In the face of unfettered devastation and suffering, humanity must prevail.
Demand a ceasefire by all parties to end civilian suffering.
— Amnesty International (@amnesty) October 29, 2023
*Editor’s Note: Elephant Journal articles represent the personal views of the authors, and can not possibly reflect Elephant Journal as a whole. Disagree with an Op-Ed or opinion? We’re happy to share your experience here.
*Authors’ Note: This article reflects the thoughts of Giselle Naidu and Lisa Erickson, who have been moved, like many, by the unfolding impact of the long Palestinian struggle under Israel’s occupation. For Giselle Naidu, who was born in apartheid South Africa as a person of colour and now lives in Australia as a citizen, at a time when the majority of Australian citizens voted No in a referendum to change the constitution to provide Constitutional Recognition through a Non-Binding Voice for self-determination to Indigenous Australians. And for Lisa Erickson, who grew up as a White, U.S.-European citizen alongside privilege but is also keenly aware of those who have experienced intense oppression due to their race, gender, and sexual orientation. This article is our unique process of coming together to tackle difficult feelings in the hope that we can gain a sense of agency and mobilize action to address human suffering in some small and meaningful way. It is not intended to divide and disconnect but to restore human connection.
Arthur G. Miller, in The Social Psychology of Good and Evil, proposes that dehumanization holds the key to understanding “the evil we do to one another and the good we fail to do.”
We must use the process of dehumanization to understand the far-reaching impact of our past harms, how it reinforces our present harms, and how it perpetuates future harm.
There is no time like the present to develop an awareness of this process, which is both blatant and subtle and often unconscious.
Social psychologists define dehumanization as “a psychological process whereby opponents view each other as less than human and thus not deserving of moral consideration.”
Moral development has little do with religion as many religious people have dehumanized others. The process of dehumanization strips us of our humanness and disinhibits the ability to apply the moral brakes on our hate, rage, and aggression and allows us to inflict harm to others. The greater the dehumanization, the lesser the compassion and empathy.
In healthy moral development, we can recognize our shared humanity and humanness (ability to think, feel, and develop empathy). We can recognize our mortality, vulnerabilities, and imperfections and direct compassion to both ourselves and others. It is how humans can safely connect with each other and how we connect with ourselves in our “inner worlds.”
Dehumanization is everywhere. It is in, and not limited to, various expressions of social injustice, such as adverse childhood experiences, discrimination, socioeconomic status, inequality, violence, injustice, racism, trauma, oppression, climate change crisis, homophobia, xenophobia, access to housing and healthcare, ageism, sexism, transphobia, neglect, white supremacy, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and colonization. Its impact on human suffering and mental health is far-reaching.
Dehumanization falls on a continuum from mild expressions that are part of everyday intergroup relations to severe expressions in war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Dehumanization is the result of behaviour from the dehumanizer that can be described in both subtle and severe forms of maltreatment where people are treated as less than human and undeserving of moral regard.
There is no doubt that many of us have experienced the impact of being in relationship with a dehumanizer, be that at work, family, romantic and intimate relationships, or in other social contexts. The subtle, everyday interpersonal maltreatment is communicated in gestures, looks, and tone of voice conveying underlying messages of disrespect, so we are left feeling demoralized and invalidated, which alters our sense of worth as a human being.
We can view ourselves as less than human when we are socially ostracized by others. We can all experience microaggressions and microinvalidations every day in subtle and unconscious maltreatments.
Dehumanization can also be linked to violent practices and policies in the context of armed conflicts. Research indicates:
>> American participants that viewed their enemies as less than human were in support of ongoing United States military presence and funding.
>> Israelis who supported the dehumanization of Palestinians were supportive of harsh policies that favored violent actions rather than peaceful deals.
>> British Christians who dehumanized Muslims also supported the torture of Muslim prisoners.
History of dehumanization of indigenous people in a country can also explain the continued links with current day forms of both subtle and overt maltreatments due to the unconscious and conscious perpetuation of these perceptions passed through generations from parents to their children.
All forms of dehumanization start with classification into “us and them” or “outgroup and ingroup” according to ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or nationality, and so on. In ethnocentric cultures, the dominant culture can be used to compare other cultures to, and it can lead to privileging one culture as better than the others. White dominance was also evident in South Africa’s apartheid system, where White people were rated more human than Black, Coloured, and Indian racial groupings.
Dehumanization can be indoctrinated, even subtly and unconsciously, through the use of mostly words and images, to teach large masses of people to dehumanize a group of people, to diminish them to be seen as less than human, and to justify directing acts of aggression toward them. It can also be used to silence or paralyze us from being mobilized to compassionately act to protect them from harm.
In this article, we want to highlight how mainstream media, politicians, government officials, and those in power promote a culture of dehumanization. Dehumanization is a culture that is supported and maintained by Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Western dominance and supremacy and promotes propaganda for the purpose of indoctrination and supporting the dehumanization process.
What dehumanization looks like:
Specific examples of how Palestinians have been dehumanized in recent weeks:
>> U.S. President Joe Biden said Hamas “unleashed pure, unadulterated evil in the world” in reference to Hamas’ attack on Israel. Evil is not “human.” It’s a way to not only separate “us” versus “them,” but to create an air of “the other” not being human—of that “other” being something that needs to be feared, something that is threatening. President George W. Bush invoked similar language when he labelled North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as an “axis of evil.”
>> We see dehumanization when all Palestinians are equated with Hamas (i.e. “if you support Palestinians, you support Hamas”). Hamas is seen by much of the Western world as a terrorist organization. Thus, by association, we can conclude: Hamas is a terrorist organization, all Palestinians are equated with Hamas, and so all Palestinians are equated with terrorism, equated with being terrorists.
>> Israel’s Defense Minister said, “We are fighting human animals.” When people use the word animals to describe someone or a whole group of people, it is clear dehumanization—insinuating that “they” aren’t civilized; they aren’t human; they are subhuman. This is similar to how Black people in the United States have been called monkeys, chimpanzees, and apes; again, this is racist and it is dehumanization.
>> There have been warnings issued to protect Israeli children from war images posted from the attack by Hamas in Australia, but there has not been similar mention of protection for Palestinian Australians who have lost loved ones still living in Palestine.
Other examples of dehumanization:
>> Nazi propaganda dehumanized Jews in Germany in many ways, including by depicting them as “agents of evil” and as demons. And Nazis used this dehumanization to “fuel hate” and perpetrate genocide against the Jewish people.
>> We see dehumanization in Islamophobia, which heightened in the United States after 9-11 and is still prevalent today. Islamophobia can be seen throughout various aspects society, including political rhetoric and words spoken by government officials. In 2021, for example, Congresswoman Lauren Boebert suggested that Minnesota Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who is Muslim, was a suicide bomber.
>> Mainstream media in Australia is disproportionally white. “Junot Diaz, the Dominican American writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, once said, ‘There’s this idea that monsters – vampires – don’t have reflections in a mirror. What I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.’”
>> Australian mainstream media mentions the high rate of incarceration of Indigenous people, but it doesn’t mention the fact that indigenous people are more likely to get incarcerated because they are indigenous and there is no mention of the inhumane treatment that they experience whilst incarcerated or that they are subjected to racial abuse and violence.
>> Australia held a referendum to make alterations to the constitution. Indigenous Australians were included in the constitution in 1967, which allowed the Commonwealth government to make laws in respect to Indigenous Australians but not to address unfairness and injustice (inequity). The referendum held on 14 October 2023 was an opportunity for constitutional recognition and the creation of an advisory body that could make recommendations for self-determination and human rights considerations. While the advisory body would have had no binding power, it was an opportunity for government to hear and humanize the decision-making and policy making process. The No campaigners used dehumanizing language to instill fear of the Voice and promote a No vote: “Jones claimed the voice would be a ‘new Indigenous-only bureaucracy that will have sweeping constitutional powers.’ ‘That was once called apartheid and we set our face against it.’”
How dehumanization destroys our humanness:
1. To silence any opposition to the dominant discourse and create apathy and immobilization.
2. To justify inhumane acts of harm (both everyday subtle to severe maltreatments).
3. To promote an appearance of unity and equality amongst everyone who is already regarded as human and not addressing the inequity for marginalized groupings. This is especially so with subtle and unconscious dehumanization.
4. To numb out our humanness by keeping people self-focused and self-enhancing. Learning occurs in relationships. If we are numb and surviving, there’s no room for connection and hence no space to learn.
5. To promote a divisive culture of “us and them” and to keep us maintaining relationships with those viewed as “more like us” only (western dominance favors western cultures or those who appear more westernized).
6. To deny self-determination for one group whilst promoting self-determination for those deemed worthy by virtue of ethnicity, racial classifications, or socioeconomic status.
7. To promote fear and survival responses that also promote self-focus and self-preservation through material acquisition and status. Money buys rights.
8. To prevent mobilization of oppositions to the status quo with the premise of “divide and conquer.”
9. To perpetuate ongoing violations of human rights at both national and international levels.
10. To promote values of individualism rather than values of collectivism, because we are always stronger together rather than apart from each other.
Given the complex nature of dehumanization, it is understandable that many of us experience, whether consciously or not, trauma coping responses to the dehumanization of self and others by:
1. Freezing: we get stuck and paralyzed and feel that there isn’t any point in trying to do anything as the situation is hopeless. We surrender to the dehumanization and allow ongoing dehumanization.
2. Flight: we might feel numbed out and might avoid discussions of injustice and might continue with numbing activities to entertain, indulge in, soothe, and avoid the distress. This is often the cycle of increasing addiction (behaviour, people, and substances/alcohol).
3. Fight: There are still some of us who might overcompensate and work hard to not be like those who are in the dehumanized groupings. We might cope with our fears that bad things might happen to us, by working harder and focusing on the accumulation of wealth, qualifications, titles and status as safeguards and protections. Some of us can also overcompensate by becoming like the dehumanizers, as many who have been dehumanized become, in order to have external control by dominating others.
What can we do to gain safety:
1. Self-care and self-compassion during difficult times and to attend to the internal dehumanizer that might have taken occupancy within our own heads. The world needs more compassionate individuals who acknowledge their own mortality and vulnerabilities and can direct kindness and self-compassion to themselves. This internal connection is the basis for all other connections.
2. Repair is the only way out. Maximizing every opportunity for repairing the damage of dehumanizing. Without repair, the dehumanizer will be void of humanness in every act of dehumanization. Without repair, the dehumanized can become the dehumanizer. This is not the work of only mental health professionals. We can each play our part in repair because dehumanization is everybody’s problem.
3. Joining and participating with compatible value-based groups that can come together to promote social togetherness and/or mobilize action for the restoration of humane treatment of any social injustice groupings.
4. Promoting social awareness through independent social media platforms to promote agency and action to direct compassion in order to reduce harm done and prevent harm.
5. Using work roles (both paid and unpaid) to be social agents of change and raise social justice awareness to address the many social issues with regards to social inequity.
6. Educating children regarding importance of prosocial behaviour, empathy, compassion, and a love for humanity through volunteering and community involvement.
7. Understanding the meaning of community beyond the immediate family systems that extend our own understanding of belonging to the human family.
8. Using social media platforms for “So We” rather than “So Me” culture—cited in Rethinking Narcissism by Dr. Craig Malkin.
9. Building our own self-agency in how we relate to the words coming from media, politicians, government officials, and those in high levels of power. It’s imperative that we become active, engaged users of media and that we look critically at what we are being presented with. However, we only develop this higher ordered brain functioning (critically thinking) in safe relationship with others.
10. Being mindful of how we use language to dehumanize others. Language matters. Words matter. It is not being overly sensitive or easily offended to call out dehumanizing language. To have healthy relationships, we need to communicate in respectful, more informed ways. This is how we grow, and this is how we change the quality of our relationships with each other. We need to unlearn the language of the Dehumanizer before we can learn the language of the Humanizer.
Whilst these solutions are often diminished to minimize their impact, nobody would be so bold to say that we would be content to have a world filled with more dehumanizers. If we did, then we have reached a point of no return, and human suffering and mental health distress will be worse in years to come.
The world needs more people who give a damn about themselves and others. Who are compassionate, who want to make a difference to improve the world in which we live in. Who value reciprocity in relationships.
No matter what we are advocating for—ending genocide, self-determination for the oppressed, the climate crisis, equity and policy changes, or basic human rights—what matters is that we move beyond the self to include others and community. Hope is a verb, and it is not silent or hiding in our rooms.
It is our humanness—with actions and compassionate values—that allows us to deeply connect and create communities that are humane and safe for everyone.
For more from Giselle & Lisa: