Author Interview: David Livingstone Smith on Dehumanization and “Making Monsters”
By Bill Marx
Making Monsters “is a wake-up call. We need to seriously address the phenomenon of dehumanization if we are to have any hope of constraining it when things get really difficult.”
We are in the age of empathy, at least in the world of liberal politics and the arts, routinely asked to put our feet in the shoes of others. All too often these occasions are no more than self-congratulatory indulgences, reassuring testaments to our humanity that don’t call for us to make any hard changes in the reality on the ground for the subjects of our fellow feeling. The setup is understandable — we want to quiet our discomfort without looking deeply into our motivations or taking difficult actions. But that complacency is growing increasingly dangerous because it inevitably means we do not take on the dark depths of the problem — to look, with honesty, at what propels ordinary people’s dehumanization of others.
Why has there been so little serious study of dehumanization? Throughout human history, the belief that others are less than human has led to unspeakable horrors: pogroms, genocides, and massacres. Yet systematic research into the nature of dehumanization has been scant: we unquestionably assume we know what goes through people’s minds when they believe others should be treated as subhuman. David Livingstone Smith’s illuminating Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization (Harvard University Press, 329 pages, $27.95) undercuts this lazy (and dangerous) assumption, particularly its scholarly versions, as it presses home its compelling argument that all of us are “potential dehumanizers.”
At the heart of his analysis, Smith ends up squaring a circle. Drawing on accounts of lynchings, he theorizes that dehumanizers hold two contradictory beliefs in their minds at the same time: their victims are both human and subhuman (“a human appearance but a subhuman essence”). Believing that others are monsters isn’t a metaphor; it is a psychological reality that depends, in a perverse way, on our ability to empathize: “It is the dehumanizer’s nagging awareness of the other’s humanity that gives dehumanization its distinctive psychological flavor. Ironically, it is our inability to regard other people as nothing but animals that leads to unimaginable cruelty and destructiveness.” It is cutting insights like that, along with thoughtful speculations on how dehumanization is nurtured — through racism, ideology, and the power of hierarchical structures — that makes this such an invaluable study, particularly at this time.
I emailed a few questions about his book’s thesis to Smith, a professor of philosophy at the University of New England in Maine. Why are we so reluctant to study dehumanization? Does technology contribute to dehumanization in new ways? And why are race and dehumanization so intimately tied together?
Arts Fuse: In your Preface to this volume you write that your 2011 book Less Than Human remains the only interdisciplinary study of dehumanization in the English language. In fact, to the best of your knowledge in any other language. Why do you think that is?
David Livingstone Smith: Since I wrote those words, Routledge has released the Routledge Handbook of Dehumanization, an edited collection containing contributions from scholars from a broad range of disciplines. However, it’s striking that even sans the qualifier “interdisciplinary,” scholarly books about dehumanization (excluding the three that I’ve written) can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I suspect that there are several reasons for this. One is the semantic promiscuity of the term “dehumanization,” which is used in all sorts of different and often contradictory ways, and confused with racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and so on. Another is that “dehumanization” is very often used as a term of condemnation rather than a word for something that can be identified, described, and theorized. Third, dehumanization seems so downright weird that many people have a hard time taking it seriously. It seems incredible to them that humans can literally conceive of other humans as less-than-human beings. Of course, if you do not believe that dehumanization is real, you’re not going to devote time and effort to investigating it.
AF: A quick check on Google finds dozens and dozens of books on understanding and cultivating empathy. Why is it important to understand why we dehumanize others? And why are we reluctant to do so?
DLS: The topic of empathy is very popular these days. A lot of people seem to think that the social problems that plague us can be explained by an empathy deficit, and the way to ameliorate them is by cultivating more empathy. This all sounds nice, cheerful, and uplifting. In contrast, dehumanization is dark and disturbing. Engaging with it requires us to confront the most hideous abuses that human beings have perpetrated and meted out to one another. That’s exactly why it’s so important to understand, and also why so many people are so reluctant to engage with it. If the analysis that I offer in Making Monsters is anywhere near correct, all of us have a psychology that makes us potential dehumanizers. There isn’t any vaccine that can protect us from the dehumanizing impulse — either as perpetrators or as victims — so it’s vital to be well informed about our own psychological propensity to dehumanize others and the sociopolitical processes that incite such dehumanizing attitudes.
AF: Dehumanization is a term that is becoming increasingly used in the news media — how crucial is it that the term be accurately defined?
DLS: As I’ve mentioned, “dehumanization” means very many things, so I don’t think that accuracy is the issue. Instead, the focus should be on being clear and explicit about what one means by the word. This is crucial, because unreflective or imprecise talk about dehumanization leads people to talk past each other when discussing this incredibly significant phenomenon.
AF: At the risk of simplifying your argument, you assert that dehumanized people are conceived of as completely human and completely subhuman, a contradiction that turns them into “monsters.” What problem does this formulation solve?
DLS: When I wrote my first book on dehumanization, Less Than Human, I argued that when we dehumanize others we think that they are really subhuman animals. One potent objection to this view is that dehumanizers also implicitly or explicitly refer to those whom they dehumanize as human, and also treat them in ways that seem to acknowledge their humanness. For instance, dehumanized people are often called “criminals,” a status that applies only to human beings. And dehumanizers often seek to humiliate those whom they dehumanize, for example by forcing enslaved people to eat out of pig troughs. But only human beings can suffer humiliation. A second objection is that dehumanized people are often seen as monstrous or demonic beings rather than animals, but monsters and demons are not animals, so my earlier conception of dehumanization doesn’t fit these very plentiful cases.
I solved both of these problems at a single stroke when I realized that people who dehumanize others have two contradictory mental pictures of them: they conceive of dehumanized others as both human and subhuman — totally human and totally subhuman. This explains dehumanizers’ tendency to alternate between referring to their victims as human and referring to them as subhuman. To explain how this sort of double consciousness transforms dehumanized people into monsters, I draw on the work of philosopher Noël Carroll, who argues that the monsters of horror fiction are both physically threatening and what I call metaphysically threatening (and Carroll calls “cognitively threatening”). A being is metaphysically threatening if it violates categorical boundaries — that is, if it belongs to two or more mutually exclusive categories at once (consider zombies, which are simultaneously dead and alive, and werewolves, which are both wolves and people). I extend a version of Carroll’s analysis beyond the movie screen and the pages of horror novels, where he intended it to apply, to encompass the real, flesh-and-blood horrors of Auschwitz and Jim Crow. This provides a much deeper understanding of the phenomenology and dynamics of dehumanization, and integrates dehumanization theory with work on the uncanny.
AF: You mention the power of social media. How does QAnon’s dehumanization of its opponents into blood-sucking pedophiles fit into your thesis? Does technology aid and abet the creation of monsters in new ways?
DLS: QAnon zealots have revived centuries-old anti-Semitic tropes and repurposed them to comport with 21st-century concerns. One chapter of Making Monsters is devoted to a detailed study of how and why the image of the demonic, cannibalistic Jew emerged during the Middle Ages, persisted into modern times, was weaponized by the Nazis, and persists today in movements such as QAnon—even when it is not explicitly anti-Semitic. In this chapter, I explain that what I call “apparatuses of reproduction” are required for dehumanizing ideologies (as well as other sorts of ideologies) to develop and proliferate. These apparatuses are technological. During the medieval period, dehumanizing images of Jews could only spread slowly and inefficiently, by word of mouth, graphic art, and passion plays. The invention of the movable-type printing press and the gradual increase in literacy among European Christians made it possible for representations of the demonic Jew to proliferate much more effectively. Now fast-forward to the 1930s, when Josef Goebbels recognized the power of radio and cinema for proliferating Nazi ideology. Goebbels had a firm that mass-produced inexpensive radios ordinary Germans could afford, so that propaganda could reach into virtually every household. Each step in this sequence of technological innovations has contributed to the reproduction of dehumanizing representations, so there’s a straight line from 13th-century anti-Semitic art to the most fetid corners of today’s internet.
AF: Could your thesis tie into the current popularity of the genre of horror — with its fascination with monsters and the uncanny? Are we more inclined today to accept the contradiction of human/subhuman?
DLS: Horror has always been popular, from ancient Mesopotamian demonology to scary movies on Netflix. There’s a good reason for our paradoxical fascination with the horrific. Drawing on the work of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, I argue that every culture has a conception of the natural order consisting of a grid of categories that’s used to make sense of the world around us. But whenever we try to squeeze reality into such classificatory systems, there are things that don’t fit the scheme. These are experienced as unnatural, threatening, and at the extreme, horrifying. The fact that we still experience the horror genre as horrific shows that the human/ subhuman binary is still very much intact.
AF: You draw on Freud, but not the work of other modernists that shed light on dehumanized people and the power of the uncanny. For example, H.G. Wells’s diabolical 1896 satire on colonialism, The Island of Doctor Moreau, in which a mad scientist attempts to turn animals into people. And Pirandello’s fascination with the horrifying power of masks — we are and are not what we appear to be on the outside. Haven’t creative writers anticipated theorists when it comes to exploring the irrationality of humanity’s dark side?
DLS: Although I’m very fond of Freud, and have been influenced a lot by his thinking, I don’t rate his celebrated essay on the uncanny very highly. I think that the work of his contemporary, the German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch, is far more significant. Artists are always ahead of the rest in identifying, representing, and articulating the texture of human experience — including experience of the uncanny and horrific. But they are usually not in a position to theorize those experiences adequately. It’s no accident that both Jentsch and Freud take Hoffmann’s The Sandman as a point of departure. I sometimes use The Island of Dr. Moreau when I give talks, because it perfectly captures the psychological proclivities that underpin dehumanization. I must confess that I’ve never read Pirandello — but I will now!
AF: A blurb for the book asserts that Making Monsters is “an urgent and timely manifesto.” Would you agree? What political, psychological, or economic responses — outside of academia — would you like to see?
DLS: I am deeply honored by that blurb form Charlotte Witt, a distinguished feminist philosopher and expert on Aristotle. I agree that the book is urgent and timely. Look around the world, or just locally in the United States, and you can’t help noticing the uptick in white supremacist, quasi-fascist politics, bizarre conspiracy theories such as QAnon, and backlash against efforts to secure racial justice. This sort of political ecology is hospitable to dehumanizing beliefs. And all of this is unfolding in a world that lays under the shadow of impending catastrophic climate change, which will have unprecedented consequences, including massive movements of refugees, collapsing infrastructures, and shifts in the loci of global power. This looks like a perfect storm for the emergence of the most destructive and violent forms of dehumanization. Making Monsters is a wake-up call. We need to seriously address the phenomenon of dehumanization if we are to have any hope of constraining it when things get really difficult. But I’m not aware of any unit in the world — any academic center, think tank, or NGO — that prioritizes research into dehumanization.
Of course, there are various commonsense initiatives that are implied by my work. For instance, I argue that dehumanization is intimately bound up with race: groups of people are almost always racialized as a prelude to being dehumanized. Unlike most, who think that race and racism are distinguishable, I believe that racism is built into the very notion of race, that is perhaps the single most destructive idea that the human mind has ever fashioned, and that we should make every effort to get rid of it. Well, that’s not going to happen. Self-knowledge, historical awareness, and the protection of those norms and institutions representing the best of liberal democracy are all important for guarding against dehumanization. But none of these components — either individually or in concert — provide bullet-proof protection against the dangers of dehumanization. I write books like Making Monsters because I want to do my small bit to change the world, but I have to say, in all honesty, that I’m not very optimistic about the outcome.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of the Arts Fuse. For just over four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.