Divided We Fall

How dehumanization keeps us from progressing as a society

Jul 6, 2018 · 8 min read

Driving down the road this morning, I was held up from passing a light before it turned red by a driver who had slowed down in my lane, only to get in the left turn lane. As I slowed down for the red light, I flipped him the bird (hey, it was 7 a.m., I was half asleep, and nobody is perfect). But at the same time, the guy looked over and I caught a glimpse of the side of his face, including his eye. That changed everything. I pulled up even with him, we smiled at one another, and I said I was sorry. Both our windows were up and he didn’t see me mouth those words, but I don’t think he saw my rude gesture either. The apology was more for my own peace than for his, anyway. I’d already written most of this article by then, but this small event, looking him in the eye after raging that he’d cut me off, punctuated its importance.

We are all taught, in some way or another, that it is an “us versus them” world. From team sports in school to the world stage, we get bombarded with the message that we are playing a zero-sum game, where “they” are the enemy and their loss means our gain. This is so ingrained in us that when we question it, we are met with skepticism, if not outright incredulity. No one can imagine a world without “us versus them.”

This tune has been played so strongly that it’s been unabashedly used against us, and a lot of us have fallen for it, even while we decry it (see my episode this morning). The right has used it by declaring their group — whatever passes for traditional values and pride in dominant local ethnicities — supreme, either explicitly or implicitly, and demanding adherence to social traditions that are perceived as long-practiced norms. The left does it by embracing and valuing diversity to the rejection of all tradition. Both sides have demonized the other so that if you value any diversity, you are a snowflake, but if you decry some of the ridiculous ideas of diversity that have been presented to us, you are a racist.

Heaven help you if you have a nuanced view like mine, where you can see that both sides are spreading the same message, but in different ways. Conservatives consider me a liberal snowflake for my views (socialism is already part of our economy, and is good; women and minorities have been taught oppressed behaviors by rich people in power who, through accident of resource distribution, happen to be predominantly white and male; healthcare revolves around a combination of Medicare-for-all and holistic wellness in the form of mindfulness, movement and strength training, and cardio), while liberals and neoliberals like to accuse me of standing for everything I don’t believe in (I am a misogynist because I believe feminism includes respecting the rights of men to be emotional beings, I am a racist because I believe elevating someone for no other reason than race or gender is racist and sexist, I am a free speech absolutist and therefore apparently sympathize with Nazis). People with nuanced views are the truest outcasts of the political struggle that is the United States right now, and I imagine this is true everywhere such polarization exists.

The interesting and rewarding thing about having a nuanced view, however, is seeing the areas where both sides are right about one another. The one vein that everyone seems to follow, no matter what their “-ism” of choice, is that the other side should not be considered, should not be reasoned with, and does not deserve the same rights your side does. In a world where there are only extremes, everyone is an extremist to someone, and the prevailing attitude is, “if you’re not on my side, you’re on the side of the enemy.”

  • I’ve had discussions recently with men who are so afraid of their “inherent” violence that they apologize for it whenever they can.
  • I’ve talked to white people who feel so guilty for the accident of birth that made them white that they treat it like an affliction they have to cope with, like it is heart disease or diabetes. I’ve been that white person, too, at one point so scared to offend with the word “black” that I was hesitant to even describe my cat with that adjective.
My cat. (Photo credit: Jenny Asencio)
  • I’ve talked with racists and Holocaust deniers who treat minorities and Jews as though their skin color or ethnicity are afflictions that need to be cured.
  • Conservative friends of mine believe Obama was secretly importing Muslims to the United States.
  • Liberal friends of mine firmly insist that Russia is trying to start a war with the Western world, starting with hacking the US election and going from smoking-gun operation to smoking-gun operation, caught red-handed at every turn and yet somehow so proficient as to be feared.

We hate Russia. We hate Syria. We hate North Korea. You don’t? We don’t have to consider what you say! You are deplorable, a racist, a snowflake, a misogynist, a fem-Nazi. You and everyone around you or who agrees with you must be terrible.

The one thing no one ever is, is human. No one ever considers the humanity of The Enemy, because to do so would be to admit that they have motivations and reasons of their own, and that perhaps they can be talked to and understood. Considering another point of view has become The Enemy, and anyone who holds an opposing viewpoint must be silenced, must be sent off to their corner with the other Thems so that all of Us know not to take their opinion seriously.

This manifests into three reactions:

  1. No discourse is encouraged, because talking to one of Them is to actually be one of Them. Even considering them with compassion is tantamount to being one of Them and cannot be tolerated. Reading their works and watching their programs is already subjecting yourself to lies and falsehoods, but talking to them? Sympathizing with them? Right out.
  2. False “Thems” are slung at with regularity. Often, it is the people trying to encourage discourse between both sides, the ones who see the motivations behind both arguments, the ones with nuanced views. What this does is inflate the number of “them.”
  3. Since “They” are not human and don’t need to be considered, it is okay to be violent to “Them,” and do horrible things that we wouldn’t do to anyone human.
Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

In this way, we are not only divided, but actively at war with each other, every one of us. Even marginalized groups, who could do a vast amount of good for one another by joining together, get engaged by this rhetoric into a game of “who suffers the most” which not only further divides us, but is encouraged all around by supposed defenders and allies. We are all asked to consider intersectionality, but then we are tasked with seeing a zero-sum game where the only way one group can thrive is by taking something away from another group. The rationalizations why the other group can should suffer the loss creates a situation where their humanity is taken away in favor of the umbrella terminology of the group as a whole. “They” are not human.

Even the true victims are dehumanized. Their stories become cards to be played for sympathy as opposed to real cases of real people being marginalized or hurt by the system as it exists now. They become dehumanized into victims, their faces taken away until there is nothing left but a name and a crime against them. Supposedly these people are being “helped” by this, but if anything it takes away from their own suffering by conflating it with faux-outrages based on extremism.

The dehumanization we visit upon one another comes in many forms. We dehumanize people based on gender, based on race, based on political persuasion, based on religious belief, based on ethnicity or even national heritage. We see them as nameless, faceless masses, but never as people, even while they inhabit human bodies. They are robots, with no emotions, no cares, no concerns, and always thinking clearly, provided with good information that they then choose to reject. They have “never” been lied to by their governments or religious leaders, and we have “never” done anything to them that deserves their contempt, even when we have.

We will keep doing this because it is an easy shortcut that gives us an excuse not to critically examine what others have to say. It’s much easier to write off someone’s views if they’re just a snowflake, or just a racist, or just a Nazi, or just a woman. You can write them off as a human being based on small things — all of their concerns, all of their reasons (sometimes imagined, but often all too real) for holding the views they do, all of their goals, and even their safety and lives. After all, they’re not human, they’re just [insert viewpoint here].

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

We will keep doing this unless we notice ourselves doing it and stop ourselves. That simple advice isn’t so easy. Even the most mindful of us can’t be watching the constant stream of their thoughts at every moment (again, see my behavior this morning). Judgment slips by. However, many of us already know what it is to be marginalized. Being marginalized before does not give us the right to marginalize others, even our former or current oppressors. So in order to truly stand for the things we say we believe in, it is incumbent upon us to recognize the humanity and dignity of every other human on the planet, whether their ideology matches ours, or is directly opposed to it. As long as we keep marginalizing each other, the only ones who benefit will be the ones with something to gain from keeping us all at odds. Let’s look each other in the eyes and see each other’s faces and remember that we are all in this together, #TeamHuman.


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Jenny Asencio

Written by

Proud, card-carrying nerd, rational feminist, spiritual observer, one-woman riot, ally of free thinking and objectivity, Harvard student, power metal is life!

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