I would like to suggest a simple proposal: let’s never give any authority to anyone who dehumanizes others.
Recently I was reading a collection of survivor accounts from the residential schools that Canadians forced upon Indigenous children until as late as 1996. Once again, I had to face the hard truth of the extent of the sexual abuse that these vulnerable children suffered. I found myself reflecting on how so, so many people could become perpetrators of such heinous actions.
One thought that came into focus is the incredible moral danger that occurs when power and dehumanization are combined. I suddenly thought of the correlation with imagined futures (think Westworld, Ex Machina, Blade Runner) in which science fiction writers, probably correctly, assume that sexual exploitation of synthetic humanoids will be rife. Of course, it sadly seems, we will exploit those we consider near-but-less-than-human if we have the power to do so.
We have often been reminded of the corrupting influence of power. Respect for each other’s humanity may be the most important restraint on the abuse of this power. So when we dehumanize a category of people, we weaken this most crucial restraint. Once this dehumanization takes place, it appears that even commitments to religious beliefs offer little help for resisting the temptation to exploit those who are deemed to matter less. In fact, if those religious beliefs are twisted to become part of the dehumanizing (a sure sign that the religious beliefs themselves are actually evil), then they are likely to contribute to and justify the abuse.
Dehumanization is the intentional process through which we choose to consider others as less than human and therefore not worthy of empathy or moral care.
We tend to minimize the seriousness of dehumanization when we see it in ordinary life among our acquaintances or relatives, especially among those without a great deal of power over others. But the poison of it seeps through the whole culture, and terrible things happen when a little power is added to the mix.
These may well be commonplace conclusions, but it strikes me that if they are, we have neglected what should be a shared commitment for all of us who are hoping for a better world: we must never give authority to those who dehumanize anyone. There will always be some who find ways to grasp power, but we should never allow them legitimate authority. Power and dehumanization are too toxic of a mix. When there is evidence of an individual’s or group’s dehumanization of any category of people – whether based on ethnic/racial grounds, sexual/gender differences, or socioeconomic/political differences – we must never consent to their authority at any level. They should never teach our children, pastor our churches, lead community organizations, judge in our courts or, heaven forbid, govern our nations.
Is this setting the bar too high? Perhaps too many of us would be excluded by such a standard? If that is true, we need to start by holding each other, friends and family, accountable so that we honestly stop considering anyone as less than human.