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How Dehumanization Works

4 April 2022

On February 1, 1893, an intellectually disabled Black man was burned to death in Paris, Texas.  His death was not accidental. It was the culmination of several hours of torture, witnessed by a crowd of more than ten thousand people—men, women, and even children—many of whom had travelled from surrounding areas on special excursion trains to participate in this event.  A festive atmosphere prevailed. Schools, businesses, and saloons were closed for the day, as though Smith’s execution was a national holiday.

After Smith’s body had been seared by red-hot pokers, his eyes burned out, and his body slowly consumed by flames, the crowd pressed forward to pick through his smoldering ashes for trophies—a bit of bone, a hank of hair, or a charred portion of his liver.

Smith’s torture and murder was one of many “spectacle lynchings”—publicly advertised lynchings, mostly of Black men, that attracted hundreds or thousands of White onlookers—that occurred between the late nineteenth and the mid-twentieth century. These events were often conducted openly in the presence of newspaper reporters, who filed eye-witness accounts. The language used in many of these reports is revealing. They are peppered with words like “fiend” and a “brute.” These two words were used in the press to characterize Smith. He was described as a “Black beast” (San Antonio Gazette), a “bestial negro” (St. Louis Gazette), an “incarnate monster” (New Orleans State), an “unnatural monster” (Texarkana News), and “the most inhuman monster known in current history” (New York Sun).

Representing other humans as monstrous, subhuman beings is not limited to anti-Black racism, although it is intimately tied to race. It was present in the attitudes of European colonists towards indigenous peoples, Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda, and the discourse of militant Buddhists about the Rohingya of Myanmar, to cite just a few examples. Dehumanizing discourse commonly accompanies episodes of mass violence and oppression, but there are important questions about how this behavior should be understood.  After fifteen years of research into the phenomenon of dehumanization, I think that I have some answers that are worth considering.

You may think that this sort of language is merely a figurative way of expressing extreme moral condemnation. After all, the crime that Smith was accused of committing—the rape and murder of a child—was indeed horrific. But context is important. The words used to describe Smith were not limited to this case. They were very commonly used by White people to describe Black people–especially Black males–in the United States. And the image of the monstrous, Black “superpredator” continues to infuse the racist imagination to this day. You might respond that this does not show that dehumanizing speech is not meant metaphorically. Perhaps the use of this sort of language is nothing more than a way to denigrate feared, hated, and despised groups, and dehumanizers do not really conceive of their targets as less-than-human creatures.

I do not doubt that this is sometimes—perhaps, very often—the case. But the historical record should leave one in no doubt that genuine dehumanization also occurs. There are numerous examples of people sincerely asserting that the members of some categories of people are not truly human.  For example, the distinguished German pediatrician Werner Catel defended German physicians accused of murdering mentally disabled children during the Nazi regime by claiming that only human beings can be murdered, and that these children were not human. He remarked in a 1964 interview in the magazine Der Spiegel, “We are not talking about humans here, but rather about beings that were merely procreated by humans and that will never themselves become humans endowed with reason and a soul.” It strains credulity to suppose that Catel did not intend these words literally. And returning to the example of Henry Smith, the scientific racist literature from the mid-nineteenth century onwards makes it quite plausible that Smith was genuinely regarded as a subhuman creature rather than a human being.

Dehumanization is not simply a matter of how we speak. The difference between the use of slurs to denigrate others and authentically referring to them as subhuman is in the nature of the mental contents that the words express. In genuine cases of dehumanization, the dehumanizer genuinely regards the other as less than human. True dehumanization, then, is a kind of attitude—a psychological state. That’s why it is possible to dehumanize others without ever explicitly referring to them as less than human beings.

To say that dehumanization is something psychological is not to say that it is only psychological. To explain it, we must go beyond psychology and consider the social and political forces that impact the ways that we think about others. Dehumanization does not arise unbidden in the human mind.  It is a product of the cognitive division of labor that is endemic to human culture. We epistemically defer to people whom we regard as authorities, people who are supposed to know, even if what they tell us does not comport with the deliverances of our senses. For example, when microphysicists tell us that seemingly gapless, solid objects, such as the floor beneath your feet, are mostly empty space, we accept this even though our senses tell us otherwise because of the epistemic authority that we grant to physicists. But epistemic deference can be disastrous when it is misplaced. When we grant this authority to people such as Nazi propagandists we can bring ourselves to accept that although Jews look just like human beings, they are not really human. After all, Hitler, Goebbels, and the Nazi race scientists tell us that the Jews are actually dangerous, demonic, Untermenschen, and they are supposed to know.

 Episodes of dehumanization are almost always sparked by political propaganda or ideological presuppositions that are sedimented into a society as “common knowledge.” The dehumanization of Henry Smith could not have occurred outside a political context in which White supremacism was all-pervasive, and was championed by some of the most distinguished and influential people of the day. Of course, there is much more that needs to be said to give a really comprehensive account of how dehumanization works. One needs to pinpoint the particular psychological dispositions that make it possible to regard others as outwardly human but inwardly subhuman, articulate a theory of ideology that is adequate to the task, explain why dehumanization is so closely tied to racialization, and give an account of what it means to regard another person as a human being, to name just a few. Readers wishing to delve deeper into these issues can consult my recent book Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization (Harvard, 2021).

Photo: Lynching of Henry Smith