David Livingstone Smith, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others
Nazis characterized Jews as rats, while Rwandan propagandists called Tutsis cockroaches. But while turning humans into household vermin justified killing them, colonists characterized Africans and Native Americans as cattle, which justified enslaving them. Both were instruments of control. To take away power from other people, we must first take away their human essence. But how do we do that, and why, and how do we live with ourselves afterward?
Philosopher David Livingstone Smith, in seeking sources to answer these questions, found that little has been written about dehumanization. The term gets discussed widely, especially in contexts of racism, sexism, and wartime propaganda. But little scholarly research has really addressed the social and psychological processes that let us perceive humans as “lower” life forms. That seems an oversight in today’s brutally sectarian times, which Smith decided to rectify.
We must begin any consideration of dehumanization with the question: what makes us human? This seems an obvious question, one easily answerable by science, but this is an illusion. Excessively specific definitions of humanity risk excluding groups, from racial categories to the disabled. Broader definitions risk including chimpanzees. Were australopithecines and Neanderthals human? Contemplate the question, and humanity becomes a philosophical rather than a scientific category.
It helps to understand the concept of essentialism here. Smith provides lucid explanations, which he clarifies throughout this volume, but the concept looms so large, it deserves some definition. Humans are different: skin color, height, language, disability. Yet across these superficial divides, we generally agree, some fundamental essence preserves our core humanity. The argument then becomes, what essence truly defines humanity? And does everyone classed “human” actually have human essence?
|David Livingstone Smith|
This capacity for unbounded cruelty, coupled with this unique ability to reflect on our own thinking— what Smith calls second-order thought— puts humans in the unique position of being both nature’s most destructive species, and its most creative. The two tendencies often travel together. The tendency to redefine humans into livestock, vermin, or monsters which need defeated, has often produced humanity’s most creative thinking, to our eternal discredit.
Understanding our capability for dehumanization requires delving into humanity’s most shameful history. Smith unpacks various genocides, like Rwanda, the Holocaust, the Turkish slaughter of Armenians, and Darfur. He also looks into European colonial history, where peoples once regarded as equals and allies, like Africans and Native Americans, became subhuman enemies almost overnight. The patterns Smith uncovers are chilling and informative. But as you’d expect, it makes for difficult reading.
This dovetails into humanity’s tendency to create races. Social scientists and philosophers have written on how races, far from being consistent or biologically mandated, are created and constantly reinvented by human societies. I was particularly struck, in Smith’s analysis, by how early children divide humans into groups, and how little those groups resemble the racial categories adults encourage others to fear. Racism both does and doesn’t need to be taught.
As the argument progresses, solutions become murkier. You cannot insist on transcendent human essentialism to people who believe designated groups lack human essence. And even when stereotypes of designated groups prove unreliable, bigotry remains remarkably intractable, immune to evidence. Smith doesn’t insult readers’ intelligence with false hopes or pat solutions. He makes readers live with our indictments, because nobody is immune from the capacity to push others outside humanity.
This isn’t a scientific text. Smith doesn’t rely on recently fashionable sciences like brain imaging and behavioral economics, currently voguish in mass-market nonfiction. Not only are such sciences less reliable than often peddled, but science lacks the vocabulary to describe the complex, amorphous interactions involved in this process. Humanity, and dehumanization, aren’t scientific facts to be analyzed, like amoebae. They’re philosophical concepts, changed by the fact of being examined.
Smith doesn’t pretend he has the last word. In his final chapter, Smith lays out questions that still need examined moving forward. This book represents an intermediate step in comprehending the ways human beings steal other humans’ essence. But as an intermediate, if considered with the sobriety the topic demands, this book offers us an opportunity to move forward. We could reclaim our humanity by restoring it to others.