Discover more from Clementine Morrigan
As human beings we have the capacity to feel empathy. Our nervous systems are built for it. Our bodies physically react when we see another person in pain. The more connected we are to someone, the more we can respond empathetically to what they are experiencing, but we also have this capacity with strangers. This is a pro-social ability that we evolved as highly social group mammals. It is in our best interest to behave in ways that benefit the group and that foster social bonds. It is in our best interest to be able to respond effectively to the needs of our highly dependent young. We know how to read each other’s minute facial expressions and body language. We know ho to put ourselves in each other’s shoes and imagine each other’s perspectives. This is a big part of what it means to be human. We also have the ability to shut empathy off. And that is a big part of being human too.
Dehumanization is a practice of shutting off our empathy response for another human being or group of human beings. It’s also the mental justifications, stories, and mythologies we use to enable our shutting off of empathy. It’s how we manage to walk past a homeless person lying on the street, clearly suffering, without stopping, because the sight of another human being in such a horrible position should invoke in us a visceral resonance of what it would be like for us to be in that position. The impulse to dehumanize, to shut off the empathy response, also plays a role in our survival: if we are so focused on another’s suffering that we collapse in an emergency then we are no good to anyone. If we are so overwhelmed by the suffering in the world that we can’t live our lives, we are no good to anyone.
But overall, I believe that it is hard for most people to dehumanize another. It’s something we have to learn, practice, and actively do. We have to turn off the empathy and prevent it from getting turned back on. We do this in different ways, each of us. There are many different stories available to aid us in dehumanizing others, and the ones we choose vary depending on our context and what we’ve been taught in our lives. The mythologies of dehumanization are pervasive. They can be extremely subtle, like the idea that a service worker is just a service worker and not a person with a whole life, or extremely overt, like racist mythologies and calls for genocide. Whatever form dehumanization takes, it is always a lie. There is always a person there, a person just as complete, complex, and multifaceted as you. A person with a past and a future, with hopes, dreams, fears, loves, beliefs.
I believe that we must root ourselves in a value of opposing dehumanization. I believe that we do this by encouraging people to connect with their empathy, which is an absolutely natural thing to do, and to connect with how genuinely good it feels to see others in their full humanity, and to be seen in our full humanity. We don’t encourage this by shaming or scolding people, by bullying them or threatening them, but by inviting them into relationship. We model empathy. We encourage empathy. We encourage relationship building and solidarity building across difference. In relationship, the mythologies of dehumanization start to come apart. It is much harder to believe dehumanizing stories when you know the human being behind the story, when the full picture of their humanity outshines the limiting lies you’ve been taught about them.
I do not believe it is possible to fight certain forms of dehumanization while encouraging others. I do not believe it possible to fight dehumanization by dehumanizing those who dehumanize others. An example of this is the slogan “kill your rapist.” Rape is a violent expression of dehumanization. It is an absolutely horrifying thing to do to someone, and requires cutting yourself off from empathy and from the person’s humanity. Murder is obviously also a violent expression of dehumanization. The idea that once a person has behaved in such a violently dehumanizing way means that we should respond by violently dehumanizing them, won’t get us anywhere. It won’t. It might make us feel temporarily good or temporarily powerful, but the process of dehumanizing that person cuts us off from our empathy. It does not let us face what that person has done in the context of that person being fully human. It does not let us understand that human beings are capable of doing such horrible and violent things. It does not help us to reach the person who did that thing, to help them face what they have done and what led them there, so that they may be able to change. It doesn’t help us to create a world with more empathy. It actually creates a world with less.
Our message should not be that it’s not okay to dehumanize certain people. Or, that those who have been dehumanized are now granted the right to dehumanize others as some kind reward or to ‘even the scales.’ The only way out of this trap is out. It’s to move toward empathy like our lives depend on it, like our future as a species depends on it. If you find it to be a stretch to offer that empathy to people who have done atrocious things, if it is a stretch for you to extend empathy to people who have dehumanized others: this is because you think dehumanization is wrong, because you are full of empathy and you don’t want to see others hurt. So stretch. When we can extend empathy even to those we find it hardest to extend empathy to, we break the spell of dehumanization, it’s seductive lie that we can solve our problems by pretending that some of us are radically different: inhuman in some way. But none of us are.
We are all human, and we are all in this mess together. The only way out is together, so we have to find a way to work together. Good thing we have this massive capacity for understanding each other, if we choose to use it.
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