Dehumanization is the process by which we diminish others’ basic humanity, making it easier for us to justify transgressing our own moral and ethical standards. We often think about it in terms of genocide or wartime propaganda, but it exists all around us as both minor and major forms of bigotry, prejudice, and stereotyping.
It’s usually a lot easier to point out dehumanizing rhetoric when it comes from a group you dislike. It becomes exponentially more difficult to notice it in your own groups of like-minded people, or within yourself.
But anything less than full respect for another person’s humanity – regardless of what they’ve said or done – is a slippery slope toward dehumanization. Bigotry that masquerades as ‘humor’ or ‘satire’ can quickly devolve into outright aggression against The Other.
In her recent blog post, Professor Allison Skinner (Northwestern University) notes:
One set of studies found that men who showed stronger automatic associations between women and animals reported a greater proclivity to sexually harass and assault women. Other work has shown that those who dehumanize Arab people are more supportive of violent counterterrorism tactics: torture, targeting civilians and even bombing entire countries.
“Studies have found that once a person has dehumanized another person or group, they’re less likely to consider their thoughts and feelings.
For example, Americans tend to dehumanize homeless people. In one study, experimenters asked participants to describe a day in the life of a homeless person, a college student and a firefighter. Respondents were much less likely to mention the homeless person’s emotional state.
Seemingly small acts or thoughts of dehumanization add up and open the door for even greater ones. When we begin to diminish the humanity of others – even those with whom we dislike or disagree – we naturally start to betray our own deeply held beliefs about what it means to be a moral person. To diminish others’ humanity, then, is to diminish our own.
We must be vigilant against any tendency toward dehumanization. This is hard to do when you genuinely disagree with, or feel threatened by the ideology of another group. But unless we’re steadfast against this (very human) tendency, we can quickly become the very thing we fear and hate.
That’s why the first Principle of Digital Civic Culture is the Principle of Shared Humanity: