By David Livingstone Smith on January 13, 2024
Readers of this essay will have seen photographs of the ongoing war in Gaza. Among these are photographs of nearly naked Palestinian men, kneeling on the ground, with IDF soldiers towering above them. According to testimonies published by +972 Magazine:
Israeli soldiers subjected Palestinian detainees to electric shocks, burned their skin with lighters, spat in their mouths, and deprived them of sleep, food, and access to bathrooms until they defecated on themselves. Many were tied to a fence for hours, handcuffed, and blindfolded for most of the day. Some testified to having been beaten all over their bodies and having cigarettes extinguished on their necks or backs. Several people are known to have died as a result of being held in these conditions.
Dehumanized people are very often humiliated and treated with extravagant cruelty by those who dehumanize them. In this respect, the practices mentioned above are unexceptional. Acts like these are characteristic of episodes of mass violence where dehumanization plays a role. But analyses of why this happens do not usually go very deep. Simply saying, as is so often the case, that dehumanizers are sadistic, that they enjoy wielding power over their victims, or that they hate their victims, or gesturing vaguely to obedience, is not much of an explanation.
For reasons that I will shortly make clear, the prevalence of humiliation and cruelty towards ostensibly dehumanized people sometimes leads to skepticism about the reality of dehumanization itself. In this essay, I will explain why I believe the skeptical response to be unwarranted and offer a view of where such acts fit into a larger theoretical picture of dehumanization.
To do this I need to begin by explaining what I take dehumanization to be and how it works. This is required because the word “dehumanization” is used in a variety of senses, both in common parlance and in academic writing. Researchers that study dehumanization provide several different, and sometimes conflicting, accounts of its causal structure. I will not spend time enumerating these (those interested can consult my book Making Monsters).
I use the term “dehumanization” to mean the attitude of conceiving of others as subhuman creatures. It is facilitated by two powerful psychological dispositions. One is psychological essentialism. Psychological essentialism has two components. The first is the tendency to divide the world into what philosophers call “natural kinds.” Natural kinds are kinds of things that are not artefacts of our practices (for example, chemical elements and biological species). They are kinds of things that are discovered rather than created by human artifice. The second component is the tendency to think that what makes any being the kind of being that it is, is its possession of a deep, unobservable property that is exclusive to the members of that kind.
Psychologists call this imagined property the “essence” of the kind. To illustrate, from an essentialist perspective what makes an individual animal a dog is not its appearance (having four legs, barking, wagging its tail, etc.). These characteristics are merely diagnostic—that is, we can usually infer that an animal is a dog on their basis—but they are not constitutive—that is, they do not make it the case that the animal is a dog. There might be an animal that is outwardly indistinguishable from a dog, and yet is not a dog due to it lacking the dog essence.
Since the introduction of this idea in 1989, research into psychological essentialism has been both plentiful and robust, and it suggests that essentialism is a very common if not universal psychological disposition. It is crucial for giving an account of how dehumanization works because it allows that (among other things) that the appearance of a being may not comport with its essence. In the context of dehumanization, this contributes to an explanation of how it is psychologically possible for a person to grant that certain others are outwardly indistinguishable from human beings while denying that they are really human “on the inside” (i.e., denying that they possess a human essence).
The other psychological disposition that is crucial for theorizing dehumanization has been far less extensively researched. I call it hierarchical thinking. Hierarchical thinking is the tendency to regard natural kinds as arrayed on a hierarchy of value, with the most perfect situated at or close to the apex of the hierarchy, and the least perfect near the bottom. However, the assumption of a natural hierarchy is not merely a relic of antiquity and the Middle Ages, as some historians of ideas would have us believe. Even now, in the twenty-first century, the hierarchical conception structures our vision of the world, through the value-laden language of “higher” and “lower.” Psychologist Evelin Lindner points out that:
We apply such rankings to our evaluations of both the abiotic and the biotic worlds. Gold, worth much, is high up on the scale of worth and value, silver a little lower, and dirt is worth little and is somewhere far down. When we turn to the biotic world, we see divine powers usually being placed at the absolute top, somewhere in heaven, far above humans. The human scale begins just below gods and angels. At its “pinnacle” the human scale champions divinely ordained masters and continues downward until it reaches the lowest underlings, who are often seen as of little more value than animals.
Far from having vanished in the wake of modern science, the hierarchical picture of the world is burned into our psychological makeup. It is manifest in our relationships with other living things, determining which organisms it is permissible to kill or exploit. Hierarchical thinking is crucial for theorizing dehumanization, because it provides a framework for understanding the notion of subhumanity. To be subhuman is to be assigned a rank below the human on the grand hierarchy of nature. Taken together, psychological essentialism and hierarchical thinking give us the following (partial) account of dehumanization: when we dehumanize others, we attribute to them the essence of a kind of entity that is ranked below the human. This occurs because dehumanization has the social function of disabling natural inhibitions against performing acts of violence—especially lethal violence—against other human beings. As Hannah Arendt reputedly remarked, it is easier to kill a dog than a man, easier yet to kill a rat or a frog, and no problem at all to kill insects.
Although dehumanization, as I conceive of it, is a psychological phenomenon, it cannot be adequately understood in exclusively psychological terms. Dehumanization is a psychological response to social and political forces, and it cannot be understood without reference to the sociopolitical circumstances that elicit it. The dehumanizing attitude is collective. It targets whole groups of people rather than single individuals. These groups of people are first racialized—that is, they are seen as fundamentally and permanently different from and irredeemably inferior to the dehumanizing group. They are seen as lesser humans—assigned to the lower reaches of the category of the human. Importantly, they are also seen as dangerous and destructive.
Dehumanization is not a spontaneous human reaction. It does not come out of the blue. A careful examination of paradigmatic historical examples shows that it is prompted by epistemic deference. Epistemic deference is the attitude of accepting the picture of the world that is provided by people who are endowed with epistemic authority. This role is tied to what philosophers call the division of cognitive labor. We often associate the division of cognitive labor with the respective epistemic positions of scientists and the general public. For example, I accept that physicists are experts on the basic structure of matter, so I allow them to define this aspect of reality for me, even if it contradicts the verdict of my senses. Consequently, I accept the microphysicist’s claim that the desk in front of me mostly consists of empty space, even though my eyes tell me a very different story.
We defer to experts because we trust them. Unfortunately, this trust can be misplaced. Although the expert is a person who is supposed to know, this does not entail that they really do know. This is especially problematic when the expert’s testimony is in the service of a dangerous political ideology. Like the physicist who says that our eyes deceive us into thinking that the desk is gapless, those in positions of epistemic authority can tell the rest of us (and often have done so) that although some groups of people might appear to be human, they are not really human. They are subhumans passing as humans. And we are especially prone to accept such things if we are led to believe that mistakenly rejecting them would be a very costly, or even catastrophic error (which is why propagandists typically claim that dehumanized people pose an existential threat). In the present era, this sort of persuasion is most effectively accomplished by political operatives, but it does not require a Goebbels. The putative expert might be a religious leader, a scientist, or even a celebrity. On a more local scale they might be one’s parents, teachers, or respected community members. The common thread is that we grant them the power to define reality for us.
Returning now to my definition of dehumanization, notice that I use the term “creatures” rather than “animals.” This is because, in its most lethal forms, dehumanized people are regarded as monstrous, demonic beings, rather than simply as less-than-human animals. I offer a detailed explanation of how and why this occurs in Making Monsters, where I draw on philosopher Noël Carroll’s analysis of the characteristics that an entity must possess in order to qualify as a monster. Carroll’s analysis focuses on the monsters of horror fiction—what he calls “horrific monsters”—but his analysis is strikingly applicable to people who have been dehumanized as monsters. Dehumanizing rhetoric is, in a sense, a kind of horror fiction.
To be a monster, an entity must satisfy two conditions. One is that it must be physically threatening. The monster must be dangerous and malevolent. As I have already explained, racialized groups that become dehumanized are thought to satisfy this condition. They are seen as criminals, rapists, poisoners, spreaders of disease, pedophiles, terrorists, and so on. The second condition is that the monster must be what I call metaphysically threatening (Carroll uses the term “cognitively threatening”). Metaphysically threatening beings are contradictory entities that violate the natural order in virtue of belonging to two or more mutually exclusive natural kinds simultaneously. Carroll offers some examples:
Demonically possessed characters typically involve the superimposition of two categorically distinct individuals, the possessee and the possessor, the latter is usually a demon who, in turn, is often a categorically transgressive figure (e.g., a goat-god). Stevenson’s most famous monster is two men, Jekyll and Hyde, where Hyde is described as having a simian aspect which makes him appear not quite human. Werewolves mix man and wolf, while shape changers of other sorts compound humans with other species.
Metaphysically threatening beings are disturbing. They elicit a distinctive kind of aversive effect, which can be characterized as uncanniness, creepiness, or even horror. And because they are unnatural beings—beings that seem to transgress the natural order—they are viewed as especially menacing. When dealing with monsters, no treatment is too harsh. Mercy and restraint have no place. They must be utterly destroyed.
Why are dehumanized people so often seen as monsters? What is it that renders them metaphysically threatening? Dehumanizers experience their victims as both human and subhuman simultaneously. On the one hand, dehumanizers cannot avoid recognizing that these others are human beings. Even the most hard-core Nazi was aware that Jews were human. But on the other hand, dehumanizers epistemically defer to those who tell them that, despite appearances, these others are not really human at all. It is the compresence of these contradictory representations in the minds of dehumanizers which, when combined with the prior assumption that they are physically threatening, turns dehumanized people into monsters.
This state of mind has devastating consequences. The dehumanized are not simply seen as vermin—rats, lice, cockroaches, and the like—but become uncanny rat-people, lice-people, or roach-people, creatures that would not be out of place in a horror movie. This alchemy is responsible for the paradox that dehumanized groups are typically in reality vulnerable and marginalized and yet seen by their persecutors as formidable and menacing.
The events leading up to the Gaza war illustrate this sequence. Prior to the attacks, Palestinians were racialized by a substantial swathe of the Israeli public, and regarded as inherently violent and physically threatening. Then, shortly after the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7, Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant stated, “We are fighting human animals, and acting accordingly.” I was alarmed at his use of the dehumanizing term “human animals,” and wrote on October 12:
The most dangerous kind of dehumanizing speech portrays others as human and subhuman simultaneously, picturing them as bloodthirsty human animals. This strange alchemy transforms them into monsters, embodiments of evil that must be utterly destroyed, at any cost…But at times like this, it is vital to remember that monsters are fictional. They do not exist in the real world. Dehumanizing rhetoric is fatally attractive, but it is an obstacle to effectively addressing real problems. It has the power to open the gates of hell, bringing unimaginable suffering and devastation to innocent people.
The next development was all-too-predictable. Benjamin Netanyahu stated that the enemies are not merely human animals, but “bloodthirsty monsters.” I wrote on October 15:
The worst, the deadliest, form of dehumanization represents the dehumanized other as a monster—an uncanny incarnation of pure evil rather than a human being. But whatever one might say about the hideous atrocities perpetrated by Hamas, it is patently false to claim that these atrocities were not committed by human beings…. The point that I want to make here—the point that leads me to regard Netanyahu’s language as so ominous—is that when we dehumanize others as monsters, we essentialize them in a particular way. We think of them as a distinct, racialized kind of being. They—these monstrous others—are deep down all the same. Even if they do not manifest the same properties, they have it in them to do so. Given this pattern of thinking, these racial others, these monsters, must be utterly obliterated—destroyed without quarter.
The extreme, gratuitous violence that so frequently accompanies dehumanization is theoretically incomprehensible if one does not understand how dehumanization makes monsters. This incomprehension is illustrated by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s comments in his book Experiments in Ethics. After remarking that “it’s not quite right” to say that dehumanization motivates genocidal violence, he says that dehumanization….
….doesn’t explain the immense cruelty—the abominable, I’m tempted to say—that are their characteristic feature. The persecutors may liken the objects of their enmity to cockroaches or germs, but they acknowledge their victims’ humanity in the very act of humiliating, stigmatizing, reviling, and torturing them. Such treatment—and the voluble justifications the persecutors invariably offer for such treatment—is reserved for creatures we recognize to have intentions, desires, and projects.
The genocide literature is littered with examples of this sort of thing. Consider Nikolaus Wachsmann’s description of the treatment of Ernst Heilmann at Börgermoor concentration camp.
Once he had to spend an entire day smeared from head to toe in human excrement. Another time he crawled on all fours into the prison barracks, led on a chain by an SS man, barked loudly and exclaimed “I am the Jewish Parliamentary Deputy Heilmann from the SPD [Social Democratic Party of Germany]” before he was maimed by guard dogs.
Cornell University philosopher Kate Manne develops an argument that is similar to Appiah’s, but goes further. She suggests that so-called dehumanizing speech might be understood as just a way of demeaning victims, with a full awareness that the targets of that speech are, in fact, fully human beings. She writes:
One simple point is that dehumanizing speech can function to intimidate, insult, demean, belittle, and so on…since it helps itself to certain powerfully encoded social meanings. And given that human beings are widely (if erroneously) held to be superior to nonhuman animals, denying someone’s humanity can serve as a particularly humiliating kind of put-down…. Such put-downs would hardly be apropos when it comes to actual nonhuman animals, who could neither comprehend the insult, nor be successfully put down by having their nonhuman status correctly identified. This requires human comprehension, not to mention an incipient human status to be degraded from. There is nothing to object to in being called a rat if, in fact, you are one.
Appiah and Manne make two important points. The first is that the theory of dehumanization as it is usually framed does not account for the extreme cruelty that so often accompanies ostensibly dehumanizing attitudes. Seeing others as subhuman animals is insufficient as an explanation because we do not normally treat animals—even disgusting or dangerous ones—in anything like the ways that the persecutors treat their victims. The second objection is that in humiliating and stigmatizing people in this manner, and in offering justifications for this treatment, ostensible dehumanizers implicitly acknowledge that their victims are human beings. This can and should be expressed more strongly. In fact, it is typical for dehumanizers to explicitly characterize the objects of the enmity as human beings, while also characterizing them as subhumans.
The second criticism has teeth only if one thinks that to dehumanize others is to conceive of them as nothing but subhuman animals. But as I have described, the psychological dynamics of dehumanization are far more complex. If dehumanizers see those whom they dehumanize as both human and subhuman, then it is unsurprising that they characterize them, implicitly and explicitly, as human as well as subhuman. However, the first explanatory challenge remains unanswered. If dehumanized people are monsters and demons in the eyes of their dehumanizers, why do the latter take such pains to degrade, and humiliate them, rather than simply destroying them?
Manne suggests that perhaps ostensible dehumanization is really just humiliation. If dehumanization does not exist, and what seems to be dehumanization are nothing more than acts of humiliation, then no further explanation is required for why so-called dehumanized people are subjected to humiliating treatment!
I agree with Manne that animalistic slurs—for instance, calling people “rats”—is often just a put-down. But it is implausible to suppose that real dehumanization does not exist. The weight of historical evidence suggests otherwise. So, why is dehumanization so regularly tied to humiliation. I propose the following explanation. Recall that I describe the transformation of dehumanized people into monsters as a consequence of attributing the essence of a nonhuman animal to them. Because dehumanizers are unable to obliterate their awareness of the humanness of those whom they dehumanize, the latter are seen as simultaneously human and subhuman. This elicits a powerful psychological tension, a disturbing sense of metaphysical threat that amplifies their perceived dangerousness. Given this, it is reasonable to suppose that dehumanizers are driven to eliminate the representational dissonance by rendering the other only human or only subhuman.
Because dehumanization has the function of disabling inhibitions against performing acts of violence—especially lethal violence—resolving the conflict by accepting that dehumanized people are human (that is, ceasing to dehumanize them) is unavailable. Instead, I suggest, dehumanizers deal with the situation by attempting to render the dehumanized other as wholly animal and subordinate to their will. They are impelled to put the dehumanized other in what they deem to be their proper metaphysical place as powerless animals to undo the more threatening perception of them as powerful monsters. But this cannot succeed because it is virtually impossible to “turn off” our automatic recognition of the humanness of others. The monstrousness keeps returning, and is met with an escalating cycle of humiliation and control—a seeming addiction to extravagant cruelty.
1. Yuval, A. “Inside Israel’s torture camps in Gaza,” +972 Magazine, Jan. 5, 2024. https://www.972mag.com/israel-torture-camp-gaza-detainees/?fbclid=IwAR1BMzuqCoZYsbEu77akgZc1AYob2VfsbcdFsPLF4us69h27GgxG3atuMgQ
2. Smith, D. L. (2021), Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
3. In this essay I concentrate on a form of dehumanization that I call demonizing dehumanization. There are other patterns of dehumanization (for example, the dehumanization of cognitively disabled people in the Nazi “euthanasia” program which, although comporting with the definition, depart from demonizing dehumanization in other respects.
4. Medin, D. and Ortony, A. (1989) “Psychological essentialism,” in Similarity and Analogical Reasoning, ed. Stella Vosniadou and Andrew Ortony. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
5. Evelin Lindner, Making Enemies: Humiliation and International Conflict. Westport, CT: (Greenwood/Praeger Security International, 2006), 5-7. For the language of uprightness, see also Sander L. Gilman, Stand Up Straight! A History of Posture (London: Reaktion Books, 2018).
6. Des Pres, T. (1976), The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. New York: Oxford University Press, p.61.
7. Carroll, N. (1990). The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge.
8. Ibid, 33.
9. Smith, D. L. “Are Hamas fighters human animals? Dehumanization is not the way forward.” https://davidlivingstonesmith.substack.com/p/are-hamas-fighters-human-animals
10. Smith, D. L. “From human animals to bloodthirsty monsters: the rhetoric of dehumanization in Israel’s war against Hamas.” https://davidlivingstonesmith.substack.com/p/from-human-animals-to-bloodthirsty
11. Appiah, A. K. (2008), Experiments in Ethics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 144.
12. Wachsmann, N. (2015), KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 51.
13. Manne, K. (2019). Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 163-164.
14. Documented in Smith, D. L. (2011). Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others. New York: St. Martin’s Press; Smith, D. L. (2020). On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It. New York: Oxford University Press; Smith, D. L. (2021). Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
15. Of course, sometimes propagandists represent dehumanized people as monstrous or demonic from the outset, but I suggest that this has real psychological power only insofar as the contradiction between humanity and subhumanity is present.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
DAVID LIVINGSTONE SMITH
Advisor, Genocide, Holocaust and Disaster Studies, CGC; Author “Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization”