“Probing the Depths of Our Cruelty”
A review of
Less than Human:
Why we Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others.
by David Livingstone Smith.
Review by Eric Judge.
Have you ever wondered if you could kill another person? In the right circumstances I always thought that I probably could. I assumed that my act of violence would be in defense of the life of someone that I loved, something heroic. However, David Livingston Smith’s new book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others invites readers to look inside their own minds to examine the ways in which humans think their way into violence that is much less than heroic. Once on a high school sports trip, I overheard my coach and another adult discussing child molesters. One of them suggested that someone who sexually abuses a child should be taken out back and shot in the head. I felt he suggested this solution not only because of the heinous nature of the crime but because of the perverted nature of the offender. It was assumed that a child molester is a different kind of person than the rest of us and therefore needed to be put down, as you would a rabid dog. I can not remember what, if any, names were used to describe this hypothetical child molester, but it left me with the distinct impression this person was an animal. This memory connects quite vividly to the concept of dehumanization that Smith seeks to understand and elucidate in this well written, challenging, and accessible book.
The book revolves around Smith’s definition of dehumanization as the attribution of a sub-human essence to another person or group. This attribution is due to the innate pervasiveness of psychological essenstialism. Essentialism refers to humanity’s tendency to think of things as having a unique essence that make them what they are. Smith takes the reader on a journey through history illustrating how humans have thought in essentialistic categories and how, evolutionarily speaking, humans developed this type of cognition over time. Much of the book is spent illustrating the way that we think in essential categories through vivid stories of slavery, war, and genocide. The acts of dehumanization that Smith describes are broken apart and studied via psychological research that has been done on such varied subjects as chimpanzees, participants in genocide, and even little children. Much of the research that he uses in his book is quite thought-provoking and he uses it to ask probing questions of the reader. For instance, Smith helps the reader to see how their own mind works by asking “what makes a tiger a tiger?” If a tiger lacks stripes or a tail, is it still a tiger? Most of us tend to think that even if a tiger does not look exactly as most tigers do it is still a tiger. We think of a tiger as an animal who’s essence is not exclusively tied to how it looks, but also to something unseen. This brings up the larger question of what makes a human a human.
In relation to the introductory story, we often speak of child molesters, the enemy in war, or members of other ethnic groups as monsters, vermin, dogs, pieces of shit and other terms that metaphorically say something about what we think these people really are. We attribute an essence of, say, a rabid dog, to another person, even though the offender does not look like a dog. When we think of a person as a rabid dog, who is not like us, then we are freed to treat a person as if they were a dog. And what do we do to rabid dogs or other dangerous creatures? We kill them because they are dangerous. The dehumanization of the Jews by Nazi Germany is perhaps the preeminent example of this sort of behavior in the 20th century. Many Germans, and certainly the leaders of the Nazis, saw the Jews as not fully human and as a threat to Germany.
The strongest part of this book is the way in which the reader is forced to think along with Smith as he searches for the genesis of dehumanization. He forces readers to wonder if we think and speak in the ways the he is describing and to journey through our history to understand who we are and why we think the way that we do. At times I was uncomfortable as I read this book. The depths of cruelty that humans willingly sink to in their treatment of others is frighteningly depicted here. Smith has helpfully peeled back the layers of the human mind to help us see more clearly into unconscious way that we think. Regrettably, the book is short on answers to the problems that it so clearly and cogently illustrates and examines. Smith stresses that this book is a first step of on the road of understanding and stopping dehumanization. It is a sharp challenge to us as readers to examine the words that we use to describe others, and to reevaluate the images that we hold of those who do not look as we do. We must realize we shall act toward others according to the image that we hold of them, and the language that we use to describe them. We must think seriously along with this book, learning to realize that the once human in others has been removed, we are free to treat them any way that we desire. And that is not a good thing.