by Rose Dekker
Dehumanization is the act or process of undermining individuality or human qualities in another person or a group of people. In practice, this takes different shapes: viewing a group of people as less than human; treating people as means to an end; viewing a group of people as less civilized or less evolved humans; reducing people to one attribute (e.g. skin color, sexuality); objectifying people; or in any other sense ignoring uniqueness and identity in human beings. In short, when you dehumanize someone, you see another person as less than human.
In its worst forms, dehumanization enables war. It robs (a group of) people from their humanity. In every atrocity, there is some level of dehumanization. Abundant examples can be given 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. In these cases, groups of people were explicitly referred to as non-human.
But dehumanization is not something that only occurred in the 20th century. It has been a prerequisite for slavery and colonization around the world for centuries. When Europeans arrived in 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, people dehumanize each other all the time. You can see it in the media when refugees are classified as illegal immigrants that come to infiltrate our civilized countries with their primitive cultures. They are not depicted as people fleeing from war, and the stories of the ones they left behind are not taken into account. Instead, they are seen as “others” who have come to steal our jobs.
Ethnic and religious minorities are often victims of institutionalized dehumanization. People’s individuality has 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. For example, the Italian government declared the Romani in 2008 a “national security risk.” By doing so, the government fundamentally undermines the individuality of each Romani person and treats them as a group of people which are all the same: they are all dangerous.
Why does dehumanization exist?
Throughout history, dehumanization has been used for various reasons. For example, it is an essential part of military training. To desensitize soldiers they are trained to see the enemy as inherently different from them, as demons or animals. By using names which are vermin or animals, the enemy becomes less-than-human. And because of that, it becomes okay to kill them like vermin or animals.
Dehumanization is also used to control people. Being a victim of continuous dehumanization can result in the victim believing they are less important, or that they deserve to be in a bad situation. When this happens to a group of people, the group may subconsciously believe that they deserve to be oppressed. They are less likely to revolt.
Can we help it?
Dehumanization is a complex phenomenon that manifests itself in our language and culture. And because of that (or perhaps the causation works the other way around), dehumanization is in our 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 under a stereotype we believe in. 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 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 stereotypically, or not shown at all. How many movies have you seen in which a blind person is a 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 understand their situations, we learn to empathize and consider their situations. We can only treat people with respect and dignity when we re-humanize them: when we see them as complete human beings.
Sometimes we re-humanize a person, but we continue to dehumanize the group they belong to. We believe that this particular person is more like one of us, but we continue to have prejudice towards all the other people of their religion, skin color, ability, or sexuality. It is important to see the humanity in every individual, but it’s equally important to try to understand different communities.
As an individual, what can you do?
Get to know people with a different background or story than yours.
Different people are all around you. 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. Communication 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.
Don’t assume things about others. If you would like to know more about someone, 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.
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 labels as an insult, joke, or simply as a way to call out someone’s behavior.
Think about the way you grew up: you have been shaped by your education, your environment, and the media you had access to. If you are open to examining yourself, you will find traces of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. Only when finding these traces, you can combat internalized prejudice.
Help others deconstruct themselves
Attacking, insulting, disdaining, and being arrogant about having the privilege of education and information will not help much. It might help nothing at all. Deconstructing dehumanization is a process, and people need time to understand and learn. If you want to help a person, instead of telling someone “you are sexist,” for example, try to open a conversation. Focus on the action instead of on the person: “I think that comment is sexist because of this and that, don’t you think?”
Learn about the history and the experiences of different groups of people, especially minorities, and learn to understand how belonging to certain groups can be indispensable for someone’s identity and 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.