, but it’s not real if the person loves the hologram and not the real you.
Relationships are mirrors, assignments, growth opportunities. Everyone you meet can be a teacher.
The other people in your life reflect back to you the things you like and/or dislike in yourself. They give you a peek into your unconscious blind spots. Mirrors sometimes show you things you might not want to see, but understanding your reflection is immensely helpful if you’re willing to look.
Over the last few years, I’ve been collecting those data points. I’m rediscovering and rehumanizing my authentic self. It seems paradoxical that to experience true love, one must be sovereign. It means accepting the vulnerable reality that I will sometimes be an outcast; that it’s better to be willing to stand out on my own, truly alone, and sometimes reviled if it means my connections will be genuine.
Dehumanization can be subtle and is pervasive
“When greedy consumption is the order of the day, dehumanization becomes acceptable. Then, treating people like objects is not only acceptable but is required behavior. It's the culture of exchange, the tyranny of marketplace ideas.” – bell hooks
Psychologists distinguish between two types of non-humanness: one that denies uniquely human attributes to others by comparing them to animals (the kind we’ve examined thus far) and one that denies human nature to others by comparing them to objects (also known as objectification and commonly applied, at least in our society, to women).
This more subtle dehumanization is a pervasive thread woven through the fabric of our society. I wrote this summer about the archetype of the ‘frat’ and how it gave us a president who grabs women by the pussy and Supreme Court justices with histories of sexual harassment and assault allegations. That’s just one example. We’ve also become largely desensitized to the 700,000 people who have died of COVID.
I became single this year after being married and/or in relationships for most of my adult life and was bummed to discover the level of subtle dehumanization in our modern dating dynamic. We treat relationships like transactions and people like objects.
Scrolling through dating videos on YouTube, one can learn how to be a “sugar baby” or a gold digger, or discover red pill pickup artist (PUA) dark psychology and manipulation techniques. There’s no shortage of advice for “how to make them obsessed with you.” I’ve heard friends debate the merits of having a potential romantic partner or two on the backburner so there’s always someone to entertain you. It’s broadly considered uncool to catch feelings and we seem to have replaced intimacy with sex.
I could go on, but you get the point.
The internet will sell you dating techniques and mind games but beware of the fine print. When relationships become transactions, humans become commodities, and true connection becomes impossible. I know from experience that when we don’t feel love in ourselves, we try to find it in another and can become codependent.
Rehumanization is a shared responsibility
Negatively judging others increases our alienation and often arises from projection. When we judge we are less able to forgive others and ourselves. Instead of indulging our judgment, we can get curious and gather helpful intel. What makes us judge that other person? What about them irritates us and why?
If we find ourselves in a period of isolation, we can practice finding joy in solitude as a form of self-care. When we can be alone with ourselves, we can be with other people without viewing them transactionally, using them as a way to escape from ourselves. And when we’re no longer viewing relationships transactionally, we reduce our capacity for dehumanization and that makes it easier for us to embrace people who are different from us.
“Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the Universe. For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other – for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.38
So, we know climate change and rising autocracy will exacerbate dehumanization and make it more dangerous.
We know dehumanization is a long process and that we’re already well on our way. We’ve had our first warning shot.
Worse, we know that this sense of hierarchy and dehumanization already pervades society on more subtle levels. Thus, we can deduce that it takes conscious effort to counteract. That effort must start internally within each of us for it to take hold externally. It is up to us. We are not merely witnesses to this period but also contributors.