MAY 6, 2020
DAVID LIVINGSTONE SMITH’S On Inhumanity, an investigation into the psychological, social, and political underpinnings of dehumanization, opens powerfully with scenes of racial segregation from Smith’s youth. The author, a renowned philosopher who has written widely on moral psychology, among other subjects, is in his 60s now. In the book’s introduction, he recollects his experience of living in the Deep South in the final years of the Jim Crow era. As he explains, racial oppression was all around him: separate water fountains, with those for White people clear and well maintained, and those for Black people left dirty, corroded, and in disrepair; the local beach was “for Whites only, as was clear from the sign telling visitors that neither Negros nor dogs were allowed.” Smith’s town, Fort Myers, was further segregated, with Black people living in dire poverty and kept at a distance from White families. And this racial hierarchy was deeply entrenched in people’s attitudes as well as government policies and rules: Smith recalls, for example, that his classmates “boasted of hunting Black kids with their pellet guns on weekends.”
Smith’s family was no stranger to this oppression. His maternal grandparents were Jewish refugees who fled to the United States to escape the pogroms of Eastern Europe. His paternal family tree also contains the legacy of oppression: his father’s grandfather participated in Andrew Jackson’s genocidal expulsion of the Cherokees from Georgia. In On Inhumanity, these foundational personal experiences of oppression, both explicit and implicit, inflect and enrich Smith’s examination of dehumanization in all of its complexities.
Dehumanization is no recent phenomenon. Examples of dehumanizing rhetoric can be found in writings from the ancient civilizations of Egypt, China, and Mesopotamia. And it goes without saying that such rhetoric and the actions it reflects and inspires have had devastating consequences — Smith draws upon powerful examples like the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the Vietnam War, and chattel slavery.
On Inhumanity is far from a mere treatise on past horrors, though. The book is suffused with a sense of urgency: Smith argues that “the topic of dehumanization is too important to be hidden away in the pages of academic journals and esoteric books that hardly anyone reads — especially now.” The “now” that the author refers to, of course, encompasses the rise of authoritarian politics around the world, the rise in hate crimes against minority groups, and the ongoing refugee crisis, which will likely get much worse as the effects of anthropogenic global warming amplify. Smith is unafraid to demonstrate his unequivocal pessimism about the future. As he argues already in the introduction, “given the looming threat of catastrophic climate change, and the devastating social consequences that are sure to follow in its wake, a descent into the worst sort of barbarism is overwhelmingly likely before the century is out.”
This prediction seems brutally sober and realistic. At the time of this writing, the coronavirus pandemic is in full force, and shops and supermarkets have been stripped bare of many essentials. If these are the immediate consequences of a virus (a serious one, granted) — then what will be the effects of catastrophic global warming? The stage is set, Smith argues, for “dehumanization and mass atrocity.” Dehumanization facilitates and even provides justification for atrocities being committed against other human beings. If the future is one in which human beings will have to increasingly compete with each other for resources in response to the progressively worsening effects of climate change, then it is crucial to recognize and understand dehumanization in order to resist it.
Smith also warns against falling into the trap of directing the very same form of thinking that dehumanization entails toward those who dehumanize others — that is to say, dehumanizing the dehumanizers. As he puts it, “Describing other human beings as monsters is an obstacle to seriously addressing the problem. It doesn’t matter how repugnant or destructive their beliefs and actions are. Monsters are fictional, but dehumanizers are real, and they are mostly ordinary people like you and me.”
For Smith, dehumanization means a “kind of attitude — a way of thinking about others,” revealing a distinction between the attitude and its consequences. As he puts it:
When people [dehumanize others] they often treat them in cruel and degrading ways, and they often refer to them using slurs. But bad treatment and degrading slurs are [generally] effects of dehumanization rather than dehumanization itself. They are, so to speak, symptoms of the disease, rather than the disease itself.
For Smith, dehumanization means something very specific: “To dehumanize another person is to conceive of them as a subhuman animal” (emphasis in the original). In this definition, a speciesist logic — one of which Smith is well aware — is unequivocally clear. Indeed, in one of the book’s most interesting moments, Smith begins to take on an implicitly anti-speciesist approach by critiquing the concept of the Great Chain of Being. With this model, God occupies the top of the hierarchy, followed by human beings, nonhuman mammals, fish, invertebrates, and so on, all the way down to inanimate matter. Value is assigned in highest degree at the top of the chain, and decreases with each step down.
The model makes little sense to Smith, certainly when it comes to living things. As he argues, “the Darwinian revolution should have demolished the idea that nature is arranged as a hierarchy.” Smith further sets himself up as a potentially powerful ally in the fight against speciesism. As he argues,
The idea that there’s a hierarchy of nature — that there are natural kinds of beings that have greater intrinsic value than others — is essential to both racism and dehumanization. To combat racism, and the forms of dehumanization that flow from it, you’ve got to call this entire framework into question.
That is precisely the point of arguments against speciesism — there is no inherent reason why human beings are intrinsically more valuable than, say, other (nonhuman) animals. As the author puts it, drawing on lobsters as an example:
No matter what criterion you choose as the marker of our special status, it doesn’t really work. A popular choice is rationality. […] [W]e are reasoners, who possess autonomy and free will. But this isn’t true of human infants — so are they more like lobsters than humans, and undeserving of our moral concern? And anyway, why should rationality set us above other animals?
It is unfortunate that the speciesist angle is not explored in greater depth — but then again, that is simply not the remit of the book. Still, Smith’s arguments could function as further ammunition in the battle against speciesism, and as a springboard for other authors to carry on such explorations.
However, Smith does provide a crucial and persuasive argument as to why this Great Chain of Being exists and so stubbornly persists: it does so because we all have to kill to live. Even vegans have to kill vegetables, as the author points out. It is of some comfort that as a species, we are often so distressed by the idea of killing that we have had to construct elaborate myths and fantasies in order to justify it. What is not comforting is the possible consequences of these myths and fantasies, with the apogee being the extreme violence and brutality that dehumanization can cause.
On Inhumanity does not recoil from providing graphic descriptions of the horrors that can follow from dehumanization. One of the most abominable examples in the book is the more than 4,000 (without counting those that were not recorded) documented lynchings of Black people in the United States between 1877 and 1950. The descriptions do not make for easy reading. Smith points to cases of victims being forced to eat their own severed genitals; in another instance, a woman’s unborn baby was cut out of her belly and stomped to death.
As Smith explains, racist lynchings were not just extrajudicial executions. They generally also involved torture and bodily mutilation, often while the victim was still alive. Severed body parts were put on display or kept as souvenirs. Some victims were even burned alive — which is why White people occasionally referred to lynchings as “barbecues.” Rather than being understood as atrocious, inhuman spectacles, lynchings were instead often regarded as festive public events that were even appropriate for children.
With these explicit descriptions, Smith seems to imply that the stakes could not be any higher. Dehumanization is a very real phenomenon, and not one that should be minimized or brushed aside. This is all the more important because, as Smith emphasizes, all of us have the potential to slip into a dehumanizing mindset — a mindset that cannot be tackled effectively unless we acknowledge it. For Smith, resisting dehumanization means resisting it in two stages: first, fighting the dehumanizing impulse in ourselves, which, as Smith argues, is not something that we are necessarily born with; and second, fighting dehumanization on a social and political level. The book lays out practical, concrete steps to engage in this fight, including personally calling out the phenomenon when we see it, opposing it in the voting booth, and engaging in activism.
Smith’s greatest strength lies in his ability to elucidate often complex notions in clear, concise terms — as well as his lack of fear in bluntly telling the reader that we are all potentially capable of dehumanization. There is darkness in all of us — but the point is to confront that darkness head-on. There can be no progress toward a better, more peaceful future for society without that reckoning.