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Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others Paperback – February 28, 2012
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Winner of the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction
A revelatory look at why we dehumanize each other, with stunning examples from world history as well as today's headlines
"Brute." "Cockroach." "Lice." "Vermin." People often regard members of their own kind as less than human, and use terms like these for those whom they wish to harm, enslave, or exterminate. Dehumanization has made atrocities like the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, and the slave trade possible. But it isn't just a relic of the past. We still find it in war, genocide, xenophobia, and racism. Smith shows that it is a dangerous mistake to think of dehumanization as the exclusive preserve of Nazis, communists, terrorists, Jews, Palestinians, or any other monster of the moment. We are all potential dehumanizers, just as we are all potential objects of dehumanization. The problem of dehumanization is everyone's problem.
Less Than Human is the first book to illuminate precisely how and why we sometimes think of others as subhuman creatures. It draws on a rich mix of history, evolutionary psychology, biology, anthropology, and philosophy to document the pervasiveness of dehumanization, describe its forms, and explain why we so often resort to it. Less Than Human is a powerful and highly original study of the roots of human violence and bigotry, and it as timely as it is relevant.
“Smith reasonably argues that dehumanization is rooted in human nature…. He offers a rigorous philosophical theory... informed by his discipline's precision, and by certain well-founded suppositions about the mind...an interesting and unusually lucid book about an under-studied subject.” ―New York Times Sunday Book Review
“Smith's compelling study and his argument that the study of dehumanization be made a global priority to prevent future Rwandas or Hiroshimas is well-made and important.” ―Publishers Weekly
“Smith offers an impressively thorough survey of 'dehumanization' as it has been deployed against Jews, African-Americans, and other 'Others' -- as an accompaniment to exploitation or extermination.” ―Barbara Ehrenreich, Los Angeles Review of Books
“Books like Smith's should be required reading for all with a social conscience, and his ideas ought to find their way into every school curriculum.” ―Valerie Curtis, Ph.D., Journal of Evolutionary Psychology
“In this powerful and original work―ranging widely and with impressive interdisciplinary scope over different epochs and cultures while remaining compellingly readable―David Livingstone Smith demonstrates that our practice of representing our fellow-humans as subhuman is both inhuman and all too human. He forces us to recognize that monstrous atrocities are routinely carried out not by monsters but, alas, by ourselves.” ―Charles W. Mills, Ph.D. author of The Racial Contract, John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy
“David Livingstone Smith produces a clear and illuminating vision of why human beings are the way we are and how we got this way. The scholarship is broad, the insight is deep and the prose is compelling. Less Than Human will change the way you think about things that matter profoundly. This is dazzling stuff.” ―Steven E. Landsburg, Ph.D., author of The Big Questions
“Warning: This book will challenge you! Not that it's hard to understand -- in fact, it's wonderfully accessible -- but it raises some terrible realities. For this reason, it is all the more important that you read Less that Human. It is brilliantly written, carefully researched, and a wonderful and much-needed opportunity for us to explore what it might mean to be ‘truly human'.” ―David P. Barash, author of Payback: Why We Retaliate, Seek Revenge and Redirect Our Aggression
“This is a beautiful book on an ugly topic. David Livingstone Smith uses the newest research in cognitive science to address the problems of racism, genocide, and atrocity, presenting a provocative theory as to why we come to see others as less than human. There are deep and important ideas here, and this engaging book should be read by anyone interested in the worst aspects of human nature -- and how we can come to transcend them.” ―Paul Bloom, author of How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like and professor of psychology, Yale University
“Smith is a philosopher with a strong interest in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. His book offers a gripping history of the horrific ways in which human beings have turned other humans into "sub-humans" and "beasts in human form," from American rhetoric rationalizing African slavery, to the Nazi persecution of the Jews, to the justifications offered for the genocide in Rwanda. He identifies a key thematic in all these campaigns of dehumanization: namely, convincing the persecutors that, when it comes to the persecuted, there is a difference between being essentially human and merely appearing human. He then speculates...that the propensity to draw an essence/appearance distinction is a legacy of natural selection itself. One need not find the evolutionary speculation convincing to nonetheless find his synthesis of the ways in which the essence/appearance distinction figures in the rhetoric of hatred and genocide throughout history insightful and memorable.” ―Brian Leiter, Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence, University of Chicago Law School
“One part detective story, one part horror story, one part evolutionary philosophy, Less Than Human is actually a book about what it means to be human. As such, there are few of us who can afford to miss it.” ―Peter Swirski,Ph.D., author of American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History, Professor of American literature and culture at the Department of English, University of Missouri, and Research Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies
“Dehumanization is a thoroughly human behavior. It is a tool we have used for millennia to bolster our self-esteem, to justify slavery and exploitation, to get ourselves to kill and exterminate. Yet, despite its terrible significance, surprisingly little scholarly attention has been trained on the phenomenon -- on its origins, how it works, and how we might avoid its dreadful toll. Bringing enviably acute skills as a philosopher to bear on the subject, David Livingstone Smith draws on an impressive range of sources to argue that dehumanization emerges from the very core of our humanity, our ability to reflect upon our own thoughts. Writing in an engaging and accessible style, he uses an incisive logic to pare away the layers of his subject to reveal this troubling conclusion. This is an important book for anthropologists, who are interested in ethnocentrism, and for any human concerned about our capacity to harm one another.” ―Paul Roscoe, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology, University of Maine.
About the Author
- Publisher : St. Martin's Griffin; First edition (February 28, 2012)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 336 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1250003830
- ISBN-13 : 978-1250003836
- Item Weight : 10.4 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.5 x 0.81 x 8.25 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #264,688 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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About the author
Reviewed in the United States on July 5, 2018
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David Livingstone Smith discusses the science of dehumanization in his book "Less Than Human." Given the tragic and repetitious nature of dehumanization I assumed that the body of scholarly data on this topic would be large. However, this is not the case. As Smith states in the Preface, “Apart from a few dozen articles by social psychologists, there is scarcely any literature on it at all. If dehumanization really has the significance that scholars claim, then untangling its dynamics ought to be among our most pressing priorities, and its neglect is as perplexing as it is grave” (3).
Smith explores this important topic over the course of nine chapters. Chapter 1 explores why studying the process of dehumanization is important. He concludes that chapter with sobering words that remind us of just how close this challenge is to all of us:
"Dehumanization is not the exclusive preserve of communists, terrorists, Jews, Palestinians, or any other monster of the moment. We are all potential dehumanizers, just as we are all potential objects of dehumanization. The problem of dehumanization is everyone’s problem. My task is to explain why” (25).
Smith continues in Chapter 2 with a discussion of how the idea of dehumanization has changed over time. Smith uses this chapter to develop a theory of the dehumanization process. One of the key ideas in this chapter is the idea that human beings have an “essence” that makes them what they are. By contrast, at times we view others as lacking in this. This makes them subhuman, and when “the enemy” is viewed in this way it overrides our natural revulsion toward killing others. Smith tells us that these “counterfeit human beings” don’t necessarily look monstrous. To the contrary, they look just like us “real human beings,” but that’s part of the deception. Regardless of how they appear on the surface (or under it), they are conceived of as subhuman.
In Chapter 3 Smith discusses the dehumanization of the indigenous people of the New World that came with colonization. Chapter 4 explores this process in slavery, where the trans-Saharan and transatlantic slave trades are In view. Chapter 5 discusses dehumanization in connection with various genocides. One of the interesting facets of the discussion in this chapter is how the subhuman other is conceived of and referred to. For example, the Germans of the Third Reich referred to Jews and other undesirables as “apes, pigs, rats, worms, bacilli, and other nonhuman creatures” (145). When the language of dehumanization is used then genocide is not far behind. Chapter 6 looks at the concept of race in connection with dehumanization and racism. Chapter 7 compares human violence with that of chimpanzees against their own species. After his analysis Smith comes to the conclusion that “Homo sapiens are the only animals capable of cruelty and war” (203). In Chapter 8 Smith explores the strange co-existence between human reticence and also willingness to kill our own kind, and also how we may have developed the tendency toward dehumanization. The final chapter goes over the major arguments advanced previously in the book, and then includes discussion on how dehumanization might be combated.
Overall I found this entire volume fascinating. But given my work in multi-faith engagement I found certain sections of particular interest in application to evangelicals living in and wrestling with the challenges of religious pluralism in a post-9/11 world. Two areas of the book caught my attention, with the first offering critique of evangelical boundaries in relation to the other, and the second in terms of strategic action that can be taken that will actually work toward combating genocide.
First, in Chapter 8 Smith discusses the concept of unclean animals in relation to dehumanization. He says that certain animals create visceral reactions in us. “The reaction of disgust is accompanied by a peculiar sense of threat. The fear isn’t that the animal itself can inflict harm – the fear of maggots isn’t like the fear of poisonous snakes or snarling dogs. Rather, it’s the fear that they can contaminate one with something harmful” (252). Later on this same page expands on this notion of contamination:
"People have an intuitive theory of contamination. We not only conceive of certain things as revolting, we also attribute their foulness to pollutants that they contain – pollutants that can get inside us and damage or even kill us if we come into contact with them. Although the propensity for disgust is innate, culture plays a huge part in determining what sorts of things elicit it" (252).
A few pages later Smith says there is a moral connection to concepts of physical filth, and that this “also explains why this form of dehumanization is often associated with religiously motivated violence” (254). Although it may be difficult for evangelicals to hear, when I read this section on dehumanization and contamination I thought of the evangelical subculture and its strong emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy. When religious others are encountered that are understood as holding to false doctrine and practices this triggers fears of contamination and feelings of disgust, whether we consciously realize this or not. Having sound doctrine is important and it can play a positive role in identity formation and boundary definitions, but if as a cultural device it causes us to see a Muslim or Mormon or Pagan as disgusting and as a contaminant, perhaps we need to revisit the place that doctrine plays in our culture and the encounter with others. How can we maintain healthy concepts of identity and boundaries without dehumanizing the other?
The second major takeaway for me came in Chapter 9. In addressing how to respond to dehumanization a few possibilities are considered. The first is the appeal to reason. “According to this rationalistic view, dehumanization is a symptom of ignorance, and is to be cured by administering an appropriate does of intellectual enlightenment” (268). Smith is right to reject this. Dehumanization takes place more through the process of emotion over the rational aspect of human cognition. Those approaches to interfaith that emphasize an appeal to reason miss the mark because they misunderstand human nature. Instead of the rational approach, Smith offers an alternative. He says that “if we want people to treat one another humanely we ought to be appealing to their feelings instead of offering them dry theoretical arguments. We need to help people get to know one another by telling them ‘long, sad, sentimental stories’” (270). Smith hits the nail on the head with this suggestion. Human beings are not only emotional creatures, we are also Homo narrans, storytelling creatures. We inhabit our own personal narratives as well as tribal and cultural ones, and these stories help us find our place in the world, and can be instrumental in shaping new views of “us and them.” We are following this approach through our Multi-faith Matters grant project work in telling the stories of churches involved in positive forms of multi-faith engagement. This has the potential of touching hearts and changing minds as new stories provide fresh emotional and conceptual frameworks for interacting with others.
But there’s a rub here. Smith argues that [t]he sentimental strategy has a greater chance of being effective than the rationalistic one does” (270). By telling these stories we can move people in the “right direction.” But Smith asks, What is the right direction? Emotional stories have also be used to manipulate people in propaganda and have facilitated the dehumanization process. How can we tell emotional stories and move people in the right direction that does not involve manipulation and abuse? For the evangelical involved in combating dehumanization a gospel-inspired ethic is needed in order to provide a framework for emotion-inducing stories. This must include the Christian moral teachings of love of neighbor, enemy, and stranger. With these incorporated within an ethic of storytelling we can guard against the manipulation of others outside our tribe.
In my opinion this book is “must reading” for those evangelicals involved in multi-faith engagement, religious diplomacy, and peacemaking. If we want to prevent future genocides, and make an impact on war and terrorist violence, our theologies of multi-faith encounter must be widened and deepened to incorporate the insights of the science of dehumanization, as well as other important academic disciplines.
We seem to know right from wrong when it comes to crimes against our fellow humans. Murder and rape and torture are all, to varying degrees, prohibited. So why is it we can — at times — so casually disregard laws and morality and common sense, and set aside our own paralyzing sense of revulsion, to commit the most atrocious acts against other humans, and then put on the kettle, make a cup of tea and cheerfully go about the rest of our day with a clean conscience?
The answer is simple: we are conveniently able to suspend our better instincts by dehumanizing those we seek to damage and degrade, rendering them less than human and almost necessary targets of our cruelty. How we do that is less simple, and that’s the point of this book, Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others.
Author David Livingstone Smith explores the history and philosophic underpinnings of dehumanization, as well as the mechanisms — physical, intellectual, cognitive and cultural — by which it is implemented.
It is an important but not easy read mostly because some of the examples are truly ghastly — like, can’t-fall-asleep-at-night-because-the-hideous-experience-keeps-running-over-and-over-through-your-thoughts ghastly — serving to illuminate and underscore this peculiar and damaging ability in humans.
He argues that we are able to use existing circuitry in our brains — circuitry that proved useful on our evolutionary journey — that, when amplified by cultural forces, allows us to otherize and dehumanize those who we decide are a threat to ourselves, our community, our sense of patriotism and, mostly, to our pristine sense of morality and “rightness” … no matter how far beyond repair we twist them (slavery, genocide, war) to serve our immediate needs.
“…dehumanization is a joint creation of biology, culture and the architecture of the human mind.”
“Given the highly developed social and cooperative nature of our species, how do we manage to perform these acts of atrocity? An important piece of the answer is clear. It’s by recruiting the power of our conceptual imagination to picture ethnic groups as nonhuman animals. It’s by doing this that we’re able to release destructive forces that are normally kept in check by fellow feeling.”
“Demoting a population to subhuman statues excludes them from the universe of moral obligation. “
An examination of race through this lens, which seems especially cogent today, was disheartening and gave a powerful reminder of how far we still have to go to get past these ridiculous, limiting concepts. Just 60 years ago during WWII, “black” blood was not given to “white” soldiers because of the misguided perception among recipients that there was a difference in the blood. Doctors and scientists knew better, unequivocally, but hate — sadly — is often more powerful than truth.
He readily admits that some of his insights are not particularly original, but wrote the book as an effort to start formalizing the study of dehumanization so that, hopefully, we may some day be able to move beyond the default position of otherizing those who are different from us, a path of least resistance that — as history (and today’s world) show again and again — have such devastating consequences.
“Among the earliest forms of human self-awareness was the awareness of being meat,” he writes. Perhaps, in time, we can learn how to come together to celebrate our unique form — thinking meat — rather than squabbling about which particular kind of meat is superior.