After one year of B人BEL we have tackled quite a lot of different topics. Our first event was focused on urban poverty, our first Series was focused on women, and our latest documentary portrays people with special needs. Our activities have been diverse, from writing articles, sharing stories, and producing documentaries, to workshops on Sign Language & Deaf Culture and a weekly empowerment course in a primary school.
Throughout all this diversity we have striven for the same goal: social inclusion for everyone. One of the central concepts we have been keeping in mind, but haven’t explicated so far, is the concept of rehumanization.
Dehumanization, in its very worst forms, enables war. It robs (a particular group of) people from their humanity. In every atrocity in history there is some level of dehumanization, which is abundantly clear from World War II: Nazi soldiers called Jewish people ‘rats’; the victims of human experimentation in Unit 731 in the North East of China were referred to as ‘Manchurian Monkeys’ or ‘logs’; and US soldiers referred to the Japanese as ‘yellow monkeys.’
But dehumanization is not something that just came up in the 20th century, it has been a prerequisite for slavery and colonization around the world for centuries. When Europeans arrived to America and found people already living there, the natives were initially classified amongst animals, making it okay to either dominate them or kill them – whichever was more convenient.
To a less extreme degree, dehumanization happens all the time. It happens when refugees are depicted as “illegals” who are coming to infiltrate our civilized countries with their primitive cultures. They are not depicted as people who are fleeing a war in their country and had to leave everything behind in the hope to save their lives or those of their families, instead, they are depicted as illegal immigrants who come to steal our jobs, culture, or women. And in case of the latter, women are treated as property – another form of dehumanization.
Ethnic or religious minorities are often victims of institutionalized dehumanization. People’s individuality have been taken away by robbing them of their possessions, culture, language, religion, or anything else which they use to identify themselves from others. Roma people, colloquially known as ‘gypsies,’ in Southern and Eastern Europe, are often still victims of dehumanization. According to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research institute, 86% of Italians have somewhat unfavorable opinions of Roma people, and the Italian government as recently as 2008 declared the Romani a “national security risk.” By doing so, the government fundamentally undermines the individuality of Romani people and treats them as a group of people which are all the same: they are all dangerous. Roma people have a history of dehumanization in Europe: between the 1970’s and 90’s Romani women were sterilized by the Czechoslovakian government with or without their knowledge. By forcibly controlling the birth rate of a specific group of people in a country, their right to decide over their own lives and bodies is taken away.
Why does it exist?
Throughout history, dehumanization has been used for various reasons. It is a central part of military training: soldiers are trained to see the “enemy” as inherently different from them: they are demons, animals, bad. In one of the most disturbing Black Mirror episodes this is interpreted in a literal way: soldiers see actual zombies instead of regular humans when fighting their “enemies,” so as to desensitize the soldiers of the suffering of the enemy. By calling the enemy names which are vermin or animals, they become less-than-human, and because of that it becomes okay to kill them like vermin or animals. But they are always humans.
Dehumanizing methods are often used in order to control a group of people which they view as ‘different’ or a ‘threat’. Being a victim of continuous dehumanization can result into the victim actually believing they are less valuable, or they deserve to be in the situation. This happens both in individuals as well as in groups, which allows the group of people to be controlled more easily and be less likely to revolt.
Dehumanization is inside us?
Dehumanization is a complex phenomenon that manifests itself in our language and in our culture. And because of that (or perhaps the causation works the other way around), dehumanization is in our own minds. On a personal level, we dehumanize someone when we walk past a homeless or a disabled person on the street and look the other way, ignoring that this is a person, with thoughts, ideas, feelings, and a family. Or when we meet a person, know one thing about them, and mentally classify all their behaviors in accordance with a stereotype we have. It makes us see only one side, ignoring all other aspects of their identity and personality. We are diminishing a person to one single attribute.
There is a big step between stereotyping and physical violence, of course. But dehumanization is a prerequisite for such violence to exist. That doesn’t mean that a certain degree of dehumanization will always lead to physical violence, but it means that whenever violence against a group of people occurs, dehumanization preceded it.
Combating dehumanization starts with combating our own stereotypical ideas, going beyond what we know or assume, and trying to see a human being instead of a category. Often, we only see a certain type of people in the mainstream media, and ethnic or sexual minorities are shown in a stereotypical way or not shown at all. How many movies have you seen in which a blind person is the protagonist, or in which the hero of the story is from an ethnic or gender minority?
By showing people’s diversity beyond stereotypes, their humanity beyond images, we come to understand the complexity of human beings. When we learn people’s stories and get to know their personal side, we learn to empathize and consider their situations. It’s only when people are rehumanized – when we see the humanity in them – that we can treat them with respect and dignity.
To rehumanize a person, but continue dehumanizing a group the person belongs to, is also a common phenomenon. How often have you heard (or said), “but this person is really not like them; they’re more like one of us”. It is important to see the humanity in every individual, but it’s equally important to (try to) understand the different groups people belong to, or identify with.
Rehumanization is B人BEL’s main focus, and we do so by bringing you the stories of the faceless, the nameless, the ones pushed to the margins. And by creating understanding and connecting people from different ‘groups’ in events and through workshops, we create bridges of communication, understanding, and dialogue.
As an individual, what can you do?
- Get to know people with a different background or story than yours.
They are often all around you. Of course, in the complex societies that we live in, it is impossible to get to know everyone you encounter on a personal level, but getting to know some people’s stories will already help you to understand the diversity of human beings. Especially if you communicate with people from a different country, background, upbringing, culture, religion, ability, sexuality, or in any other way different from you, helps you to open your mind and understand that people have vastly different experiences and lives.
- Don’t assume, ask (safely).
Just don’t assume anything about anyone; if you would like to know more about someone, just ask them – but do so in an atmosphere that is comfortable and safe for that person. And respect if someone is not ready or willing to give you any answers – again, nothing to assume from this silence.
- Language Matters
Language is the strongest pillar of any culture – it’s no surprise that language is imprinted with a lot of the needs of dehumanization. Think about the expressions you use – if you use expressions that refer to vulnerable groups, research on how people from those groups feel about it; reflect on the use of category names as an insult, or as a joke, or simply as a way to call out someone’s behavior or to describe it (what a …[insert category/nationality/ …] thing to do)
- Deconstruct yourself
Think about the way you grew up; the media and educational tools you had access to; reflect on in which ways these may have shaped you, your interests, your opinions; find ways to challenge them. Be open enough to find racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc., inside you, to track it, to deconstruct it and combat it. Discuss, look for understanding, and keep questioning.
- Help deconstruct others
Attacking, insulting, disdaining and being arrogant about having the privilege of education and information won’t help much. It might help nothing at all. Instead of telling someone “you’re being sexist”, for example, try to open a conversation, focus on what the person has said and not in the person, “I think that comment is sexist because of this and that, don’t you think?”
- Understand Communities
Push yourself to learn about the history and the experiences of different groups of people, especially minorities, and to understand how belonging to certain groups can be indispensable for someone’s identity and even empowerment. But to acknowledge this still doesn’t mean you can generalize or assume you know everything about people who belong to or identify with a community.