The (non)essentialism of dehumanization

It is a given that those who persecute others get to the point of committing barbarous acts by first dehumanizing them. In Today’s New York Times Book Review, David Berreby offers an intelligent critique of the essentialism of this tendency to dehumanize “the other” via a review of David Livingstone Smith’s Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others. Berreby explains that Smith, as a philosopher, makes the argument that humans’ “cognitive architecture,” which places ideas and concepts into immutable categories, leads to categorizing other humans, which then leads to rejecting those who do not fall into the ethnic or cultural category into which they belong. Berreby tells us that Smith says this then leads to Nazis calling Jews “rats,” Hutus calling Tutsis “cockroaches,” and Arab Darfuris referring to Black Darfuris as “monkeys.”

Berreby, who writes Mind Matters, a blog on psychology on Big Think, correctly identifies this somewhat warmed over Social Psych 101 argument as “only half right:”

people do categorize themselves and others using essences, but there’s nothing immutable about them. If, like trained philosophers, we could settle for good who is essentially human and who is a zombie vampire squid, we wouldn’t have, or need, this drama of dehumanization, rehumanization, then more dehumanization, and so on. Instead, the who-is-and-isn’t-human question is never truly settled. In fact, it is the dynamic, even mercurial nature of “real human” status that makes this mystery of our psychology so fascinating.

It is certainly true that genocidaires and those who place themselves above others in general do so by demeaning their victims. But what is equally true is that they don’t always do this, and, if human history and diversity is any record, they usually don’t do this in ways that leads them to exterminating others. In other words, certainly it is the case that dehumanization is critical in getting humans to commit atrocities against other humans, but the reason this is so is that “we readily see others as human” and “we need reminding that our enemies are supposedly different.” It is the shift between “human” and “dehuman” categories that is really interesting, and probably more important if we are going to find some way to avoid the effects of the latter more often.

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2 Responses to “The (non)essentialism of dehumanization”


  1. 1 David Livingsone Smith March 6, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    In fact, Berreby misconstrues my argument in ways that should be obvious to anyone who reads the book. He confuses the claim that when we attribute a non-human essence to people it is, typically, thought to be unalterable, with the absurd claim that we never alter our views about others’ subhumanity. I argue for the first point and repudiate the second.

    • 2 andyrasmussen March 6, 2011 at 2:28 pm

      Thanks for the clarification, Dr. Smith. To be clear to everyone: My post was not a review of the book!

      Andy Rasmussen


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