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Humanizing Others, Humanizing Ourselves

Reduce the tendency to dehumanize others with these strategies.

Key points

  • Dehumanization increases risks of violence, marginalization, injustice, and further cycles of dehumanization.
  • We can interrupt the cycle by noticing our reactions and trying to remember shared humanity instead.
  • Practicing perspective-taking, understanding systemic factors, and accepting our own complexity can help.
Josh Bartok/ Used with Permission
Source: Josh Bartok/ Used with Permission

By Lizabeth Roemer, Ph.D. and Josh Bartok

I recently watched a conversation between Brittany Packnett Cunningham and Mohsin Mohi-Ud-Din about using storytelling to connect to one’s sense of one's own humanity, as well as to aid in recognizing all of our shared humanity. On the other hand, we often encounter dramatic dehumanizing or demonizing rhetoric from various public figures during online discussions. This rhetoric is used to justify harm and can also elicit an urge to dehumanize those who are expressing it, creating a cycle of dehumanization and harm. The lessons of history and research in the field of psychology clearly document the connection between this kind of rhetoric and the worldview it engenders, with the further amplifying of cycles of violence, marginalization, and injustice (Haslam, 2006).

It can be easy to dismiss dehumanization as something done only by “those people over there,” but recognizing a tendency in ourselves to see others whose actions we object to as less than fully human can help us interrupt cycles of violence and retaliation. Ironically, imagining these tendencies as something that has no relation to us (“I am nothing like that”) is itself a way of dehumanizing or othering others. But when we are aware of how easy it can be for us ourselves to lose track of the humanness of others, we can instead develop habits that allow us to practice an expansive humanization of ourselves and others. And this practice is a path to peace—both inner and outer.

“If I Were in Their Shoes”

It’s easy to observe the behavior of an individual or a group of people and think or say, “If I were in their shoes.” Then, proceed to say what we would do differently if we were ourselves, with our histories and experiences, suddenly put into their lives, but this is perhaps too simplistic. To reach a deeper level of understanding, it can be helpful to imagine that we have lived that person's (or that group’s) entire life experience, day after day, from the time they were born until the very moment they took some action we object to. What if we had been treated the way they have been treated throughout our lives, oppressed, perhaps abused, regarded with contempt? What if we were treated as less-than-human and shut out of spaces and conversations the way they have been? What if, for our entire lives, we had been denied access to resources and opportunities the way they have been? If we truly imagine that we have walked in someone else's shoes from before the time they had shoes, we will find that we can understand their words and actions much better. This goes beyond “there but for the grace of God (or circumstance) go I” to a profound realization of the reality that, in a really important way, even now, “there go I.”

The Power of Personal Names

In an article I use in my doctoral-level research methods course, Pratto (2002) suggests that researchers imagine replacing the term “participants” or “subjects” with their own family name to ensure that what they are writing is respectful. (So, rather than writing “Subjects in the study developed symptoms of X in response to….”, I might probe the humanity of that sentence by imagining it read “Roemers developed…”). I really like this suggestion, and I’ve recently been considering the impact of replacing general depersonalized terms with more personal, intimate ones in our words and thoughts. This can be powerful with people and even with the natural world. For instance, in my family, we’ve taken up a practice of naming the squirrels and birds that visit our deck. As a result, anytime we see a male cardinal, we cheerfully greet him as Hank and feel a more personal connection to the bird (even as we recognize that “Hank” is probably many birds). When I see upsetting events in the news or on social media, I remind myself that each person involved is a person with a name, with people who love them, and with wants and needs just like me and the people I love.

See Someone as Human and Still Object to Their Words and Actions

Social psychologists have observed that in some situations, humans are more likely to attribute their own actions to environmental causes while seeing others’ actions as evidence of self-existent and stable traits, i.e., “that’s just the way they are.” Studies have shown that this tendency can vary based on cultural factors (Markus & Kitayama, 1991) but is more likely to occur for negative behaviors observed or enacted (Malle, 2006).

I notice in my own responses that when people say or do things that I find particularly harmful, misinformed, and unjust, I can be quick to make more personality-based attributions for these things. For instance, when a person says something cruel, I might dismiss them as a cruel person. When I notice myself doing this, I have an opportunity to practice honoring my thought-out responses to these words and actions while also refraining from dehumanizing those who take them. I have certainly said and done things that I later realized were unkind and misinformed. And I know that deep pain, personal and historical trauma, cultural conditioning, as well as false information and propaganda, can lead people to do and say deeply, and perhaps even dramatically, harmful things. I also know, from my own experience and the psychological literature, that dehumanizing others causes intrapsychic harm to the person doing it, in addition to furthering cycles of harm—in short, when I dehumanize others, I do violence to my own heart and mind.

The practice then, in service of others as well as myself, is to cultivate compassion (perhaps using some of these strategies), while still holding them accountable for their actions, and striving to live in accord with my own values. That said, in contexts in which our own humanity is being denied, we may practice this compassion internally and from a distance. As writer and healer Prentiss Hemphill wisely notes of boundaries, they "are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” We can remove ourselves from the harmful words and actions of others while still seeing them as human.

Reject False Binaries

Sometimes, the urge to see others as less than human comes from the perception that we must either recognize others’ humanity or recognize our own because there cannot possibly be room for both. This creates a false binary—an imagined either/or that pushes out the more expansive reality of both/and. In such circumstances, it is essential for the well-being of all of us, both alone and together, to practice a spaciousness that recognizes the humanity of all of us. We must continually deprogram ourselves from messaging that somehow care for others will diminish us or that we must neglect ourselves in service of others. The truth is, always and inevitably, we are all interconnected.

Josh Bartok is a contemplative photographer and life coach. He is the author of two children's books and several collections of inspiring quotes.


Haslam, N. (2006). Dehumanization: An Integrative Review Personality and Social Psychology Review 10(3):252-64

Pratto, F. (2002). Integrating experimental and social constructivist social psychology: Some of us are already doing it. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 6, 194-198.

Malle, Bertram F. (2006). "The actor-observer asymmetry in attribution: A (surprising) meta-analysis". Psychological Bulletin. 132 (6): 895–919.

Markus, H. R.; Kitayama, S. (1991). "Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation". Psychological Review. 98 (2): 224–253.

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