Less than Human: The Dehumanisation of Human Beings

by Adele A Wilby

We are all aware that from amongst the vast diversity of life forms that inhabit the earth, human beings are exceptional. But while human beings are capable of inexhaustible creativity and goodness, they also have the potential to commit the most heinous acts and demeaning of fellow human beings. Accounting for such a phenomenon in the human condition and the committing of abominable acts towards their own species, is an issue that perplexes many. Perhaps the answer to such a question can be found by studying the genes or analysing the brain functioning of the perpetrators, but that could involve investigating entire populations who knowingly condone or participate in such acts. A simpler answer could be that human beings have yet to evolve into a species that is incapable of acts of inhumanity. David Livingstone Smith’s book Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others offers us insight into the processes  that lead to the  designating of fellow human beings as ‘subhuman’ and makes possible the potential for human beings to perpetrate acts that can only be considered as evil.

Crucial to Livingston Smith’s argument is the concept of dehumanisation.He defines the term as ‘the act of conceiving of people as subhuman creatures rather than as human beings’, and it has two components: thinking in terms of what people lack, and as thinking of them as less than human. While people might be dehumanised in different ways, as for example, the objectification of women, Livingstone Smith is concerned with the dehumanisation of peoples that enables the perpetration of genocide, slavery, and war.

Livingstone Smith has had to draw on a vast array of disciplines – history, psychology, philosophy, biology, and anthropology – to advance his argument in the absence of any substantial theorisation of the concept of dehumanisation. The early chapters are useful reviews of aspects of history and how dehumanisation is linked to different disciplines. After his wide-ranging review of the literature, he finally concludes that dehumanisation is a complex issue that eludes attribution to one single explanation, but instead is a ‘joint creation of biology, culture, and the architecture of the human mind’.  He applies his analysis of just how these joined up disciplines work to case studies such as colonisation, slavery and genocide.

In terms of biology, Livingstone Smith draws on animal behaviour and their aversion to others and suggests that human beings too are ‘innately biased against outsiders’.  But such an explanation is not enough in itself to account for how a dislike of ‘outsiders’ translates into mass violence, and for that Livingstone Smith examines the cultural context, which, he argues, along with indoctrination, foments this aversion to outsiders and unleashes aggression, and makes possible such things as war and genocide. Part of this process is frequently the equating of animal behaviour and attributes in terms of vermin, as being dangerous and unclean, and even depraved creatures, to a targeted people. Thus it is the combination of biology and the human mind and its ability for the formulation of sophisticated conceptual thinking that creates divisions such as ‘subhumans’ to justify and legitimise, in reality, any barbarity that it determines to conceive in pursuit of an interest, such as colonialism, slavery, and indeed in the case of Nazi Germany, the genocide of the Jews. Apart from the horror that such thinking inflicts on fellow human beings, what also remains to be explained is the logic behind the assumption that any sentient creature is worthy of any form of cruelty being perpetrated against it.

In the later chapters we see Livingstone Smith draw together his findings to argue that dehumanisation is not a way of talking, but a way of thinking. Indeed ‘dehumanisation became part of our psychological repertoire’ as human beings, and this repertoire has four aspects: the folk-biology module that divides the  biological world into species and makes inferences about them; the folk-sociology module that divides the social world into different ethnic communities ; a capacity for second-order thought that makes reflection possible;  and finally the theory of natural hierarchy, the ‘great chain of natural being’ for ordering the world. These different dimensions have become part of human life in its evolution, and, in Livingstone Smith’s analysis, make possible the dehumanisation of peoples with all its consequences.

Livingstone Smith’s book covers a vast amount of literature for any reader to reflect on. Indeed, the complexity of the history of the aspects that enable the dehumanisation of others leaves the reader wondering if it will ever be possible to rid humanity of this phenomenon. What becomes apparent however, is that the   perpetration of mass violence is perhaps not really the natural state to the being of human, since major factors are required to be at work to bring about the dehumanisation of others.  Ironically, while perpetrators of such acts classify themselves as human, it is necessary for them to define the innocent targets of such outrages as subhuman. However, the question arises as to whether, in the absence of a dehumanisation process, human being would be capable of committing such abominable acts: are human beings in ‘essence’ harmonious creatures fundamentally endowed with goodness, and dehumanisation an aberration? There are many who would like to believe so.  Additionally, we are left to wonder if, given the human propensity to think and reflect, a stage might emerge when the   growth in the knowledge on dehumanisation becomes available to us, human beings will be able to move to a higher level of human existence, and dehumanising fellow human beings will be relegated to history. It remains to be seen, but as a token to such sentiments, the proscribing of acts of genocide and war crimes in international law is at least a nod to the abhorrence of the outcome of dehumanisation.

In his final chapter Livingstone Smith explores the crucial issue of what is to be done about dehumanisation, and on this issue a note of scepticism and caution creeps in and his thesis ends on a  gloomy note that is inevitable given that research on the subject remains so  limited. He argues for a scientific approach to the study of dehumanisation simply, he says, because it has more chance of succeeding.  For this research to become possible he calls for greater financial investment in research by governments, universities and non-governmental organisations in a bid to gain deeper insights and understanding into the phenomenon and how it works, only then, he argues, might it be possible to rid humanity of such hideous acts as genocide and slavery, and create a better future for human beings devoid of the evil of the  past.

Livingstone Smith’s book covers an array of issues that contribute to the understanding of the generation of the potential of human beings to categorise fellow human beings a ‘subhuman’ in a dehumanisation process. Given that dehumanisation is a ‘way of thinking’ it would be useful to explore just how far power is an  influencing factor in the production  and perpetuation of the dehumanisation process. Nevertheless, his book makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of a nefarious aspect of the human condition, and that surely has to be welcomed.

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