I remember watching World War II movies with my dad growing up. One that stuck with me was Judgment at Nuremberg, which told the story of the war crimes trials of Nazi judges who sent Jews and others to concentration camps. This film made a strong case that the Nazi leadership were responsible for horrible crimes, but also for the possibility that the rest of the world shared some responsibility for the rise of Hitler and the genocide that would come to be known as the Final Solution. From the films and similar documentaries of my childhood I’ve always wondered how the Holocaust was possible. Were the Nazis, or the German people in general, a special case of human evil and monstrosity? This is a comforting thought in that it limits such horrors to a specific people and time period. But history teaches us otherwise. While the Nazi Holocaust is the best known of humanity’s genocides, there are many others: the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rhouge in the 1970s, the Hutus and Tutsis of the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s, and the mass killings in Darfur in the early 2000s. To these we could also add events in America including the enslavement and mass extermination of Native Americans and the deplorable treatment of African slaves. What do these genocides and acts of violence have in common? The process of dehumanization; thinking of fellow human beings as subhuman.
David Livingstone Smith discusses the science of dehumanization in his book Less Than Human. Given the tragic and repetitious nature of dehumanization I assumed that the body of scholarly data on this topic would be large. However, this is not the case. As Smith states in the Preface, “Apart from a few dozen articles by social psychologists, there is scarcely any literature on it at all. If dehumanization really has the significance that scholars claim, then untangling its dynamics ought to be among our most pressing priorities, and its neglect is as perplexing as it is grave” (3).
Smith explores this important topic over the course of nine chapters. Chapter 1 explores why studying the process of dehumanization is important. He concludes that chapter with sobering words that remind us of just how close this challenge is to all of us:
Dehumanization is not the exclusive preserve of communists, terrorists, Jews, Palestinians, or any other monster of the moment. We are all potential dehumanizers, just as we are all potential objects of dehumanization. The problem of dehumanization is everyone’s problem. My task is to explain why (25).
Smith continues in Chapter 2 with a discussion of how the idea of dehumanization has changed over time. Smith uses this chapter to develop a theory of the dehumanization process. One of the key ideas in this chapter is the idea that human beings have an “essence” that makes them what they are. By contrast, at times we view others as lacking in this. This makes them subhuman, and when “the enemy” is viewed in this way it overrides our natural revulsion toward killing others. Smith tells us that these “counterfeit human beings” don’t necessarily look monstrous. To the contrary, they look just like us “real human beings,” but that’s part of the deception. Regardless of how they appear on the surface (or under it), they are conceived of as subhuman.
In Chapter 3 Smith discusses the dehumanization of the indigenous people of the New World that came with colonization. Chapter 4 explores this process in slavery, where the trans-Saharan and transatlantic slave trades are In view. Chapter 5 discusses dehumanization in connection with various genocides. One of the interesting facets of the discussion in this chapter is how the subhuman other is conceived of and referred to. For example, the Germans of the Third Reich referred to Jews and other undesirables as “apes, pigs, rats, worms, bacilli, and other nonhuman creatures” (145). When the language of dehumanization is used then genocide is not far behind. Chapter 6 looks at the concept of race in connection with dehumanization and racism. Chapter 7 compares human violence with that of chimpanzees against their own species. After his analysis Smith comes to the conclusion that “Homo sapiens are the only animals capable of cruelty and war” (203). In Chapter 8 Smith explores the strange co-existence between human reticence and also willingness to kill our own kind, and also how we may have developed the tendency toward dehumanization. The final chapter goes over the major arguments advanced previously in the book, and then includes discussion on how dehumanization might be combated.
Overall I found this entire volume fascinating. But given my work in multi-faith engagement I found certain sections of particular interest in application to evangelicals living in and wrestling with the challenges of religious pluralism in a post-9/11 world. Two areas of the book caught my attention, with the first offering critique of evangelical boundaries in relation to the other, and the second in terms of strategic action that can be taken that will actually work toward combating genocide.
First, in Chapter 8 Smith discusses the concept of unclean animals in relation to dehumanization. He says that certain animals create visceral reactions in us. “The reaction of disgust is accompanied by a peculiar sense of threat. The fear isn’t that the animal itself can inflict harm – the fear of maggots isn’t like the fear of poisonous snakes or snarling dogs. Rather, it’s the fear that they can contaminate one with something harmful” (252). Later on this same page expands on this notion of contamination:
People have an intuitive theory of contamination. We not only conceive of certain things as revolting, we also attribute their foulness to pollutants that they contain – pollutants that can get inside us and damage or even kill us if we come into contact with them. Although the propensity for disgust is innate, culture plays a huge part in determining what sorts of things elicit it (252).
A few pages later Smith says there is a moral connection to concepts of physical filth, and that this “also explains why this form of dehumanization is often associated with religiously motivated violence” (254). Although it may be difficult for evangelicals to hear, when I read this section on dehumanization and contamination I thought of the evangelical subculture and its strong emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy. When religious others are encountered that are understood as holding to false doctrine and practices this triggers fears of contamination and feelings of disgust, whether we consciously realize this or not. Having sound doctrine is important and it can play a positive role in identity formation and boundary definitions, but if as a cultural device it causes us to see a Muslim or Mormon or Pagan as disgusting and as a contaminant, perhaps we need to revisit the place that doctrine plays in our culture and the encounter with others. How can we maintain healthy concepts of identity and boundaries without dehumanizing the other?
The second major takeaway for me came in Chapter 9. In addressing how to respond to dehumanization a few possibilities are considered. The first is the appeal to reason. “According to this rationalistic view, dehumanization is a symptom of ignorance, and is to be cured by administering an appropriate does of intellectual enlightenment” (268). Smith is right to reject this. Dehumanization takes place more through the process of emotion over the rational aspect of human cognition. Those approaches to interfaith that emphasize an appeal to reason miss the mark because they misunderstand human nature. Instead of the rational approach, Smith offers an alternative. He says that “if we want people to treat one another humanely we ought to be appealing to their feelings instead of offering them dry theoretical arguments. We need to help people get to know one another by telling them ‘long, sad, sentimental stories’” (270). Smith hits the nail on the head with this suggestion. Human beings are not only emotional creatures, we are also Homo narrans, storytelling creatures. We inhabit our own personal narratives as well as tribal and cultural ones, and these stories help us find our place in the world, and can be instrumental in shaping new views of “us and them.” We are following this approach through our Multi-faith Matters grant project work in telling the stories of churches involved in positive forms of multi-faith engagement. This has the potential of touching hearts and changing minds as new stories provide fresh emotional and conceptual frameworks for interacting with others.
But there’s a rub here. Smith argues that [t]he sentimental strategy has a greater chance of being effective than the rationalistic one does” (270). By telling these stories we can move people in the “right direction.” But Smith asks, What is the right direction? Emotional stories have also be used to manipulate people in propaganda and have facilitated the dehumanization process. How can we tell emotional stories and move people in the right direction that does not involve manipulation and abuse? For the evangelical involved in combating dehumanization a gospel-inspired ethic is needed in order to provide a framework for emotion-inducing stories. This must include the Christian moral teachings of love of neighbor, enemy, and stranger. With these incorporated within an ethic of storytelling we can guard against the manipulation of others outside our tribe.
In my opinion this book is “must reading” for those evangelicals involved in multi-faith engagement, religious diplomacy, and peacemaking. If we want to prevent future genocides, and make an impact on war and terrorist violence, our theologies of multi-faith encounter must be widened and deepened to incorporate the insights of the science of dehumanization, as well as other important academic disciplines.