Dehumanizing Others Is No “Joke”

Representing outgroups as animal-like is a powerful tool to delegitimize others

Posted Jul 18, 2013

Cecile Kyenge is a distinguished and accomplished woman, trained as an eye surgeon, now serving as Italy’s minister for integration. As a Black woman in a position of power and influence, she routinely faces a barrage of racist attacks.

A particularly shocking display of racism was expressed recently by Roberto Calderoli, a right-wing senator in Italy. As reported in the Guardian, Calderoli spoke at a public event, declaring:

"I love animals—bears and wolves, as is known—but when I see the pictures of Kyenge I cannot but think of the features of an orangutan, even if I'm not saying she is one."

This short statement covers many key themes I routinely encounter in my research. First, there is the animalistic dehumanization of an outgroup member (i.e., representing this Black woman as an orangutan). Such language is used deliberately to delegitimize an outgroup member, weakening their social position and influence. Second, there is the attempt to dismiss one’s derogatory comment as harmless, inoffensive, and not an indication of intergroup bias. In former columns for Psychology Today I have discussed dehumanization (see links here, here, and here; see also Costello & Hodson, 2010, 2011, in-press a, in press-b; Hodson & Costello, 2012; Hodson, MacInnis, & Costello, in press; MacInnis & Hodson, 2012). In today’s column I’d like to focus on how we can pass off derogatory humour as “just a joke”. After all, Calderoli defended his comments as not indicative of racism, but rather as a “little joke” or a “funny joke”.

In a recent paper (Hodson, Rush, & MacInnis, 2010), we explored whether jokes are sometimes more than mere jokes. We tapped participants’ beliefs that jokes-are-just-jokes, simply designed for purposes of enjoyment, and that people need to lighten up about the social ramifications of humour. These are what we call Cavalier Humour Beliefs. Of course, sometimes jokes ARE just jokes. But for this reason, jokes can serve as cover for those wishing to express bias against an outgroup. Across multiple studies we showed that Canadians scoring higher in social dominance orientation (i.e., endorsing intergroup inequality) rated derogatory jokes against Mexicans as amusing and inoffensive as a result of passing off these jokes as “just jokes” (i.e., not meaningful or consequential). These cavalier humour beliefs not only facilitated perceptions that derogatory jokes are harmless, but subsequently elevated prejudice against the group targeted by the joke. That is, dismissing off-colour jokes as harmless and playful serves to legitimize or rationalize expressions of bias, further entrenching prejudices.

This attack against Cecile Kyenge is yet another all-too-common example of animalistic dehumanization. Clearly, dehumanization is a serious business, robbing others of their value and importance by symbolically “lowering” them to the status of non-human animals. As I have argued in other columns for Psychology Today, dehumanizing other humans only has such strong social power because we, as humans, over-value humanness in the first place (see also Hodson et al., in press). We need to recognize not only that our mistreatment of and disregard for animals contributes to human prejudices, but that dehumanizing metaphors are tools to delegitimize others, and as such, are no laughing matter.

References and Suggested Readings:

Bastian, B, Costello, K., Loughnan, S., & Hodson, G. (2012). When closing the human-animal divide expands moral concern: The importance of framing. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 421-429. DOI: 10.1177/1948550611425106

Costello, K., & Hodson, G. (2010). Exploring the roots of dehumanization: The role of animal-human similarity in promoting immigrant humanization. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 13, 3-22. DOI: 10.1177/1368430209347725

Costello, K., & Hodson, G. (2011). Social dominance-based threat reactions to immigrants in need of assistance. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41, 220-231. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.769

Costello, K., & Hodson, G. (in press-a). Explaining dehumanization among children: The interspecies model of prejudice. British Journal of Social Psychology. (accepted Sept 26, 2012).

Costello, K., & Hodson, G. (in press-b). Lay perceptions of the causes of and solutions to dehumanization and prejudice: Do non-experts recognize the role of human-animal relations? Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

Hodson, G., & Costello, K. (2012, Dec 15). The human cost of devaluing animals. New Scientist, 2895, 34-35. 

Hodson, G., Rush, J., & MacInnis, C.C. (2010). A “joke is just a joke” (except when it isn’t): Cavalier humor beliefs facilitate the expression of group dominance motives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 660-682. DOI: 10.1037/a0019627

Hodson, G. & MacInnis, C.C., & Costello, K. (in press).  (Over)Valuing “Humanness” as an Aggravator of Intergroup Prejudices and Discrimination. In P. Bain, J. Vaes, & J.-Ph. Leyens (Eds.), Humanness and dehumanization. London: Psychology Press.

Hodson, G., MacInnis, C.C., & Rush, J. (2010). Prejudice-relevant correlates of humor temperaments and humor styles. Personality and Individual Differences, 49, 546-549. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.05.016

MacInnis, C.C., & Hodson, G. (2012). Intergroup bias toward “Group X”: Evidence of prejudice, dehumanization, avoidance, and discrimination against asexuals. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 15, 725-743. DOI: 10.1177/1368430212442419

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