Some Reflections on Dehumanization

This was a good article. For me though, certain acts of dehumanization also reveal something else that comes very natural to us: the de-subjectifying of other creatures. Even the word we use, “de-HUMANIZE” contains the trace of an anthropocentrism that comes so naturally to us, and which causes so much suffering in the world. I mean, the de-humanizers often refer, as Smith points out, to those they de-humanize as animals: beasts, snakes, etc.

For Smith, “We dehumanise other people when we conceive of them as subhuman creatures.” But I want to ask, what of those creatures? What of the problem here that is that we de-subjectify (in the sense of taking a life-world away from) other non-human animals. Some people have a really hard time conceiving of the non-human animals they capture and kill as having a life that is their own, that is lived, felt, and that matters. And we know they do. Subjectivity isn’t something human, neither is meaning (in a way, this is what bio-semiotics is all about).

So what do we do about this? How do we combat our tendency to dehumanize the other, or de-subjectify the non-human other? For me it’s more so the question: “how do we foster a certain kind of openness?” Levinas has the idea of the Other as she who can weigh down on me, contest my horizon. There’s the othering of an other that is de-humanizing, or de-subjectifying, like what the US does with those whom they bomb, or what the factory farmers do with those whom they torture and kill. But the antidote to this othering, it seems to me, cannot be a reduction of the other to the same– to say they have rights because they are just like us. Why does our ethics have to operate within the confines of the same? And we know that amongst other humans, this sort of “ethics” oftentimes plays out as racist: we start to humanize them the more they begin to integrate into our culture, the more they begin to look like us, etc.

This is not what we need. For Levinas, what is needed in order to combat this kind of othering is (paradoxically?) an openness to the other as Other. Both the dehumanizing act of othering and the vulgar ethics spoken of above share a common feature: they essentialize in a dangerous way. The former essentializes in their reduction of the other to the subhuman, as Smith says; and the latter essentializes in their reduction of the other to the same. The question then is, for me, how do we foster an openness to the other as Other, as unique, as a subject with their own life-world, their own history and experiences, their own struggles.

Philosophers like Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Alphonso Lingis all have this idea of true community, true communitarianism, as being possible only within a community that shares nothing in common– that is, a community that doesn’t other others in a dehumanizing way, but which doesn’t predicate that communitarianism on shared qualities either.

The question is how to foster such an openness to others as Other? Religion can do this for some people, but it can also do the opposite for others.

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