Adapted from Braving the Wilderness
Chapter Four: People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In.
There are always boundaries. Even in the wilderness.
When we commit to getting closer, we’re committing to eventually experiencing real, face-to-face conflict. Whether it’s over dinner, at work, or in the grocery line, in-person conflict is always hard and uncomfortable. And when it comes to family—it’s even harder and more painful. If your family is anything like mine, you’ve been required to summon love and decency in the face of emotions that range from minor frustration to rage.
Maintaining the courage to stand alone when necessary in the midst of family or community or angry strangers feels like an untamed wilderness. When I get to the point where I’m like, Screw this! It’s just too hard. I’m too lost! I hear Maya Angelou’s words about being brave again: The price is high. The reward is great.
But here’s a question that came up for me during this research: Where is the line? Is there a line in the wilderness between what behavior is tolerable and what isn’t? The reward may be great, but do I have to put up with someone tearing me down or questioning my actual right to exist? Is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed? The answer is yes.
Participants who put true belonging into practice talked openly about their boundaries. In fact, this research confirmed what I found in my earlier work: The clearer and more respected the boundaries, the higher the level of empathy and compassion for others. Fewer clear boundaries, less openness. It’s hard to stay kind-hearted when you feel people are taking advantage of you or threatening you.
As I looked through the data, I saw that the line was drawn at physical safety and at what people were calling emotional safety. Physical safety made sense. Physical safety is one of the nonnegotiable prerequisites for vulnerability. We can’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open if we’re not physically safe.
Emotional safety was a little more ambiguous. This is especially so in a world where the term “emotional safety” is often used to mean I don’t have to listen to any point of view that’s different from mine, that I don’t like, that I think is wrong, that will hurt my feelings, or that is not up to my standards of political correctness. I needed to probe deeper for clarity.
When I asked participants for examples of feeling emotionally unsafe or threatened, a clear pattern emerged. They weren’t talking about getting their feelings hurt or being forced to listen to dissenting opinion; they were talking about dehumanizing language and behavior. I recognized this immediately. I’ve studied dehumanization and seen it in my work for over a decade.
David Smith, the author of Less Than Human, explains that dehumanization is a response to conflicting motives. We want to harm a group of people, but it goes against our wiring as members of a social species to actually harm, kill, torture, or degrade other humans. Smith explains that there are very deep and natural inhibitions that prevent us from treating other people like animals, game, or dangerous predators. He writes, “Dehumanization is a way of subverting those inhibitions.”
Dehumanization is a process. I think Michelle Maiese, the chair of the philosophy department at Emmanuel College, lays it out in a way that makes sense, so I’ll use some of her work here to walk us through it. Maiese defines dehumanization as “the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment.” Dehumanizing often starts with creating an enemy image. As we take sides, lose trust, and get angrier and angrier, we not only solidify an idea of our enemy, but also start to lose our ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy.
Once we see people on “the other side” of a conflict as morally inferior and even dangerous, the conflict starts being framed as good versus evil. Maiese writes, “Once the parties have framed the conflict in this way, their positions become more rigid. In some cases, zero-sum thinking develops as parties come to believe that they must either secure their own victory or face defeat. New goals to punish or destroy the opponent arise, and in some cases more militant leadership comes into power.”
Dehumanization has fueled innumerable acts of violence, human rights violations, war crimes, and genocides. It makes slavery, torture, and human trafficking possible. Dehumanizing others is the process by which we become accepting of violations against human nature, the human spirit, and, for many of us, violations against the central tenets of our faith.
How does this happen? Maiese explains that most of us believe that people’s basic human rights should not be violated—that crimes like murder, rape, and torture are wrong. Successful dehumanizing, however, creates moral exclusion. Groups targeted based on their identity—gender, ideology, skin color, ethnicity, religion, age—are depicted as “less than” or criminal or even evil. The targeted group eventually falls out of the scope of who is naturally protected by our moral code. This is moral exclusion, and dehumanization is at its core.
Dehumanizing always starts with language, often followed by images. We see this throughout history. During the Holocaust, Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen—subhuman. They called Jews rats and depicted them as disease-carrying rodents in everything from military pamphlets to children’s books. Hutus involved in the Rwanda genocide called Tutsis cockroaches. Indigenous people are often referred to as savages. Serbs called Bosnians aliens. Slave owners throughout history considered slaves subhuman animals.
I know it’s hard to believe that we ourselves could ever get to a place where we would exclude people from equal moral treatment, from our basic moral values, but we’re fighting biology here. We’re hardwired to believe what we see and to attach meaning to the words we hear. We can’t pretend that every citizen who participated in or was a bystander to human atrocities was a violent psychopath. That’s not possible, it’s not true, and it misses the point. The point is that we are all vulnerable to the slow and insidious practice of dehumanizing, therefore we are all responsible for recognizing it and stopping it.
The Courage to Embrace Our Humanity
Because so many time-worn systems of power have placed certain people outside the realm of what we see as human, much of our work now is more a matter of “rehumanizing.” That starts in the same place dehumanizing starts—with words and images. Today we are edging closer and closer to a world where political and ideological discourse has become an exercise in dehumanization. And social media are the primary platforms for our dehumanizing behavior. On Twitter and Facebook we can rapidly push the people with whom we disagree into the dangerous territory of moral exclusion, with little to no accountability, and often in complete anonymity.
Here’s what I believe:
- When the president of the United States calls immigrants animals or talks about grabbing pussy, we should get chills down our spine and resistance flowing through our veins. When people call the president of the United States a pig, we should reject that language regardless of our politics and demand discourse that doesn’t make people subhuman.
- If you are offended or hurt when you hear Hillary Clinton or Maxine Waters called bitch, whore, or the c-word, you should be equally offended and hurt when you hear those same words used to describe Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, or Theresa May.
- If you’re offended by a meme of Trump Photoshopped to look like Hitler, then you shouldn’t have Obama Photoshopped to look like the Joker on your Facebook feed.
- When we hear people referred to as animals or aliens, we should immediately wonder, “Is this an attempt to reduce someone’s humanity so we can get away with hurting them or denying them basic human rights?”
There is a line. It’s etched from dignity. And raging, fearful people from the right and left are crossing it at unprecedented rates every single day. We must never tolerate dehumanization—the primary instrument of violence that has been used in every genocide recorded throughout history.
When we engage in dehumanizing rhetoric or promote dehumanizing images, we diminish our own humanity in the process. When we reduce immigrants to animals like Trump did earlier this week, it says nothing at all about the people we’re attacking. It does, however, say volumes about who we are and our integrity.
Dehumanizing and holding people accountable are mutually exclusive.
Humiliation and dehumanizing are not accountability or social justice tools, they’re emotional off-loading at best, emotional self-indulgence at worst. And if our faith asks us to find the face of God in everyone we meet, that should include the politicians, media, and strangers on Twitter with whom we most violently disagree. When we desecrate their divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our humanity.