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Nov. 29, 2012 Volume 34, No. 14

Lecturer at diversity summit discusses why we dehumanize people


Speaker draws parallels between war and racism

David Livingstone Smith is a philosopher with a difference. 

He’s not afraid to cross into other disciplines. His books are a synthesis of Western philosophy, psychology, sociology, Darwinian biology and history. His ambition is to lessen hate and racism in the world through knowledge.

On Oct. 29, Smith gave the keynote lecture for the Mizzou Diversity Summit in Memorial Union’s Stotler Lounge. The bi-annual summit opens a dialogue among students, staff and faculty about racism and sexual diversity. Groups form to plan strategies to create a more inclusive campus environment.

Because Smith is one of the few scholars exploring dehumanization, and because his presentation is visually and aurally graphic, he was a bold choice by the summit committee to be keynote lecturer.

His presentation, titled “Less Than Human: Civility in an Age of Discontent,” delved into the whats, hows and whys of dehumanization. 

Projected on three screens to an ethnically diverse audience of about 250 were disturbing illustrations, photographs and text. 

A grainy photo of a hog-tied African-American. An illustration of Native American body parts being sold for dog food. A newspaper cartoon from recent years depicting Iran as a country of parasites.

Texts included The Valladolid Debate (1550), where the humanity of Native Americans was questioned; writings from Nazi Germany claiming Jews are subhuman; and political propaganda that compares soldiers of enemy countries to cockroaches and lice.

Smith, a philosophy professor at the University of New England and author most recently of Less Than Human (St. Martin’s Press, 2011), said “dehumanization disables the inhibition” to kill or harm another human being. It can bring about the worst human rights atrocities, such as the Nanjing Massacre, Rwandan genocide and American slavery. 

Smith’s books delve into the evolutionary reasons for dehumanization. But in his lecture, he spoke only of humankind’s tendency to make distinctions between the surface self and the true self, which sets the stage for dehumanization, he said. On the surface, an ethnic group may look human and deserve respect. But underneath they are less than human. 

“Dehumanizing populations is not just thinking of them as donkeys or dogs,” Smith said. “They are monsters.”

Once the line is crossed, atrocities result. War typically requires the heuristic fiction that the enemy is subhuman to embolden soldiers to kill with impunity. 

Ancient civilizations were aware of this, Smith said, and typically conducted elaborate purifying ceremonies for soldiers returning from war. It was a way for soldiers to throw down their psychological sword and shield and re-enter society.

But comparable postwar ceremonies have not been available for modern-day military veterans, said Smith, his voice rising. “All [America] offers returning veterans is cheap hype about heroism,” he said.

During the Q&A, a student asked about the tendency to dehumanize the Stalins, Gaddafis and Mansons of history. Smith said that was a mistake. The Nazis, after all, weren’t crazy, Smith said, citing psychological studies. “They were people you’d meet at a PTA meeting.”

By labeling them monsters, we attempt to separate them from us, he said. But this blocks us from self-reflection. 

“We dehumanize the dehumanizers,” Smith said. “We cannot see our own reflection in the mirror.”