can make cruelty seem OK
In a breathtaking high-speed car chase, he barely evaded the hoodlums bent on beating the daylights out of his friend and him.
Fairly certain that the average car chase does not spontaneously generate, I asked if he and his friend might have done anything to provoke his would-be attackers.
“Yeah,” he said. “We threw beer on a couple of women.”
What may trouble you, as it did me, is that everyone hearing this tale of reckless youth erupted in laughter. No one asked what on earth had moved him to cruelly assault two human beings he didn’t even know. Everyone took it as no more than an innocent prank.
Time for me to come clean. I didn’t quite quote him accurately. He didn’t say “women.” He said “hookers.”
When I share this anecdote, a not-unusual reaction is: Hookers? Oh, that’s different. Somehow, changing “women” to “hookers” makes the assault appear less serious — perhaps even understandable — by making the victims seem less-than-human.
“Less-than-human” is no exaggeration. You can bet the group would have expressed outrage had he confessed to throwing beer on “a couple of Golden Retriever puppies.”
If even for a moment you caught yourself seeing “women” as entitled to protection from assault and “hookers” as not, you have experienced an instance of what sociologists call dehumanization — that is, viewing certain people as somehow less-than-human, and thus less entitled to fair treatment. It can take the best of us unawares, which is precisely why it’s important to exercise vigilance against it.
Why must we remain vigilant against dehumanization? Well, for starters:
Branding people as less-than-human is what allowed Nazi Germany to find it permissible to commit atrocities upon Jews, and allowed the rest of the world largely to look the other way.
For millennia, dehumanization made (and in many places still makes) it acceptable for nations to enslave those whose ethnicity didn’t match their own.
In the mid 19th Century, dehumanization allowed the governor of Missouri to sign an order calling for the massacre of thousands of Mormons, and a good many people throughout the rest of America to nod in agreement rather than recoil in horror.
Dehumanization allowed states in the American South, just 60 years ago, to defend the lynching of African Americans as a states rights issue.
Even today, dehumanization makes it acceptable for some Christian Americans to protect their freedom of worship while opposing the same for Muslims.
Dehumanization makes it seem admirable to hurl mindless epithets at members of an opposing political party.
Dehumanization makes it appear OK, even moral, to teach children not to play with — or, heaven forbid, grow up and marry — those outside their faith or color.
Dehumanization makes ordinary Americans cheer at the torture of captured enemy soldiers, yet express outrage when the enemy tortures Americans.
Dehumanization allows people to call themselves moral when they withhold human rights from a minority whose sexual orientation they find repugnant.
Dehumanization leads people to require no evidence before deeming a specific class of visitors de facto responsible for hard economic times, and to expel them like an invasive species rather than treat them as, well, fellow human beings.
If dehumanization fails to trouble you, chances are it is because you have never found yourself the object of it. But it should trouble you. If not for the sake of your fellow human beings, then for the very pragmatic reason that the tables may someday turn and place you among the dehumanized.
Don’t think it can’t happen. Here is a partial list of people who have been dehumanized at some time or another in the United States alone: women, children, Jews, Arabs, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Native Americans, African Americans, Japanese, Chinese, the French, Germans, Irish, Italians, Hispanics, the poor, the rich, renters, people with depression, people whose IQs were not deemed sufficiently high, people with a mental illness, imbibers, the sick, the LGBT community, believers and nonbelievers. Odds are you fall or have fallen within at least one of the above.
It is human nature to distinguish “us” from “them.” When all humans lived in tribes given to raiding one another, there was an arguable survival advantage in it. But today we are building a world community. The recalcitrant may not like that, but check the statistics: by consciously rising above our nature, we as a world are managing to reduce war, crime and disease. Yet we will truly succeed at becoming a world community only in as much as we eliminate from our vocabulary any pejorative that can be substituted for “human.”