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Less Than Human

March 26, 2021
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche

This well-known quotation has been invoked countless times over the past hundred years. Upon hearing it, people tend to nod in agreement, recognizing the essential truth in Nietzsche’s words. What goes unrecognized is the problematic word choice: monster. Consider this:

The atrocities throughout history — genocides, mass murders, incarcerations of large groups of people — have only been possible through the dehumanization of its victims, the gradual and widespread adoption of the view that those people are less than human. Words (like images) are an essential tool in the dehumanization process. When people are described as rats, as an infestation, as aliens or poison, as a scourge — when people are labeled monsters — it becomes easy, over time, to think of them as inhuman, as not like us.

Once we perceive others as inhuman, we create an opening that allows us to circumvent our hard-wired social feeling (the foundation of morality) that impedes us from causing them harm. Social feeling embraces even those who don’t share our values, culture, race or ethnicity — until we no longer perceive them as human. Dehumanization begins with words: he’s such an animal; she’s a poison in our community; they are contaminants to our culture. Perceiving others as less than human serves as a loophole to the moral imperative. It’s the loophole that enabled the Nazis to perpetrate the Holocaust; the loophole that made the horrors of slavery possible for hundreds of years; the loophole underlying today’s persecution of the Muslim Rohingya by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar.

The dehumanizing impulse can occur in any of us when we’re on the receiving end of mistreatment or aggression, or when our fear of what’s foreign and different rises up within us. Our task therefore is to monitor language — ours, our children’s, and the words uttered by others on television and media — so that we spot, and rectify, regrettable moments when language promotes a dehumanization of those who have hurt us or those whom we fear.

References & Citations

Inspired by Brené Brown, “Words, Actions, Dehumanization, and Accountability.” Unlocking Us podcast, January 13, 2021.