Dehumanization or dehumanisation describes the denial of "humanness" to other people. It is theorized to take on two forms: animalistic dehumanization, which is employed on a largely intergroup basis, and mechanistic dehumanization, which is employed on a largely interpersonal basis. Dehumanization can occur discursively (e.g., idiomatic language that likens certain human beings to non-human animals, verbal abuse, erasing one's voice from discourse), symbolically (e.g., imagery), or physically (e.g., chattel slavery, physical abuse, refusing eye contact). Dehumanization often ignores the target's individuality (i.e., the creative and interesting aspects of their personality) and prevents one from showing compassion towards stigmatized groups.
Dehumanization may be carried out by a social institution (such as a state, school, or family), interpersonally, or even within the self. Dehumanization can be unintentional, especially on the part of individuals, as with some types of de facto racism. State-organized dehumanization has historically been directed against perceived political, racial, ethnic, national, or religious minority groups. Other minoritized and marginalized individuals and groups (based on sexual orientation, gender, disability, class, or some other organizing principle) are also susceptible to various forms of dehumanization. The concept of dehumanization has received empirical attention in the psychological literature. It is conceptually related to infrahumanization, delegitimization, moral exclusion, and objectification. Dehumanization occurs across several domains; is facilitated by status, power, and social connection; and results in behaviors like exclusion, violence, and support for violence against others.
What it Means to Dehumanize
Dehumanization is a psychological process whereby opponents view each other as less than human and thus not deserving of moral consideration. Jews in the eyes of Nazis and Tutsis in the eyes of Hutus (in the Rwandan genocide) are but two examples. Protracted conflict strains relationships and makes it difficult for parties to recognize that they are part of a shared human community. Such conditions often lead to feelings of intense hatred and alienation among conflicting parties. The more severe the conflict, the more the psychological distance between groups will widen. Eventually, this can result in moral exclusion. Those excluded are typically viewed as inferior, evil, or criminal.
We typically think that all people have some basic human rights that should not be violated. Innocent people should not be murdered, raped, or tortured. Rather, international law suggests that they should be treated justly and fairly, with dignity and respect. They deserve to have their basic needs met, and to have some freedom to make autonomous decisions. In times of war, parties must take care to protect the lives of innocent civilians on the opposing side. Even those guilty of breaking the law should receive a fair trial, and should not be subject to any sort of cruel or unusual punishment.
However, for individuals viewed as outside the scope of morality and justice, "the concepts of deserving basic needs and fair treatment do not apply and can seem irrelevant." Any harm that befalls such individuals seems warranted, and perhaps even morally justified. Those excluded from the scope of morality are typically perceived as psychologically distant, expendable, and deserving of treatment that would not be acceptable for those included in one's moral community. Common criteria for exclusion include ideology, skin color, and cognitive capacity. We typically dehumanize those whom we perceive as a threat to our well-being or values.
Psychologically, it is necessary to categorize one's enemy as sub-human in order to legitimize increased violence or justify the violation of basic human rights. Moral exclusion reduces restraints against harming or exploiting certain groups of people. In severe cases, dehumanization makes the violation of generally accepted norms of behavior regarding one's fellow man seem reasonable, or even necessary.
The Psychology of Dehumanization
Dehumanization is actually an extension of a less intense process of developing an "enemy image" of the opponent. During the course of protracted conflict, feelings of anger, fear, and distrust shape the way that the parties perceive each other. Adversarial attitudes and perceptions develop and parties begin to attribute negative traits to their opponent. They may come to view the opponent as an evil enemy, deficient in moral virtue, or as a dangerous, warlike monster.
An enemy image is a negative stereotype through which the opposing group is viewed as evil, in contrast to one's own side, which is seen as good. Such images can stem from a desire for group identity and a need to contrast the distinctive attributes and virtues of one's own group with the vices of the "outside" group. In some cases, evil-ruler enemy images form. While ordinary group members are regarded as neutral, or perhaps even innocent, their leaders are viewed as hideous monsters.
Enemy images are usually black and white. The negative actions of one's opponent are thought to reflect their fundamental evil nature, traits, or motives. One's own faults, as well as the values and motivations behind the actions of one's opponent, are usually discounted, denied, or ignored. It becomes difficult to empathize or see where one's opponent is coming from. Meaningful communication is unlikely, and it becomes difficult to perceive any common ground.
Once formed, enemy images tend to resist change, and serve to perpetuate and intensify the conflict. Because the adversary has come to be viewed as a "diabolical enemy," the conflict is framed as a war between good and evil. Once the parties have framed the conflict in this way, their positions become more rigid. In some cases, zero-sum thinking develops as parties come to believe that they must either secure their own victory, or face defeat. New goals to punish or destroy the opponent arise, and in some cases more militant leadership comes into power.
Enemy images are accentuated, according to psychologists, by the process of "projection," in which people "project" their own faults onto their opponents. This means that people or groups who tend to be aggressive or selfish are likely to attribute those traits to their opponents, but not to themselves. This improves one's own self-image and increases group cohesion, but it also escalates the conflict and makes it easier to dehumanize the other side.
Deindividuation facilitates dehumanization as well. This is the psychological process whereby a person is seen as a member of a category or group rather than as an individual. Because people who are deindividuated seem less than fully human, they are viewed as less protected by social norms against aggression than those who are individuated. It then becomes easier to rationalize contentious moves or severe actions taken against one's opponents.
Dangers of Dehumanization
While deindividuation and the formation of enemy images are very common, they form a dangerous process that becomes especially damaging when it reaches the level of dehumanization.
Once certain groups are stigmatized as evil, morally inferior, and not fully human, the persecution of those groups becomes more psychologically acceptable. Restraints against aggression and violence begin to disappear. Not surprisingly, dehumanization increases the likelihood of violence and may cause a conflict to escalate out of control. Once a violence break over has occurred, it may seem even more acceptable for people to do things that they would have regarded as morally unthinkable before.
Parties may come to believe that destruction of the other side is necessary, and pursue an overwhelming victory that will cause one's opponent to simply disappear. This sort of into-the-sea framing can cause lasting damage to relationships between the conflicting parties, making it more difficult to solve their underlying problems and leading to the loss of more innocent lives.
Indeed, dehumanization often paves the way for human rights violations, war crimes, and genocide. For example, in WWII, the dehumanization of the Jews ultimately led to the destruction of millions of people. Similar atrocities have occurred in Rwanda, Cambodia, and the former Yugoslavia.
It is thought that the psychological process of dehumanization might be mitigated or reversed through humanization efforts, the development ofempathy, the establishment of personal relationships between conflicting parties, and the pursuit of common goals.
Taking away the rights of some that most have
This is to offer rights to most citizens, but to deny those same rights to other citizens. This is to create a hierarchy of humanity, where some are considered “human” or “normal” while others are considered “sub-normal.”
Denying human dignity in life or death
This is to cause one to be in a place of humiliation or continual shame, either physically or mentally.
Denying one’s ability to care for oneself
If one is denied food, shelter, clothing, safety, or health when these are readily available, then that one is rejected as being less than a human who has all of these basic needs.
Being controlled by other’s decisions
If one is not given the ability to be an independent unit, able to participate in one’s own care and make decisions which leads to ones own ability to provide for one’s needs, then they are denied their own self-will, which is basic to all humans.
Convincing another that they are sub-human
The process of dehumanization is complete when one personally admits that they are less than “normal” and unworthy to live with others.
Some practical aspects of dehumanization:
Limiting one’s ability to sleep
Sleep is necessary for survival. To deprive one of sleep on an ongoing basis is to deny one’s ability to function in a mentally healthy way.
Denying the right to go to the bathroom with dignity
Eliminating waste is a basic necessity for life. As a part of human society, it is also something to be done in private. For this reason there are laws for urinating or defecating in public. But should one be denied the basic privacy to go to the bathroom, then that one is dehumanized.
Denying food to another
To deny one the ability to obtain food is to deny one a basic human need.
Denying the ability to obtain fair work
Part of one’s dignity is to participate in work that gives one the ability to feel that one is contributing positively to society, even in a small way. To deny one that participation is to deny one self-respect.
Denying social connection
A human being is a social being. To deny social contact is to deny an essential aspect of what it means to be human.
Physically or mentally punishing another for not giving one proper “respect”
If we cause one to be humiliated for not giving us respect, we are stating our human superiority. Often one does not give respect because of fear or because the person demanding respect already displayed qualities that denies that one proper respect (for instance, demeaning others without cause).
Forcing one to live in denial of one’s believes and/or values
Humans are moral beings, and we must believe that what we do is done with good intentions, or on a positive moral basis or else we lose our dignity and our right to see ourselves as human. To force one to act in a personally unethical manner is to destroy one’s selfhood.
Because some need to be punished
Society demands that some be dehumanized because they have done wrongs against society at large. This makes sense for those who are actively harming society, such as murderers, rapists or thieves. These are not safe to be with others who might be harmed, so they should be separated. However, societies will sometimes place others who do no harm to others in the same sub-human category and treat people as criminals who are simply having bad luck.
As revenge for a wrong done
Individuals often demand recompense for a wrong done. They will treat those whom they have seen as wrong-doers as less then human because they see it as a just response to the evil action. However, this only perpetuates the wrong in the world, as dehumanization is an evil done to another. Thus the person receiving sub-human treatment feel right in treating the one giving the punishment as sub-human as well. Thus, dehumanization becomes a cycle, in which everyone involved is dehumanized.
Because social situations demand it
There are certain situations that socially require dehumanization. This is seen most clearly with small children. They do not know enough to keep themselves and others safe and so they are punished with spankings and other treatments that communicate to them that they are less than the one punishing. This kind of treatment is repeated in other social situations in which an authority is attempting to control the behavior of an underling. Such as an employer to an employee, a guard to a prisoner, a soldier to a foreign civilian, a policeman to an assumed criminal, a nurse or doctor to a patient, or a social worker to a client. An authority is not required to treat an underling as a sub-human, but it is an option and commonly utilized.
To protect the rights of the ruling society
Every society has a ruling class, and it is required that the ruling class maintain their rights in order to maintain their authority. These rights are greater than the rights of others whom they rule over, whether the underlings live in their country or not. If the underlings insist upon equal rights with the ruling class, then the ruling class has the responsibility to treat the underlings as sub-human, in order to maintain the stability of society at large. This was largely the case in the Southern United States, subjugating the black slaves and later the African Americans so they would “learn their place” and society might be stable, with the whites retaining their greater rights, thus their authority to rule.
The Results of Dehumanization
Dehumanization Leads to Oppression
Also, creating a sub-human category is assuming that the group deserve to be punished because they lack the self-will or self-control that “real” humans have. This leads to punishment of the innocent, abuse of the helpless, theft from the poor and forcing the sub-humans to live in a context they can barely survive in, even though they could do better, except they are assumed to be sub-human. Should the sub-humans insist upon human rights, then they will be oppressed more with beatings, greater punishments and torture.
Dehumanization leads to Genocide
To question another’s worth of basic human needs is to dehumanize.
To dehumanize to eventually convince that one they don’t deserve to be human.
To convince one of their sub-humanity is to place a group in a sub-human category.
To make a whole group sub-human is to lower the esteem of all humanity.
To lower humanity means that the sub-human group must be separated.
If a group of humans must be separated, then they must be destroyed.