Letter to the Editors

June 18, 2011   •   By Jon-Christian Suggs, David Livingstone Smith

To the Editors:


It is difficult for an author to respond to a review without sounding churlish, but at the same time, it is incumbent upon an author not to allow misrepresentations of his or her work to go unchallenged. It in is this spirit that I am moved to respond to Barbara Ehrenreich’s review of my book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others.


My mission in Less Than Human was twofold. First, I sought to demonstrate the extraordinary pervasiveness of dehumanization across cultures and throughout history as an incentive to violence against whole populations – populations that are imagined to be less than human. And second, I offered a theory of dehumanization: an account of what it is about human nature that makes dehumanization possible. It is in attempting to engage with this theory that Ehrenreich drops the ball. She puzzlingly characterizes my theory as claiming that human cruelty to other humans “is based on a kind of cognitive error – a failure to recognize our conspecifics.” Errors are accidental, and therefore purposeless, disruptions of normal psychological processes. But I do not regard dehumanization as some sort of cognitive hiccup. Dehumanization has a function: the function of obliterating our awareness of the humanity of those upon whom we wish to visit harm. Ehrenreich goes on to assert in a similar vein that Smith passes over the fact that wars have also been fought routinely and repeatedly among people who do recognize each other as fully human – whatever that may mean – people who, in times of peace, intermarry and trade with each other, and who may be as difficult for an outsider to distinguish as Irish Protestants and Catholics, Serbs and Croats.


But I do not propose that warring groups must dehumanize one another; only that they are often inclined to do so. Our readiness, in times of war, to dehumanize those formerly regarded as fellow humans is not a counterexample to my thesis: rather, it instantiates the phenomenon for which my theory is intended as an explanation.


When we dehumanize others, two psychological dispositions work in tandem: our continued adherence – often in spite of ourselves – to the hoary notion that the cosmos is an ordered moral hierarchy of beings, and our tendency to distinguish the essence of a thing from itsappearance. We imagine that although certain others have a human appearance, they possess a sub-human essence. Although decked out in the superficial trappings of humanity, these beings are taken to really be dangerous predators, vermin, beasts of burden, or animals to be hunted for sport. The imaginative alchemy by means of which this transmutation is performed requires a mind that is endowed with considerable cognitive horsepower. Its perpetrator must be adept at juggling sophisticated concepts, such as essence and appearance, morally higher and morally lower. In other words, only creatures with minds like ours have what it takes to dehumanize – or, more broadly, “despeciate” – others.


Ehrenreich is unmoved by these considerations. Poking fun at my claim that the capacity to dehumanize others “is a testimony to our superior intelligence”, she goes on to assert that it has been empirically refuted. “There’s no point in belaboring the irony in Smith’s assertion that our apparent failure to consistently recognize conspecifics arises, not from thick-headedness, but from our presumed intellectual gifts,” she writes:


Would smarter chimpanzees be capable of “de-chimpizing” each other? The empirical roadblock Smith faces here is that chimps do in fact sometimes “de-chimpize” each other, or treat each other with what animal behaviorists have called “gratuitous cruelty,” as if the “enemy” chimp were a non-conspecific prey animal, such as a monkey. Smith wriggles out of this by warning against attributing “human-like mental states” to chimps.


Reading these words, one might come away with the impression that I have high-handedly ignored evidence gathered by primatologists. In fact, I discuss this in considerable detail, and give careful, critical attention to the very comment about “gratuitous cruelty” (made by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson in their book Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence) to which Ehrenreich refers. Facts about chimpanzee behavior do not present an “empirical roadblock” precisely because dehumanization and related phenomena cannot be cashed out in purely behavioral terms. It is true that when chimpanzees attack their neighbors, they behave in much the same way as they do when hunting for red colobus monkeys, their favorite prey. Given that we cannot climb inside the chimpanzee mind and view the world from their perspective, we will never be certain that they do conceive of other chimps as merely monkeys in chimpanzee form: as unterchimpen. But this interpretation of their behavior is rendered implausible by what we know – or, at least, what we think we know – about the limits of chimpanzee cognition.


Of all the creatures on this earth, we alone, it seems, possess the intellectual prowess and imaginative reach to deceive ourselves in this manner. Tragically, the mental capacities that underpin our most wonderful cultural accomplishments also fuel our most terrible depredations. Understanding precisely how this works should, I believe, be considered as one of our most pressing priorities.


David Livingstone Smith

Professor of Philosophy

University of New England




To the Editors:


The responses to Kenneth Warren’s new book What Was African American Literature? by Walter Benn Michaels, Erica Edwards, and Aldon Nielsen share a common and unfortunate tactical flaw: they each grant Warren a key point that they should have contested. When Warren stipulates that African American literature is best understood as a historically situated project undertaken in response to Jim Crow America, he is wrong. I don’t mean to say that African American literature as a historically situated project doesn’t engage Jim Crow America, and I certainly don’t quarrel with any author’s privilege of stipulating whatever he or she likes. But the way in which Warren is wrong on this historical point may undermine his later contentions about African American literature.


I agree that there are indeed two phases of African American literature, but they are not divided up as Warren suggests. There is, in the first instance, a grand African American narrative that stretches not as Warren would have it, from the failure of Reconstruction but let’s say, from Frederick Douglass in 1845 to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in 1952. The subject matter of this narrative is the question of African American identity under the law. For roughly 110 years African American literature and American law contest for normative superiority in the question of the African American self. Think of these as two competing narrative systems, sharing common enough conventions, some proofs, a language. American law says the African in America is this and the literature of African Americans says it is that. Undergirding this contestation, which is probably as much dialectical as it is adversarial, is the influence of romantic thought about property, identity, will, and desire.


At first the African American side of this is, with only one or two exceptions, a response to the manifestation of an American racial romanticism in slavery. But even before slavery as an economic system was ended by the Civil War, the nature of the debate changed with Justice Taney’s text of Scott v. Sandford. From 1857 on, African Americans write in contravention of Taney’s text. It would be fair to say that there is not a serious African American novel written between 1857 and 1952 that is not about the law and that is not, in one way or another, an interrogation of Taney’s argument. Invisible Man, in fact, should be understood not as (only) the first African American modernist novel but as the last African American novel written in response to “Dred Scott.”


For Warren is more or less correct that African American literature changes in the twentieth century. What happens is that “law” gets decentered and the site of contestation over the nature of the African American self shifts from the external normative force of the law to the internal shaping force of the psyche. One of the most important things to recognize about the law’s role in the argument about African American identity is that it strangled any impulses to create a true “psychoanalytic” subject in African American literature. It was Ellison’s decision to “step outside” the grasp of the realist/naturalist imperatives that its confrontation with the romanticized legal definitions of African American personhood had imposed on black literature that allowed him to create Invisible Man.


Is this more than just a quibble over whether African American literature began in 1877 or 1845? Yes, it is. Warren assumes, incorrectly, that African American literature was a response to a specific set of legal codes. Once those codes are invalidated, he argues, the political agenda of the literature has been realized and the moment is over. But that was not the case. The “American law” in play here is not just a code here, a law there. It is a set of romantic assumptions about selfhood that permeate American legal philosophy throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, assumptions that get formalized as law and, because law is one of the most powerful normative forces in modern culture, get inscribed in an ongoing social text about race. The Jim Crow era, and the iniquities that Warren sees as the stimulus to the emergence of African American literature, is only a moment in the history of the struggle between African American literature and the law.


African American literature changes after 1952, reaching a point of departure in the mid-sixties, the markers of which (and here Warren sees clearly) are the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After that, African American literature is liberated from the law. It still confronts the law, but not at the dead center of the enterprise. There are textual evidences, in gangsta rap and in black superhero comics, that law has changed as a focus in African American literature(s), from being that which strangles all that is human in me because of how it defines me to being that which just gets in my way, among other forces outside me, while my real struggle is internal.


I am not sanguine, however, about the death of the romantic racism that is the deep-structure text of American law and of American life. I would like to think that Warren is correct in his belief that the iniquities of the present are really so unlike those of the common past. But even if they are, I think it is not a good idea to forget just why the road to this point was so long and so hard. And maybe not a good idea to predict what’s down that road from here.


Jon-Christian Suggs

Professor Emeritus of English

The City University of New York