A Polaroid of an unaccompanied child following the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Such images were displayed on bulletin boards at NGOs. Photo by Jenny Matthews/Panos
You don’t have to be a monster or a madman to dehumanise others. You just have to be an ordinary human being
by David Livingstone Smith
(David Livingstone Smith is professor in philosophy at the University of New England, and director of the Human Nature Project. His latest book is Less Than Human (2011).)
In March 1945, Leatherneck Magazine, an official organ of the United States Marine Corps, published a brief, ostensibly humorous article describing a parasite named Louseous Japanicas. It included an illustration of a grotesque creature with stereotypically Japanese features. The accompanying text tells us that:
To the Marine Corps, especially trained in combating this type of pestilence, was assigned the gigantic task of extermination… Flame throwers, mortars, grenades and bayonets have proven to be an effective remedy. But before a complete cure may be effected the origin of the plague, the breeding grounds around the Tokyo area, must be completely annihilated.
Later that same month, US warplanes dropped 2,000 tons of incendiary bombs on the city of Tokyo. The stench of burning flesh was so intense that fighter pilots reached for their oxygen masks. Over the next five months, at least half a million Japanese men, women and children were, in the words of the US Air Force General Curtis LeMay, ‘scorched and boiled and baked to death’ in the firebombing of 67 Japanese cities. And then there were Hiroshima and Nagasaki…
Only a few years earlier in Germany, Jews were labelled Untermenschen (subhumans) and were likened to vermin, maggots and disease-transmitting parasites. Half a century later in Rwanda, Hutu génocidaires referred to their Tutsi quarry as cockroaches and snakes. This year, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu characterised the Palestinian killers of three abducted Jewish teenagers as predatory beasts (an epithet that he did not apply to the Jewish extremists who burned a Palestinian boy alive in retribution). ‘They were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by animals,’ he said. ‘Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay.’
What is the common element in all these stories? It is, of course, the phenomenon of dehumanisation. But this is neither recent nor peculiar to Western civilisation. We find it in the writings from the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and China, and in indigenous cultures all over the planet. At all these times and in all these places, it has promoted violence and oppression. And so it would seem to be a matter of considerable urgency to understand exactly what goes on when people dehumanise one another. Yet we still know remarkably little about it.
Here’s what we can say. The term ‘dehumanisation’ has acquired a variety of meanings since its introduction in the early 19th century. Some people think of it as a derogatory language-game: the rhetorical practice of likening human beings to non-human animals or inanimate objects. Others understand it as the act of degrading others by subjecting them to cruelties or indignities. Still others believe that we dehumanise people by denying them subjectivity, individuality, agency or other quintessentially human characteristics. My focus is on a different conception of dehumanisation – a deeper one that typically underpins all the others. We dehumanise other people when we conceive of them as subhuman creatures. Dehumanisers do not think of their victims as subhuman in some merely metaphorical or analogical sense. They think of them as actually subhuman. The Nazis didn’t just call Jews vermin. They quite literally conceived of them as vermin in human form.
Look at how European settlers thought about the Africans whom they enslaved. As the US historian of slavery David Brion Davis remarks: ‘It was this extreme form of dehumanisation – a process mostly confined to the treatment of slaves and the perceptions of whites – that severed ties of human identity and empathy and made slavery possible.’ The writings of Morgan Godwyn, a 17th-century Anglican clergyman who campaigned relentlessly for the civil rights of Africans and Native Americans, throw considerable light on how English colonists thought about their putatively subhuman slaves. In The Negro’s and Indians Advocate (1680), he wrote that he had been told ‘privately (and as it were in the dark)… That the Negros, though in their Figure they carry some resemblances of Manhood, yet are indeed no Men.’ ‘They are,’ he continued, ‘Unman’d and Unsoul’d; accounted and even ranked with Brutes’ – ‘Creatures destitute of Souls, to be ranked among Brute Beasts, and treated accordingly.’…