What Is Dehumanization, Anyway?

Dehumanization has been in the news a lot—understand it and how to fight it.

Posted Jun 21, 2018

When you see the president or other politicians use terms like “animals” or, even worse, “infestation” (a term usually reserved for insects), they are engaging in dehumanization. People use dehumanization to justify greed, violence, and abuse. Although dehumanization is most associated with right-wing nationalism, others sometimes use dehumanizing language, too. 

Dehumanization is one of eight forms of “moral disengagement” described by the psychologist Albert Bandura. Humans are capable of terrible crimes, and civilization has developed ways to inhibit aggression. However, we have not eliminated violence, in part because of techniques for creating (false) excuses and justifications for immoral behavior. All moral disengagement techniques are tricks to get people to accept behaviors that they would otherwise immediately recognize as unethical and unfair. For example, assuming most people are not big fans of child abuse, dehumanization and other moral disengagement strategies are used to trick people into accepting abuse of some children. The manipulators do it to secure power or financial gain.

Dehumanization involves redefining the targets of prejudice and violence by making them seem less human (that is, less civilized or less sentient) than other people. The classic strategy for this is to use terms like “animals” and “vermin.”  Referring to people as “illegals” is also dehumanizing. You’ll see dehumanization at work in most large-scale atrocities or genocides committed by governments, armies, or terrorists. The main purpose is to get people to accept or even engage in behaviors that they know are wrong.    

Dehumanization is not limited to political issues, however. Any time someone reduces a human being to a single characteristic, especially a negative one, they are dehumanizing. “Alcoholic,” “addict,” “diabetic,” and “schizophrenic” all rob people of the full complexity of their lives and reduce them to a symptom or disorder. Even many self-professed humanitarians used dehumanizing (and inaccurate) terms like “superpredator” in the crime scare of the 1990s. All slurs (insults based on race, gender, sexual orientation, health status or other characteristic) are also dehumanizing. 

Other Moral Disengagement Strategies

Victim-blaming (“You made me do it!”) is a favorite strategy of many perpetrators.  Like dehumanization, victim-blaming works by trying to taint and diminish the target of the violence, instead of focusing on the perpetrator as the actual source of wrong-doing. 

Some moral disengagement techniques involve pretending that immoral acts are not really bad. Euphemistic labeling is popular with governments, such as when they refer to “collateral damage” instead of the slaughter of civilians, or “tender age shelters” for imprisoning infants and toddlers. Moral justification tries to re-frame the action as a moral good (such as, “The ends justified the means”), while advantageous comparison introduces a moral relativism where you don’t have to meet your own standards of goodness, you only have to be better than your enemy (“What they do is much worse”). This latter one has sometimes led people to fight violence with violence, but nonviolent resistance is not only more ethical but also more successfulDistortion of consequences denies that the actions were harmful. For example, when infants and children were taken from their parents, some officials pretended that this was not harmful as long as they were being fed. Just because people survive mistreatment does not mean they were not harmed by it. 

Displacement of responsibility, such as claiming they were just following orders, and diffusion of responsibility, where people justify their actions by saying other people do it too, are forms of moral disengagement designed to minimize personal responsibility for immoral actions. Mob behavior is partly caused by these forces, for example when normally law-abiding people loot stores after blackouts or natural disasters. However, the most problematic versions of this are when soldiers, law enforcement officers, or other authority figures use their legal authority to abuse the public. 

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

The Golden Rule:  The Opposite of Dehumanization

The opposite of dehumanization is empathy and respect, as perhaps best expressed by the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Some version of that belief is found in virtually all world religions. The Golden Rule is as humanizing as it gets, by calling for everyone to give others the same treatment that you would like to get yourself. The Golden Rule means that there should be no us-them thinking—that all humans, or in some philosophies all living beings, are part of “us.” 

Causes of Dehumanization and Moral Disengagement

There’s less research on the causes of moral disengagement (versus how moral disengagement is a cause of violence and prejudice), but there are some well-established pathways. 

The first is manipulation, political or otherwise. In some circumstances, it does not take much to tip people into us-versus-them tribalism.    

Second, dehumanization is a component of narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders. Many people with these personality disorders cannot appreciate that other people have inner lives like their own. They are the stars in their own movie, and the rest of us are just props. Fortunately, these cases are relatively rare, they can be dangerous if they get a platform to manipulate others. 

Dehumanization can also be part of the cycle of violence. People who were mistreated as children can wall themselves off as a defense against that pain (physical and psychological). Sometimes, what helps abuse victims survive childhood becomes a handicap when they reach adulthood. They may be afraid of experiencing feelings about other victims because that could open the floodgates to all of their bottled-up feelings. 

How Can Dehumanization Be Prevented or Reduced?

Another way of thinking about dehumanization is that some people have under-developed skills of empathy and perspective taking, and when you think about it that way, it suggests solutions. 

Most of us can become more empathic. For children, many programs improve social and emotional learning (SEL). We now recognize the value of “emotional intelligence” for adults too, and that emotional intelligence can be learned later in life.

In cases related to PTSD, interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or mindfulness can help people handle their feelings and create more space for empathy. 

Milgram’s famous study on obedience also suggests ways to weaken the diffusion of responsibility. Although many participants could be compelled to give high electrical shocks to a “student” (actually a confederate who was not really getting shocked), it has been noted less often that it was not that easy to get them to do it. For example, if they saw the impact on the victim, or only had indirect exposure to the authority figure (such as receiving instructions over a phone or intercom), these factors greatly reduced their obedience. This is one reason why journalism is so important, because it helps people see what is really going on. 

Most importantly, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

You can’t fight dehumanization with dehumanization. 

For those of you who are horrified by the dehumanization that has led to children being kept in cages at the border or terrorists mowing down civil rights advocates, it is important to not let that horror slip into dehumanization. For example, some elements of the Antifa movement are also using moral disengagement to justify harassing people. The border patrol agents who are ripping children from parents and the neo-Nazi sympathizers who are advocating for racism are human, too. We can call out their behaviors without calling them “monsters.” Their actions might be hateful, greedy, violent, or maybe even monstrous, but they are actions that are being committed by people. Some of them may be victims themselves, others may have grown up in families where they were taught to hate. There are ways to make a bigot, but they are still people, and recognizing their humanity will be essential to reducing dehumanization. If we want a more humane society, we cannot engage in violence and harassment ourselves.

What Can You Do?

There are many specific action steps that can help you become a humanizing force in your community. 

1) Do not use dehumanizing language when you criticize others, including people with loathsome political views or who perpetrate terrible crimes.  In this article, I made sure that I refer to loathsome views or hateful behaviors and do not call people “monsters” or “Neanderthals” or other terms that suggest they are not human. 

2) Use questions or statements to draw out empathic responses.  Except for a few people with extreme narcissism or sociopathy, most people are capable of empathy. Try statements such as, “I can only imagine how I’d feel if those were my children,” or “Would you be able to rip a screaming child from her mother?” Some all-purpose statements for promoting empathy include “I try to imagine what it would be like to walk a mile in their shoes,” or “I always try to find common ground with others,” or “I think we all want the same basic things in life.” You may get some defensive instead of empathic responses, but if you can get even one person to recognize others’ humanity, that would be an important accomplishment.

If you want to engage more deeply, I recommend the podcast episode, “The Talk” by Charles Duhigg, which covers a 3-step process. First, validate the person (not the attitude or behavior), or, in other words, humanize them. Second, name the issue and express some curiosity about the other person’s thinking on the issue.  Third, tell a personal story about how you developed your own (loving and respectful) position.

3) Avoid posting unfiltered clips of people making dehumanizing claims.  Several of my friends have posted clips on social media from dehumanizing pundits with comments such as “Can you believe this???” or “This is insane!!!” It is good to share and post analyses of events on social media, but it is problematic to re-post clips directly from racist or misogynistic sources. You do not want to support these websites with advertising income from clicking and sharing.  

Also, not everyone views these clips through the same lens, and you may be inadvertently creating a “backlash” by showing people achieving national media coverage by espousing dehumanizing ideas. This is the same kind of contagion that can lead to increases in school shootings and suicides after media coverage. 

The news media is still wrestling with this challenge, but in this new world where even the most despicable views are easily accessed online, we all need to learn how to cope. 

4) Remember that the only true way to raise yourself up is by lifting up others, not running them down. Most people recognize the neediness and insecurity behind negative comments that range from petty to fully dehumanizing. Strong people do not need to “punch down” to feel good about themselves. Attacking infants and children is always punching down for adults, but so is attacking anyone who is less privileged than you are. The more authority and power you have, the more care you need to exercise in criticizing others. 

5) Be aware of—and speak up about—hidden biases in your work or other settings. Are you and your colleagues modeling inclusiveness? For example, I recently attended a research conference on families where every single invited speaker was white. As a result, there was little consideration of social and cultural differences in families, such as the importance of extended family and the percentage of multi-generational households. We need to do more to be sure that the full spectrum of humanity is represented in all settings.

I mentioned this afterward to the conference organizers, and admittedly that was kind of a tense interaction, but one awkward interaction is a small price to pay for less dehumanization. It also made me realize that I should have done more homework to learn about the program before agreeing to be a speaker. 

These are just a few ideas. If you have others, please leave them in the comments! Sometimes, the world can seem overwhelming, but there are ways to counteract dehumanizing forces and you can make a difference by being a force for humanism in your own community.

© 2018 Sherry Hamby. All rights reserved.

If you want to learn more about strengths-based approaches to dealing with adversity, come to ResilienceCon.