‘Dehumanisation paves the way for the very worst things…'

David Livingstone Smith is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New England and is a campaigner for social equality, having spoken at a G20 summit about dehumanisation. David’s latest book On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It, published by Oxford University Press, is out now. Harriet Over, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of York, asked David about the book.

What is dehumanisation?
There isn’t a single correct concept of dehumanisation. There are various, sometimes contradictory, conceptions of what it is. What I mean by dehumanisation is the attitude of regarding other people as subhuman creatures. Other researchers understand dehumanisation differently.

How did you become interested in this topic?
Around 15 years ago I got interested in wartime propaganda, and found that in such propaganda enemies are often portrayed as subhuman. Looking further, I discovered that there is hardly any literature addressing this topic outside of social psychology. But I was dissatisfied with the social psychological accounts, so I decided to try to do better. This led to my first book on the subject, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others which appeared in 2011.

What theory do you develop in the new book?
It updates Less Than Human and offers what I think is a much more sophisticated story of how dehumanisation works. One major change is that I now hold that when people dehumanise others they regard them as both human and subhuman simultaneously, and that this has distinctive and highly disturbing psychological consequences. Another is an emphasis on the importance of the political sphere. I describe dehumanisation as a psychological response to political forces. A third is an emphasis on the intimate tie between dehumanisation and racialisation.

How does your theory differ from other theories of dehumanisation?
My conception of dehumanisation is quite different from the two leading psychological approaches. The most influential of these – developed by the Australian psychologist Nick Haslam – is that we dehumanise others by attributing fewer human traits to them. But I don’t think that attributions of humanity boil down to the attribution of traits. I draw on research into psychological essentialism to argue that seeing others as human is an all-or-nothing affair rather than something incremental. So, whereas Haslam thinks that when we dehumanise people we regard them as less human, I think that we regard them as less than human.

The other mainstream view is that to dehumanise people is to think of them as having lesser minds. But this is utterly inconsistent with the paradigmatic case of the Nazis’ dehumanisation of Jews. Nazis did not regard Jews as mentally impaired. They thought of them as diabolically intelligent. A theory of dehumanisation that doesn’t apply to Auschwitz can’t, in my opinion, be taken seriously as a theory of dehumanisation.

Do you think anthropomorphism is the opposite of dehumanisation?
Although it sounds like a contradiction, I think that anthropomorphism is a component of dehumanisation. Let me explain. We are a highly social species. Because of this, we are exquisitely attuned to indications of humanness in others. Our ‘humanness detectors’ are set on a hair trigger. Anthropomorphism happens when the detector misfires, and we respond to non-human things as though they are human. Paradoxically, this automatic psychological disposition is responsible for the most dangerous, disturbing, and destructive aspects of dehumanisation. In the book, I argue that dehumanisation occurs when those in positions of power and authority get us to think of others as subhuman creatures. But at the same time, thanks to our ultrasocial nature, we can’t help seeing and responding to these others as human beings. This transforms dehumanised people into terrifying, unnatural, uncanny beings – into monstrous or demonic fusions of human and animal – in the eyes of their dehumanisers.

Are all victims of discrimination dehumanised?
Absolutely not. Racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination usually do not involve dehumanisation.

What do you think the outstanding challenges for research in this area are?
Dehumanisation does not lend itself to normal psychological research protocols. One reason for this is that because it straddles the psychological and political spheres, dehumanisation requires interdisciplinary engagement with diverse theoretical vocabularies and research methodologies. And because dehumanisation is a psychological response to political forces, it’s got to be studied out in the world rather than just in the lab – which in turn implies that the immensely complex variables that produce dehumanisation cannot be adequately controlled for. In short, researching dehumanisation is difficult. But it’s too important – too vital to human welfare – to be neglected or squeezed in to an inappropriate methodological framework.

What implications (if any) do you think the study of dehumanisation has for policy makers?
Dehumanisation paves the way for the very worst things that human beings do to one another. So, to prevent such things from happening, it’s important for us to resist the dehumanising impulse, both in ourselves and out there in the world. To do that effectively, we need to know how dehumanisation works. There are two aspects of this that are relevant to policy. One has to do with education. People need to understand what it is about the human mind that leads us to dehumanise others so that they can recognise and resist the impulse in themselves. The other involves political action to support and strengthen those institutions that protect the vulnerable from dehumanising propaganda.

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