Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others

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“If you want to know what people believe, look at what they do.” 

And all too often, what humans do is ghastly.

We seem to know right from wrong when it comes to crimes against our fellow humans. Murder and rape and torture are all, to varying degrees, prohibited. So, why is it we can — at times — so casually disregard laws and morality and common sense, and set aside our own paralyzing sense of revulsion, to commit the most atrocious acts against other humans, and then put on the kettle, make a cup of tea and cheerfully go about the rest of our day with a clean conscience?

The answer, according to author David Livingstone Smith, is simple: we are conveniently able to suspend our better instincts by dehumanizing those we seek to damage and degrade, rendering them less than human and almost necessary targets of our cruelty. How we do that is less simple, and that’s the point of this book, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others.

Smith explores the history and philosophic underpinnings of dehumanization, as well as the mechanisms — physical, intellectual, cognitive and cultural — by which it is implemented.

It is an important but not easy read mostly because some of the examples are truly ghastly — like, I-couldn't-fall-asleep-at-night-because-the-hideous-experience-kepts-running-over-and-over-through-my-thoughts ghastly — serving to illuminate and underscore this peculiar and damaging ability in humans.

He argues that we are able to use existing circuitry in our brains — circuitry that once proved useful on our evolutionary journey — that, when amplified by cultural forces, allows us to otherize and dehumanize those who we decide are a threat to ourselves, our community, our sense of patriotism and, mostly, to our pristine sense of morality and “rightness” … no matter how far beyond repair we twist them (slavery, genocide, war) to serve our immediate needs.

“…dehumanization is a joint creation of biology, culture and the architecture of the human mind.”

“Given the highly developed social and cooperative nature of our species, how do we manage to perform these acts of atrocity? An important piece of the answer is clear. It’s by recruiting the power of our conceptual imagination to picture ethnic groups as nonhuman animals. It’s by doing this that we’re able to release destructive forces that are normally kept in check by fellow feeling.”

“Demoting a population to subhuman statues excludes them from the universe of moral obligation. “

An examination of race through this lens, which seems especially cogent today, was disheartening and gave a powerful reminder of how far we still have to go to get past these ridiculous, limiting concepts. Just 60 years ago during WWII, “black” blood was not given to “white” soldiers because of the misguided perception among recipients that there was a difference in the blood. Doctors and scientists knew better, unequivocally, but hate — sadly — is often more powerful than truth.

He readily admits that some of his insights are not particularly original, but wrote the book as an effort to start formalizing the study of dehumanization so that, hopefully, we may some day be able to move beyond the default position of otherizing those who are different from us, a path of least resistance that — as history (and today’s world) show again and again — have such devastating consequences.

“Among the earliest forms of human self-awareness was the awareness of being meat,” he writes. Perhaps, in time, we can learn how to come together to celebrate our unique form — thinking meat — rather than squabbling about which particular kind of meat is superior.