Dehumanization is a process whereby humans treat other humans without common dignity, civility, or any other traits which hint at a recognition of those persons as equally human on a fundamental level; dehumanization strips people of their human status and renders them objects or animals, thereby absolving the dehumanizing party of the responsibility of living up to their moral and ethical responsibilities.
If the term “dehumanization” sounds eerily dark, that’s because it is. It’s essentially the psychological mechanism that hides behind the masks which are the faces who’ve committed the worst atrocities, things like The Holocaust and public lynchings, things like senseless murder, all are carried out by agents who’ve successfully rendered, at least in their own minds, the party they aggress to be inhuman.
Dehumanization, it has been said, is a curious little loophole in our otherwise sound ethics, through which we allow ourselves the ability to hurt other people without holding ourselves to any sort of moral standards. After all, if someone isn’t really a human being, do the responsibilities we have towards other human beings really apply to them?
Victim blaming is a classic example of dehumanization, where the victim is blamed for an injustice done to them because of their perceived status or social class, be it woman, immigrant, minority, religious affiliation, or even ideological affiliation. Even worse, the person doesn’t actually have to even belong to that class, we can simply mistake someone for a woman, immigrant, minority, etc.
Dehumanization is also one of the most prominent intellectual tricks of abuse because few can convince themselves and others that abuse is acceptable, so they need those who wish to carry out abusive acts need to find a way to convince others why this case of abuse is acceptable. In order to do so, they dehumanize.
Beyond just the terrifying thought of the idea of the latent propensity that we all have to dehumanize others, hidden and lurking within us, waiting to be fed, is the fact that, by all measures, it’s likely becoming more prevalent due to the technological forces which are shaping our world.
Simply put, people don’t see one another as people anymore, they see groups, they see tribes, they see clans, they see the in-group and the out-group, the “us” and the “them.” You’ve probably noticed this yourself.
There is a dehumanizing element to technology, one which separates us and increases the divide between us humans collectively. For many people, such as internet trolls and keyboard warriors, dehumanization is kind of the whole point of the internet — the goal is to reduce others to a less-than-human level, but for what cause or reasons?
An abstract in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology has made a powerful assertion that resonates with many of us and our frustrations in cyberspace, and that assertion is that expanded social networks seemingly paradoxically often lead to antisocial behavior. The piece substantiated this assertion that those who feel more socially connected with a certain group are more likely to dehumanize others outside of that group. A piece from the abstract:
Being socially connected has considerable benefits for oneself, but may have negative consequences for evaluations of others. In particular, being socially connected to close others satisfies the need for social connection, and creates disconnection from more distant others. We, therefore, predicted that feeling socially connected would increase the tendency to dehumanize more socially distant others. Four experiments support this prediction.
The gist of the piece is that the more one feels a part of a closely-knit inclusive club, the more likely they are to exclude and dehumanize others — this seems to be a natural phenomenon of social groups that don’t only apply online.
But do the internet and social networks online compound the problem?
How it Works
In psychology, dehumanization is just one of eight total forms of moral disengagement, whereby people commonly absolve themselves of the responsibility of living up to moral standards and responsibilities and is one where people reduce a person or group of persons to a singular idea and criticize the idea and not the person. It’s the old bait-and-switch, just link the person with the idea, then channel the hate for the idea into the person.
This is actually a natural outgrowth of human societies and has been demonstrated — even replicated — in both the real world and controlled experiments repeatedly. Labels are the classic signs of dehumanization, and our internet world is an increasingly labeled world, where everyone is a liberal or a conservative, a Democrat or a Republican, or an immigrant or worse — the President of the United States calling some undocumented immigrants “animals” — this was one of the most obvious examples of dehumanization to ever take place.
Dehumanization is slightly more than labeling, though, where labeling things often helps us to create mental shortcuts to save us time while we discuss or criticize ideas, dehumanization is when the honest discussion of ideas has decidedly stopped — because we don’t have conversations with people we’ve dehumanized, but we speak at them. This allows us, of course, to not have to listen to them in return — dehumanization is almost always the goal of willful ignorance.
It’s actually precisely these mental shortcuts which cause the problem in the first place, mental shortcuts that, at first, harmlessly help us group ideas, but when used exhaustively over time, begin to color our field of vision to see the mental shortcuts everywhere we look, even when those things aren’t present.
Most of all, unlike simply labeling people, dehumanization is dismissive of any thoughts, ideas, feelings, emotions, rights, etc., of anyone purported to belong to the label assigned, and it’s dismissive precisely because of the label, not the ideas.
- If I label a group of people who subscribe to the philosophy of Hegel as gospel as “Hegelians,” this is not dehumanization.
- If I disagree with all Hegelians on the premise that Hegel’s philosophy had major shortcomings, this still isn’t dehumanization.
- It’s when we close ourselves off to anything that Hegelians have to say or feel that we dehumanize them. This goes hand-in-hand with rationalizing things when we close ourselves off to what others feel and what their personal experiences are. Hegelians can’t be right, not because the philosophy of Hegel is wrong on its merits and demerits, but simply because they’re Hegelians.
When we appeal to scientific literature to dismiss the valid experiences of other people, we dehumanize them, when we appeal to the vast information that supports our causes against individual feelings, this is actually dehumanization also…and we all do it, at least sometimes, but the individuals in society, especially online, are increasingly at the third stage of this process exemplified in my analogy about Hegelians.
An obvious example of this can also be seen in two internet buzz words, “pedophilia” and “fascism.” Both words are almost invariably used outside of academic discussion to dehumanize someone.
For the record, it’s okay to hate bad beliefs, it’s okay to hate bad ideologies, it’s okay to hate the actions of people — but it’s not okay to equate the people committing the actions with the actions themselves. We are the totality of our actions, not one action in isolation or one label thrown at us.
Labels also allow people to diffuse the responsibility through a similar process called deindividuation, which is when one’s psyche literally augments the person into nothing more than a member of the larger group in a terrifyingly cultish fashion. When someone kills many people in the name of a group they subscribe to, they don’t perceive themselves as responsible, but the group responsible, and they lose their sense of selves within the group. This is deindividuation.
In this sense, dehumanization works in strange ways when paired with deindividuation, whereby a person submits their individual humanity to the larger group in exchange for the right to deprive others of their individual humanities. At this point, people are communicating and acting solely as labels, never as individuals, they don’t listen, they don’t feel, they don’t care, they’re quite like machines, and it’s getting worse.
It’s likely that increased political and social tribalism, and the ensuing dehumanization of the so-called “out-group,” is happening because of the expansion of social networks which have been rapidly brought about by unprecedented growth in our information technologies. This could actually be expected with any vast expansion of social networks and solidifying of social connections.
So in case you’ve felt like the world is getting increasingly bitter and antagonistic, increasingly dismissive and abusive, you’re actually quite right — it’s not all in your head, the world is actually dehumanizing more. The internet has increased our social networks which have increased our tribalism, which has increased our tendencies to dehumanize one another.
One of the biggest causes for concern and signs of an increase in dehumanization has been the tribalism which has to lead to an increase in demand for and consumption of fake news. Fake news is fueled by dehumanizing tendencies.
Fake news is a tell-tale sign of deindividuation when fact and truth fall secondary to the subscription to group-think; for the people who succumb to such errors in thinking, being liked by the members of the close-knit social circle is more important than the fact-based reality and the consequences of our words and actions in it.
We subscribe to fake news to trade reality for our championed causes, we don’t fact-check, we don’t search for the deeper meaning and nuance, we don’t look beyond the surface for anything other than what our tribal beliefs tell us we need to look for. This is currently being evidenced by the race for the Democratic candidacy for president, one which has been often dominated by the theme, “It doesn’t matter what ideas the nominee for the Democratic Party supports, as long as they’re not a Trump-supporter,” just like, “It doesn’t matter if this piece of information is real or not, as long as it supports my cause.”
The echo-chambers we’ve built only serve to help us double-down on our dehumanization of the out-groups, and as our groups get more expansive, so too do our levels of dehumanization and our tightness with our so-called “in-groups;” which, as we discussed at the outset, only serve to further compound our tendencies to strip others of their individuality.
The Return to Individualism
So, if anything, what can save us from ourselves? I’d like to suggest that we try on the individual level with all of our might to become better individuals. The future of the human race and counterintuitively our own continued survival may depend on it. The fact is, we’ll need to cooperate with other humans in a world that’s becoming increasingly less human, a world where the consequences of the actions of each and every individual are increasingly felt by the rest of the world.
If there has ever been a more pressing case for a resurgence in the philosophy of radical individualism, both in our lives and in academia, one through which individuals aren’t incentivized to subscribe to group-think and the succumb to the temptation of becoming swallowed whole by the group, I’d be interested to hear about it. Contemporary times are in desperate need of people willing to think and act as independent and free agents responsible for their actions, as our technology brings us closer together and further emboldens our natural tendency to clump into tribalistic bands of unthinking and labeled numbers — rather than human beings.
© 2019; Joe Duncan. All Rights Reserved