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On this episode of Unlocking Us

In this “On My Mind” episode, we talk about shame and accountability. We discussed this a bit last summer, but I’m going deeper today in light of the insurrection at the US Capitol and the resulting calls to unity without accountability. Dehumanization is the most significant driver of insurrection, and it always starts with language. We are all responsible for recognizing it, stopping it, and holding people accountable for dehumanizing language and actions.

About the guest

Brené Brown

Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston, where she holds the Huffington Foundation Endowed Chair at the Graduate College of Social Work. She also holds the position of visiting professor in management at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business.

Brené has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She is the author of six #1 New York Times bestsellers and is the host of two award-winning podcasts, Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead.

Brené’s books have been translated into more than 30 languages, and her titles include Atlas of the HeartDare to Lead, Braving the Wilderness, Rising Strong, Daring Greatly, and The Gifts of Imperfection. With Tarana Burke, she co-edited the bestselling anthology You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience.

Brené’s TED talk on the Power of Vulnerability is one of the top five most-viewed TED talks in the world, with over 60 million views. Brené is the first researcher to have a filmed lecture on Netflix, and in March 2022, she launched a new show on HBO Max that focuses on her latest book, Atlas of the Heart.

Brené spends most of her time working in organizations around the world, helping develop braver leaders and more courageous cultures.

She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, Steve. They have two children, Ellen and Charlie, and a weird Bichon named Lucy.

Show notes

Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others by David Livingstone Smith

Production by Cadence13


Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us.

BB: Today’s episode is what we are calling an On My Mind episode, where I talk about the things that I’m wondering about, curious about, obsessing over, the things that are sometimes keeping me up at night, and that is definitely the case with the podcast today. We’re going to talk about the violent insurrection at the Capitol last week and what I have learned over the past 25 years about shame, accountability, dehumanization, and how the Trump administration has spent many years—the past four years—laying the groundwork for, I think, what happened last week and what I’m afraid will continue to happen until we, the American people, can get our heads and hearts around the only way to stop it, which I believe—and I believe there is significant evidence to support this—is accountability. That’s today’s episode.

BB: During and after the televised insurrection, mob overthrow, attempted armed violent coup at the Capitol, I just cannot even count the number of emails, tweets, social media comments that I’m receiving about shame—specifically, folks lamenting the lack of shame, people calling out for more shame, why aren’t these people ashamed, how could they breach the floor of the Capitol and look so smug and proud and arrogant, and why don’t they feel shame about what they did? And I get it, y’all, I really get it.

BB: The idea of just shaming the shit out of people for the trauma and the hate-fueled violence that we witness is incredibly seductive. And I’ve got to tell you, if I thought it worked, I would do it. I mean, and I’m not proud to say that, but I would probably do it, even fully knowing the pain that it causes, even fully knowing sitting on top of half a million pieces of data, knowing not only the pain it causes other people, but how it changes the people who perpetrate shame. I would do it. I would actually do it. I wouldn’t care. I’m that scared and anxious and worn down. If I thought shaming people could make the world a better place, I would join in.

BB: But shame is not the answer. Shame is a huge part of the problem, not the answer. What we need is accountability. What we need is accountability, and I would also argue that we need more empathy, but let’s just say we’re not in the place for empathy right now. What we need is accountability. Shame and accountability are not the same thing. In fact, shame undermines accountability. Shame undermines accountability. Shame corrodes empathy. I 100% agree with the people who right now who are saying there will be no unity without accountability.

BB: I think that’s true, and I think that’s true not only in culture and country and communities and organizations, but in our families, in our families. You know, it’s one of those funny things, as someone who has a bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. in social work, you get into these classes—and they start in your bachelor’s, your BSW, and they’re classes on systems theory and structural functionalism—and you’re like, “Oh, my God, what is this crap? I’m not here to learn this,” and you know, you study your homeostasis and boundaries and impermeable boundaries, and you’re thinking, “No, this is not why I got into social work.”

BB: And then one day, it dawns on you that the value of understanding systemic thinking, the value of understanding that what destroys a family system, and the way it destroys it is also what destroys an organization in the same way, and in a country, in a culture, that systems are systems. And we have such a hard time understanding that, but think about your family, and think about a time when your family was falling apart. I mean, anyone who has a family where addiction has been an issue, which statistically should be almost all of us, and families are coming apart, or there is an affair, or there’s distress or lying or manipulation, and someone in the family is like, “Can’t we just love each other, and can’t we just get along, and can’t we just be together? Can’t we just have a nice holiday, for God’s sake? I mean, come on.”

BB: And you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, I can fake it and just—I can spend maybe, tops, 40 minutes at Thanksgiving, or I can pretend like everything’s OK.” But for things to really be OK, there has to be accountability. The people who hurt people in our family, the people who hurt me, or if I hurt people—there has to be accountability. Countries, organizations work the same way. There’s no unity without accountability, and I’ve got to tell you, we don’t know how to do that very well. We don’t know how to do it in our families, and we certainly don’t know how to do it in our nation. We’re just either not willing or not able to hold ourselves and other people accountable, because it is so vulnerable and so uncomfortable and so hard and requires such fortitude and courage that we’re just not willing or able to do it sometimes.

BB: And so what we look for is this quick, somewhat satisfying fix of shame. We’re in a family, and let’s say I’ve got a sibling—this came up in the research all the time; it’s something I hear all the time—who struggles with addiction—I hear it in the rooms as a sober person—who really struggles with addiction. They’ve maxed out my parents’ credit cards. They’ve begged, borrowed and stole money. They’ve wreaked havoc on just the equanimity of the family. Everyone’s always worried. Everyone’s afraid of the call in the middle of the night about an accident.

BB: And instead of holding this person accountable, which is actually a huge part of recovery—holding ourselves and other people accountable—we just want to pretend like everything’s OK, but it’s not. And we’re scared. We’re scared to hold ourselves and other people accountable, so we decide, instead of telling my sister, “Listen, I want everything to be OK in our family. I want us to love each other. I want us to be able to be together, but there needs to be accountability,” I just shame her. I just say, “You’re a liar, you’re a user,” and now I feel better, but that’s not accountability, because there’s been no behavior change, and I haven’t even really talked about how hurt I am, which is because it’s so much easier to be pissed off than it is to be hurt.

BB: So if it’s hard to get your head and heart around the fact that there is no unity without accountability in our culture and in our nation, think about it in our families, at work. I want to start this conversation by pulling up maybe to 50,000 feet and away from the event at the Capitol specifically, and I want to talk about a concept that is inextricably connected to shame; in fact, shame is a function of this construct, and I think it’s the most significant driver of the violent insurrection and what is possibly to come, and that is dehumanization.

BB: This is an important thing for us to understand, because it is the most powerful tool of white supremacy, and certainly has been a primary tool in the Trump administration. And so, let’s break it down and walk through it. So David Smith authored the book Less Than Human, and he explains that dehumanization is a response to conflicting motives. When we want to do harm to a group of people, when we want to put them down, get rid of them, silence them, it’s pretty difficult, actually, because it goes against our wiring as members of a social species to actually harm, kill, devalue, torture, or degrade other human beings. We’re not wired for it.

BB: So Smith explains that there are these very deep and natural inhibitions that prevent us from treating other people like animal or game or dangerous predators. He explains dehumanization as a way of subverting those inhibitions. I’ve also heard other researchers who study dehumanization call it the loophole to being human, so it’s a process. And I’ve studied it my entire education, and one of the best, I think, teachers around this is Michelle Maiese. She’s the chair of the Philosophy Department at Emmanuel College.

BB: And I think she lays it out in a way that really makes sense, so I’m going to use her framework and some of her work to talk us through it. If you’ve read Braving the Wilderness, I also quote both Dr. Maiese and David Smith in that work as well. So Maiese defines dehumanization as the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment. Dehumanization often starts with creating an enemy image. So let’s talk about that. As we take sides, as we lose trust and we get angrier and angrier, we solidify an idea of our enemy, and as we solidify this enemy image, it becomes harder and harder to listen to the enemy, who we’ve framed as the enemy, harder to communicate, and almost impossible to practice any empathy with this enemy image, because we’ve dehumanized it. We’ve just shamed it out of its humanity.

BB: Once we see people on the other side of a conflict as morally inferior and even dangerous, the conflict quickly starts being framed as good versus evil. In fact, 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.” There’s no collaboration. There’s no empathy. There’s no conflict resolution or conflict understanding. It’s just zero-sum. So then new goals become punish and destroy the opponent, and in some cases, more-militant leadership comes into power.

BB: Now, I don’t want you to think this information is retrofitted to explain the Trump administration. This existed way before. So let me say that one more time. As we get to the zero sum—us versus them, good versus evil—and we frame conflict in a way that people are subhuman, evil, the new goals to punish or destroy the opponent arise and more-militant leadership comes into power. Look, as someone who has spent—me, myself—as someone who’s spent a decade studying social work and history, here’s what we know for sure. Dehumanization has fueled innumerable acts of violence, human rights violations, war crimes, genocide; in fact, all genocides in recorded history have started with dehumanization and have started with words and language.

BB: Dehumanization is what makes slavery possible, torture, human trafficking; dehumanizing others is the process by which we become accepting of violations against human nature, against the human spirit, and for many of us, violations against the central tenets of our faith, like separating children from their families, putting children in cages—a huge act of dehumanization, which I can’t think of a single denomination where that’s OK. But yet, you know, was every pastor, preacher, priest hammering that every Sunday until it got fixed? No, because slowly over time, these folks trying to come into our country fleeing violence were dehumanized and they weren’t seen as our kids.

BB: I didn’t see them as I see my kids. They were subhuman children of subhuman people. That’s the only way we could let it happen. So how does it happen? So Maiese explains that most of us believe that people’s basic human rights should not be violated. We believe that as a collective, that crimes like murder, rape, 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, 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. This is dehumanization at its core.

BB: I always ask people when I’m talking about this or when I’m teaching it to make a circle with their arms in front of them—put their fingertips together and make a circle—and I always try to explain that inside of that circle is moral inclusion. These are people that I could never hurt or even hate, or that if I saw some violence being perpetrated against them, I wouldn’t be able to stand it. And slowly over time, through the use primarily of language and images, we push people outside of our arms, and we morally exclude them. And now their demise, violence toward them, oppression, slavery, we don’t see it the same because they are not in this group that we hold in our arms. Dehumanizing, again, always starts with language, and it’s 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.

BB: Hutus involved in the Rwandan 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 mean, if you wonder about the power of dehumanization, I just want you to think about slavery in this country. What did we have to say about a group of people that we sold and traded and bartered? We separated children from their parents. We beat. We killed. And that seems like ancient history. But in the ’60s, we turned dogs loose on them. We used water hoses. We had separate fountains. And today, in order to rehumanize, like Black Lives Matter, a rehumanizing movement—can you imagine that in this country that we live in, we have to hold up signs to remind people that Black lives matter? We cannot deny dehumanization as a construct that this country was built on, and it continues to happen.

BB: And I know it’s hard to believe that we ourselves could ever get to a place where we, I, Brené, would exclude people from equal moral treatment, from basic moral values, but it’s very difficult, because we’re fighting biology here. We’re hard-wired to believe what we see and to attach meaning to the words we hear. We can’t pretend that every citizen in Nazi Germany who participated in it or was a bystander to those human atrocities was a violent psychopath. That’s not the case. And if we believe that that’s the case, if we believe that it wasn’t just Hitler and those leaders that were sociopathic, that it was everybody, then we miss the point, and we don’t protect ourselves or our culture. The point is that we are all vulnerable to the slow, insidious practice of dehumanizing.

BB: Therefore, therefore we’re all responsible for recognizing it, stopping it, and holding people accountable. I mean, it is not lost on us, nor should it be, that some of the people that we saw on television were wearing Auschwitz T-shirts or T-shirts that had “6 million, not enough,” like, God, we want to believe we’re so far removed from it, but we’re not. We’re not. And because so many time-worn systems of power have placed certain people outside the realm of what we see as human, our work now is, again, a matter of deprogramming ourselves, holding every single person who engages in dehumanizing behaviors and language accountable for their words, for their actions.

BB: And we are edging closer and closer to a world where political and ideological discourse is basically defined as an exercise in dehumanization. Social media are the primary platforms for this behavior. Twitter, Facebook can rapidly push the people with whom we disagree into the dangerous territory of moral exclusion with no accountability and often in complete anonymity, which is, Jesus, such chicken shit. So when the president of the United States, Donald Trump, calls immigrants animals or uses words like “infestation,” which he used many, many times right before the mass killing spree in El Paso, Texas, where the killer picked up on that language and also used the language of infestation as he shot down members of our Latinx population, our community, our people, our friends, our neighbors.

BB: When Trump refers to a Black woman as a dog, as he did in a tweet after firing someone from a position in the White House, when he talks about grabbing pussy, we should get chills down our spine and resistance in our veins. When we hear people referred to as animals or aliens, we should immediately think to ourselves, Is this an attempt to reduce someone’s humanity so we can get away with hurting them? What’s the long game here? Are we calling them this so we can eventually perpetrate violence against them? Is that what we’re doing? And you know, for me, I’ve been in so many interviews over the last couple of years where people have smugly said something like, “Oh, my God, Trump is such a pig,” or “What do you think of the Cheeto in command?” I said, you know, I don’t use that language. And they’re like, “Yeah, we know, it’s dehumanizing. But we’re talking about Trump.” I don’t care.

BB: I don’t care. I don’t use that language. I am not going to be a willing participant in this country devolving into a place where killing each other doesn’t matter, and that’s what we do when we use dehumanizing language. So I would ask you to consider or reconsider participating in any conversations that dehumanize anyone. Was it Nietzsche that said we’ve got to make sure we don’t become the monster we’re fighting? I think maybe that in itself is dehumanizing, which is interesting, because calling people monsters—see how easy it is?

BB: Let’s talk about a study that was conducted by psychologist Patrick Forscher and Nour Kteily. They recruited people who identified as alt-right to participate in a study, again, to build a psychological profile of the alt-right. And they used a dehumanizing instrument developed and validated by Kteily, and oh, it’s super painful to look at this instrument, it’s basically—have you ever seen the image, and I’m sure you have, of an ape becoming a man? And so it starts as an ape and then it’s kind of hunched over and on all fours, and then in image two it stands a little bit more, image three it’s a little bit more, four and then five it’s finally upright and I guess a Homo sapien. It’s that image.

BB: And then there’s levers that you move to evaluate how human you think different groups are, and when they did this with this population of folks who identified as members of the alt-right, on average, they saw Muslims as half human, 55.4 out of 100; Democrats a little bit more than half human, 60.4; Black people, 64.7; Mexicans, 67.7; journalists, 58.6; Jews, 73% human; and feminists, 57% human. These groups appear as subhuman compared to the folks who are actually taking the survey, white people. They scored white people at 91%.

BB: This is chilling. This is terrifying. This is true. And I want to make a comment about—it was all shocking, but not surprising, the incredibly brave journalist, photojournalist and journalist at the Capitol last week, journalists at 58.6%. So when people are subhuman, we can hurt them. We can kill them. We can maim them. We can rape. We can traffic, because they are not morally included in people we feel the human need to protect. Really, really important study. And all of this information, all the notes will include where you can find these studies.

BB: Look, we don’t know if Trump and other high-profile supporters of his administration, including some media outlets, we don’t know if they turned non-prejudiced people into prejudiced people. I doubt it, actually. What we do know for sure is that his language and rhetoric helps justify violence by reinforcing that some groups are less than human. And if you combine our country’s long-overdue reckoning of our violent and racist history with a leader, not just any leader, just the president of United States—if you combine our history with his willingness to incite violence through dehumanizing, you start to get a fuller picture of what’s happening.

BB: Look, the folks that we saw on TV, sitting at Pelosi’s desk, the Viking hat thing, was just—I don’t know, I have no words, actually, which is unusual, as you can tell for me, but what was scarier is some of the patches on the backpacks and the military jackets. I saw one patch that said, “I don’t believe in anything, I’m just here for the violence,” which I completely believe. We start to get a full picture of—these are not shameless folks. I would imagine there are probably many of them—and as we read about them and their lives—they’re full of shame around countless issues. Trump hasn’t said over and over to these folks, “Don’t feel shame about your white supremacy and violence.” That’s not what gets people to violence.

BB: What the Trump administration has said, and what Trump has said—including people who support him, and in my state, I would put Ted Cruz, Greg Abbott, Daniel Patrick, Dan Crenshaw in this group—what they’ve said, they have perpetuated the dehumanization, they’ve radicalized people, and then they’ve made a much bigger promise: You will not be held accountable for your white supremacy and violence.

BB: It’s a big difference between, hey, don’t feel shame about your white supremacy and violence, because the people who are shaming them or trying to shame them are the same people who would shame them before or after this administration. That’s not what’s being said. What’s being said is, you’ll not be held accountable for your white supremacy and violence. People who support white supremacy aren’t emboldened by a lack of shame. They’re emboldened by a lack of accountability. And how can that be hard to believe when we elect a president who, while he was running, talks about grabbing women by the pussy and mocking a reporter with a disability on national television? There’s no accountability. We didn’t hold him accountable as a nation. He’s not held accountable, and he in return holds no one accountable.

BB: I think in the end, there is a line, and it is etched from dignity. And raging, fearful people from the right and people from the left are crossing it at unprecedented rates every single day. That line is dehumanization, and we must never tolerate it. It is the primary instrument of violence. It has been used in every genocide recorded through history. And when we engage in dehumanizing rhetoric or promote dehumanizing images, we diminish our own humanity in the process. When we reduce people to animals or things or to less than fully human, it says nothing at all about the people we’re attacking; it does, however, say volumes about who we are and our integrity, and I just did it five minutes ago. This is not going to be an easy undoing.

BB: Shaming and dehumanizing people and holding them accountable are mutually exclusive. Shame is not a social justice tool. It’s emotional off-loading at best, emotional self-indulgence at worst. I’ll finish with these. Number one, there will be no unity without accountability. We’ve got to find a way to hold people accountable in a real, non-dehumanizing way, and we have got a shit ton of work to do there. Our prison system—not the answer. What do you think happens when you put white supremacists in jail or in prison? You think they’re dangerous when you put them in? I mean, come on.

BB: Number two, shame and dehumanization kill empathy and accountability.

BB: Number three, if we hold someone accountable for their actions and they feel shame, that’s not the same as shaming them. I’ve talked about this on the podcast before. As we start to hold people accountable and say, “Hey, listen, it’s not OK to say that.” And people are like, “You’re shaming me.” No, no, no, I’m just holding you accountable. If you’re feeling shame about what you said, that’s you. That’s your thing. Those are your feelings. Those are your feelings. I’m just holding you accountable in a respectful, productive way. Shame and dehumanization, again, are tools of oppression and white supremacy. They’ll never be tools for justice or healing.

BB: And then I want to leave you with this quote, because I’ve thought about it, probably not to exaggerate, at least once or twice a week, every week since I’ve heard it. And it’s all I can think about right now. And it’s from Nelba Márquez-Greene. She’s a clinical fellow of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. She’s worked in private practice, community mental health, and academic settings in the U.S. and Canada. She’s also the founder of the Ana Grace Project. Ana Grace is her beloved daughter. Along with her husband, Jimmy Greene, it’s their daughter, and also the sister of Isaiah, and her—Ana Grace’s life on Earth ended at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, a day that none of us will ever forget, but a day that we still have a lot of reckoning to do around.

BB: And Nelba posted something on Twitter one day, and it was in response to gun violence, and it just is the thing that just keeps coming back to me, no matter what we’re up against right now, and the quote is simply this: “White supremacy is not the elephant in the room. It is the room.” And I think that’s true, and I think that, along with accountability, non-shaming accountability, we’ve got to own this history of white supremacy if we want to write a new ending in this country. Otherwise this history continues to own us and be exploited by dangerous people seeking power over, authoritarian power.

BB: I know this is a heavy episode, but it’s on my mind, and I trust this community to not listen if it’s not your thing and listen if it is your thing. Listen if you want to have the conversation. I appreciate your time. And I think this week I’m just going to leave it there.

BB: Stay awkward, brave, and kind. And remember, shame, dehumanization, humiliation, name-calling, it destroys us. It destroys our family, and it will destroy our country if we don’t start making different choices.

BB: Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, by Weird Lucy productions and by Cadence 13. Sound design is by Kristen Acevedo, music by Carrie Rodriguez and Gina Chavez.

© 2021 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2021, January 13). Brené on Words, Actions, Dehumanization, and Accountability. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence 13.

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