Review of On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It, by David Livingstone Smith, Oxford University Press, 2020. Review by Todd Stark.
This book is a valuable new entry in the literature trying to explain how ordinary people become complicit in the wholesale exploitation and murder of entire populations of human beings. Smith has created his own synthetic framework for thinking about this which draws on a wide range of sources from psychology, sociology, history, and anthropology, as well as drawing on philosophical analysis to clarify many of the critical points which rely on terms that are commonly used in diverse ways.
The author's framework differs from the way we usually tend to think of these things in several important ways. This framework proposes a very specific way of thinking about racism, and then a very specific way of thinking about dehumanization, and offers a process relationship between the two which explains how oppression and atrocity seem be justified and sustained by ordinary people who are not necessarily callous or bigoted.
Although his argument is very much about race, he doesn't start from the usual ways of thinking about racism. Instead he adopts a very specific definition of racism for his argument which serves to distinguish the cultural construct of a folk race from any of the similar sounding ideas in population biology and anthropology. He draws on the concept of essentialism and the psychology of essentialism for his definition.
This is very valuable for the purposes of his argument, although it takes a little getting used to. We tend to think of racism already as either (1) individual prejudice or (2) institutional oppression or (3) disparity in outcomes. These usual definitions are already a bit troublesome. It isn't just that they are different, they can also be conflicting, and there is often an implicit relationship between them when people speak of racism.
Some race theorists have tried to separate the concept of race entirely from prejudice, which is a big source of confusion when someone uses that concept in speaking with someone who has the concept of racism as individual or institutionalized bigotry. Then the idea that racism means thinking one race is inferior to another in every way doesn't seem quite right. People we call racists don't necessarily think some races are inferior in every way to others. They might for example think certain races are superior in some ways and inferior in others, as in the case of the Nazi racists who thought Jews were diabolically intelligent but otherwise less than human. The idea that racists hate the races they consider inferior isn't quite right either. Slavers wouldn't necessarily hate their slaves, they more likely thought of them the way they thought of livestock.
Taking the sweep of troublesome examples and confusions into account leads Smith to back off from all of those meanings somewhat to focus on a fundamental mechanism ("racializing") that makes them all happen. That is our tendency to see a population as having an inherited shared essence that applies to all of the individuals. If this was all there was to racism, this would mean that merely adopting the concept of folk races is racist by definition. But why should merely defining categories of people result in racism? Smith proposes that the concept of a hierarchy of categories of human beings of different value is already there from the start. Because we already think in terms of a hierarchy, defining human beings into races is then all that is needed to have racism.
This means that racist thinking need not necessarily have anything to do with skin color or any other physical characteristic, those are historical artifacts. Since we already have a sense of hierarchy of humans based on relative value, all it takes is to find some way of placing people into different categories, and we have a formula for systematic bias.
That idea of a hierarchy of human types, each with its own essential value is what constitutes racism in this argument. So for example, racist thinking need not necessarily have anything to do with skin color or any other physical characteristic, those are historical artifacts.
So the notion of psychologically and conceptually "racializing" a population is a fundamental idea here. This is not enough by itself to lead to unfair treatment, much less genocide or slavery, but becomes a powerful lever for other processes which do make it much easier to carry out all of those things.
One of the lessons the author wants us to learn is that once we identify "racializing" a population as a lever that makes mass atrocities possible, we also have an important tool for fighting back against them if we catch them early enough. Categorizing people in this way combined with making the categories into a hierarchy is what racism is about here.
From the start this approach distinguishes Smith's framework from the way many of us think about exploitation and hatred. These days especially, with all of the polarizations we see between people, we often think of ourselves as fundamentally "tribal," as if identifying with a group in some way automatically disposes us toward other members of the group and also against members of other groups. We often see arguments based on the theory that loyalty to our group leads to loathing of other groups. This aligns somewhat with some of the thinking in social psychology that starts with the minimal group model and extends to all sorts of other kinds of out-group hostility models.
Smith does not start with this "loyalty leads to loathing" idea. He finds that humans seem to have a more fundamental disposition to see each other as human by default and to treat them as human beings even while identifying with different groups. What he finds makes atrocity possible is not the "othering" mechanisms themselves but the way our cultural artifacts, especially our ideologies, trigger and maintain our aversive social psychological mechanisms while suppressing our natural and automatic ability to see each other as human.
Importantly, in this framework, ideologies in this sense are not arbitrary, they are motivated ways of thinking that specifically preserve the conditions that let some people take advantage of others for their own benefit. The classic example is how the Great Chain of Being divided the world up into a hierarchy of beings of different value, and was a natural fit for justifications of the enslavement of lesser beings.
So if this framework is correct, we have some good news: we are not biologically doomed to exploit each other. We do need to be vigilant of how we think of identity and how our sense of identity and the identity of others is being exploited by social and political messaging that draws on ideologies that support oppression and fuel resentment.
The way Smith's framework sees mass atrocity becoming possible is through a process with at least two steps.
First we identify a population in terms of the inherited shared essence that applies to all the members. This is simply the essentialist tendency, it doesn't imply any negative connotations about the population identified, it just attributes an essence to them all. This first step is critical to the framework because it distinguishes the cultural construction of folk races from any scientific use of similar terms in population genetics or anthropology. In this framework, the essentialist tendency is the bedrock foundation that lets additional mechanisms exploit or kill entire populations.
If we aren't being tricked into thinking of everyone in a population as having some sort of hidden shared essence, we could see people as individuals and populations as having diversity within them, which can greatly reduce the effect of propaganda meant to stir up hostility and fear. Seeing a population as having a shared hidden essence lets us discount the individuals we see who are exceptions to the stereotypes because their hidden essence still means they have the potential in them to express it.
Next, once a population is seen as having a shared hidden essence, the mechanisms of dehumanization come into play. Smith defines dehumanization in a very specific way for the purpose of his framework. Dehumanization for the author is a combination of psychological dispositions and social and political mechanisms that cultivate and trigger those dispositions. We have an individual ability to bypass our instinct to see see each other as human and instead to see others as lesser humans or as non-human, and this is the psychological aspect of dehumanization. Once we see a population as having a shared hidden essence that ability can be exploited in service of an ideology that treats the whole population as less human or non-human, and that is the social and political aspect of dehumanization.
Importantly, dehumanization in this framework is a motivated process. It is not used blindly but because it serves our advantage to view other people as a resource for us to use at our whim or as a threat in some sense and exploit resentment and fear of them. This means that once dehumanization is part of a widespread ideology, it is very difficult to combat because people are relying on it and benefitting from it.
Since the point of theorizing about human inhumanity is to fight against it, I want to summarize the points from the Resisting chapter at the end of the book.
1. Dehumanization is both psychological and political. We have to recognize how individuals are affected by social and political factors which push us in particular directions in our thinking. When people and organizations say things that leverage essentialistic thinking about human beings we need to fight the temptation from the start. When we see people's humanity being ignored or denied for some political or rhetorical purpose, we need to recognize it. The political and the psychological are linked by such things.
2. Being both political and psychological, we need to fight dehumanization both by recognizing and opposing its political expression and by recognizing it in ourselves. Our temptation to dehumanize people who are themselves dehumanizing others is very strong. This promotes the very pattern of thinking that we are trying to fight.
3. Dehumanization isn't the same as bias in general, there are many kinds of bias. The sense of dehumanization where we attribute less human or inhuman qualities to a group with some attributed shared essence is particularly dangerous and associated with the worst atrocities of humankind. We need to be on guard against that in particular.
4. We can study history to understand that everyone is subject to these temptations, even our in our own nation, religion, or ethnic group. We can't let our loyalties blind us to the powerful forces that make ordinary people complicit with terrible things.
5. This framework emphasizes that dehumanization is not a natural result of seeing people as different. It is a result of ideology exploiting our natural psychological mechanisms.
6. One of the things that lets oppressive ideology take control is the failure of people to listen to each other, to allow dissenting viewpoints, and allow credibility to be destroyed through cynicism. Tyrants typically destroy the credibility of the press as part of their strategy to make their own ideological message stronger.
7. Dehumanizing propaganda is usually not directly about hate. Assuming that dehumanization is motivated by hate is a mistake because it makes it harder to recognize when people are doing it. It is more often about desperation, fear, and longing for salvation. Accusing people of being hateful and responding in kind is a big obstacle rather than a help because that tends to further lean into and draw on dehumanization. Avoid accusing people of "hate speech" when you mean prejudice or dehumanizing speech.
8. The very concept of folk races leans us into the unfortunate uses of the term, and people use the term racism in very different and sometimes even conflicting ways, so an important counter-intuitive result of this framework is that we should not be fighting racism by accusing individuals of it. We should instead be very specific and explicit about what sort of bias or bigotry we think is going on rather than calling people racists in general.
9. Remember that folk race is about a hidden essence, not a biological reality. So any population can be "racialized." It needn't depend on folk race or appearance at all. Ethnic groups, national groups, religious groups, and even political parties can be and have been "racialized" for the purpose or result of dehumanizing them.
10. Know the warning signs of dehumanizing speech and ideology: people claiming to be victims of a vulnerable racialized group, people saying that a group doesn't belong here, is not one of us, should go back to where they come from, comparing them to parasites or vermin, or other non-human creatures, accusing a group of sponging off of other groups, of having special privileges that the majority are denied, of breeding quickly and threatening to replace the majority.