The Voices of War

103. Dr David Livingstone Smith - Dehumanisation In The Israel-Palestine War And Its Consequences

VOW 103 | Dehumanisation


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Today, I spoke with Dr David Livingstone Smith, who is a philosophy professor at the University of New England. He specialises in the study of dehumanisation and mass violence. David is the author of several award-winning books, including ‘Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others’ as well as ‘On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It’. David’s most recent book that is: ‘Making Monsters, The Uncanny Power of Dehumanisation’. David joined me to provide his expert opinion on dehumanisation we are witnessing as part of the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.


Key Topics Covered:

  • Dehumanisation and Its Roots: David delves into the psychological and social aspects of dehumanisation, explaining how it serves as a precursor to violence.
  • Israel-Hamas Conflict: A focus on the risks and implications of dehumanisation in the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.
  • The Role of Fear: David discusses how politicians, particularly authoritarian ones, capitalise on fear to manipulate behaviour.
  • Social Dynamics: The conversation touches on how social forces and community behaviour can either inhibit or encourage violence.
  • The Power of Public Opinion: David emphasises the need for influential voices to steer public opinion towards constructive solutions.




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#Dehumanisation #IsraelHamasConflict #SocialDynamics #TheVoicesOfWar #DavidLivingstonSmith #IsraelPalestineWar #IsraelHamasWar #Israel #Palestine #Hamas

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Dr David Livingstone Smith – Dehumanisation In The Israel-Palestine War And Its Consequences

My guest is Dr. David Livingstone Smith, a philosophy professor at the University of New England. David’s particular area of interest and research is dehumanisation and mass violence. Here’s the author of several award-winning books, which Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, And Exterminate Others and On Inhumanity: Dehumanization And How To Resist It. I’ve previously read these two books and interviewed David about them. I highly recommend it for a deep dive into the process of dehumanisation more generally. In this episode, David joins me to explore the notion of dehumanisation as it applies to the war between Israel and Hamas. David, welcome back to the show.

Thank you. It’s an honour to be there.

It’s great to see you. I know that it’s an exceptionally busy time for you. I do appreciate you coming back on the show. Before we dive into what’s happening in the world, for those who might not be familiar with your work, how would you describe your academic focus and what led you down this path in the first place?

First, let me say that I have a third book on dehumanization now called Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power Of Dehumanization, which is my most comprehensive explanation of my position. What is humanization? How do I go down this road? I’m going to invert the two parts of the question. Part of why I went down this road was autobiographical. I grew up in the deep South of the United States in the ‘50s and ‘60s, where the dehumanisation of Africans and Americans was palpable.

I grew up in an extended family with my maternal grandparents, who were Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. Their families fled, fortunately, decades before socialism. I was marinated in experiences of dehumanisation both in the world around me in the Deep South, Florida and in the stories my grandparents would tell about the horrors that were inflicted on Jewish people in Eastern Europe.

That was latent in my consciousness until 2006. That year, I was working on a book about war in human nature called The Most Dangerous Animal. When I was researching the penultimate chapter of that book, I came across all of this wartime propaganda representing enemies as sub-human creatures, as vermin, bloodthirsty predators or whatever. I thought to myself. “This is very interesting. I should investigate this further.” What I found was there was virtually no literature outside of social psychology.

The social psychological literature I thought was very limited primarily for the following reason. To understand this process, you can’t look inside people’s heads. You can’t concentrate on psychology. You have to look at the world in which people’s heads are situated. You have to look at the politics, the social forces and so on. That’s the trajectory that led to my first book on humanization, Less Than Human, published in 2011. I was trying to figure it out because, at that time, there were no books on dehumanisation. It was zero.

VOW 103 | Dehumanisation
Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others

We laughed at it in our last chat. It was one good way to get referenced.

My Moroccan colleague said, “You’ve got to write a book on this. Everyone will have to cite you.” I think probably I’ve written half of the books in the English language on this topic. That’s how I got to where I am. It turned out to be a major task to understand the history of the concept of dehumanisation, the psychology of how dehumanisation works and the political circumstances in which it occurs. Since 2011, my work has been developing. I’ve corrected some errors that I’ve made in the past. Presumably, I will correct more errors as the work proceeds.

What is dehumanisation? That was the other half of your question. It’s not an easy question to answer because the word is used in many different ways to mean many different things. If you google the word dehumanisation, you will get millions of hits. When I last checked, it was around eight million. It’s probably much more now.

If you investigate what people are calling dehumanisation, it’s all over the map. People are using it as a general term for degradation, cruelty or whatever. Even in the academic literature, there are perhaps ten different conceptions of dehumanisation is. It’s not that some are right and some are wrong. The word is a funky word that means various things.

If we’re trying to do serious work on dehumanisation, we need to specify what. What I mean is the following. Dehumanisation Is the attitude of conceiving of others as less than human creatures. It’s an attitude. It’s in our heads, but it’s a psychological response, in my view, to political forces. It doesn’t arise spontaneously in the human mind.

Maybe you can develop that a little more because that will become more relevant as we continue our conversation.

If you look at the paradigmatic cases of dehumanisation, this is exemplified in genocide. I don’t know of a single genocide in the last century or that has not involved to dehumanisation. If you look at these cases, what you see is that dehumanising beliefs on the part of people who get their hands dirty and who do the killing are prompted by political propaganda.

Dehumanising beliefs on the part of people who kill are usually prompted by political propaganda. Share on X

People in positions of power and authority convince others that these others are subhumans. It’s not that people somehow wake up in the morning and think the Armenians, Jews or whoever are subhuman beings. They have these ideas inculcated in them and there are certain patterns of propaganda that are very effective in doing that.

We talked about that in length in our last episode. I encourage people to read that for a much more nuanced and deeper dial on these topics, but it is enculturated. As you said, it’s part of the environment that you were brought up in. Therefore, it needs that political justification that will even, in the first place, motivate why we might other these social groups, who are the object targeting in whatever capacity.

They are always people who have a vested interest in getting us to harm others, to oppress them, to exterminate them and so on. That’s how things work, unfortunately. There’s a feature of human culture that is very relevant here. The way to begin this is with an illustration. I’m sitting in front of a desk. That desk looks to me entirely without gaps. If I were to consult a microphysicist, he would say, “This is mostly empty space.” I would accept that even though that’s not what my eyes tell me. I would accept that because I grant the microphysicist a certain authority.

Philosophers call this epistemic deference. We defer to the expert. What’s an expert? An expert is someone who’s placed in the role of expert. They may not have genuine expertise, but they’re placed in that role. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, Joseph Goebbels was treated as an expert. We accept certain claims by experts even if they contradict our own experience because the expert is someone who’s supposed to know.

This is very relevant to dehumanisation. Even though these others, the Jews, Armenians, Palestinians or whoever is the flavor of the week, look human and act human. In fact, as human beings, we cannot help but perceive them as humans. That’s automatic. We’re prepared to set that aside in the face of people in positions of authority who tell us, “They may look human, but they’re not really human. They’re something else. They’re counterfeit humans. On the inside, there’s something alien and dangerous.”

These counterfeit humans need to be treated harshly or even exterminated. To go further and later on in the conversation, I could explain why this typically wouldn’t occur. They’re seen as demonic, as embodiments of evil. If you’re dealing with a demon, a monster, and an embodiment of evil, then no treatment is too harsh. This leads to terrible atrocities.

There’s a moral righteousness and weight that comes with that. It’s not only the right thing to do but there’s a duty to go.

It’s obligatory. We see this in all of the cases of genocide. The génocidaires don’t think of themselves as doing something wrong. They think of themselves as saving the world from evil. It’s their obligation and duty to do these things. The fact that these acts are hard to commit, that’s the fact that people commit them, is seen as a measure of their moral fibre.

Those who commit genocide don’t think of themselves as wrongdoers. They see themselves as saviours of the world from evil. Share on X

That’s such an important aspect. Firstly, I want to highlight the fact that you mentioned that you have a personal history that’s connected to Israel or at least to Jewish people and the atrocities that they have experienced throughout the ages. I want to highlight that because I think it’s important to acknowledge it, given the fact that we’re going to talk about what’s going on in Israel and Hamas.

I invite you to add any context you wish. I certainly don’t expect you to give your position, but if you want to, feel free to do so, but your expertise on the subject is what I truly find fascinating. I believe it was the Israeli defence minister who used the phrase human animals to use it in relation to Hamas. I totally understand the phrase.

Given the circumstances, given the horrors experienced by those Jews in those settlements near Gaza, most people will say, “That’s a very fitting phrase.” As soon as I heard that phrase, that was the first moment I remembered in our previous discussion and the thought popped into my mind to reach out to you again for a follow-up conversation. Perhaps we can start with that phrase and what your thoughts are on it.

I wrote an essay the day it happened. This is a very good segue into getting deeper into dehumanisation. You notice he didn’t say, “These are animals.” He said, “They’re human animals.” He didn’t say they’re wild animals. He didn’t say they’re human beings who have done terrible things. He said, “They’re human animals.”

That’s very significant because nowadays, and I will elaborate on this most thoroughly in my book Making Monsters, what happens in the most destructive forms of dehumanisation is that the other is not simply seen as a predator or an unclean animal. They are seen as a strange combination of animal and human.

VOW 103 | Dehumanisation
Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization

I should say a dangerous animal than human. What that does is it transforms them into monsters. There’s no such thing as a being that is totally human and animal in the sense that animals are being used there. That’s an impossible combination. It’s a combination that is extremely disturbing. When we have two incompatible kinds of things and they’re put together, this is the essence of horror. There is some interesting literature on this.

It’s the zombies and Frankenstein.

Zombie is a great example. Zombies are simultaneously alive and dead. That’s impossible. It’s a disturbing notion, similar to werewolves or wolves and humans simultaneously. In expressing themselves as he did, what he was, in fact, doing was representing the other and he was not clear whether he was referring to Hamas or Palestinians in Gaza generally or Palestinians for that matter. It doesn’t even apply to the fighters in Hamas. Monsters don’t exist. Human beings commit all these atrocities. There aren’t any monsters.

That struck me as very ominous. In the essay that I wrote on my Substack, I explained all of what I’ve explained to you now and said this bodes ill for Israel’s treatment of Gaza. Not too long afterward, Benjamin Netanyahu described the others as bloodthirsty monsters. He’s not specific. This was a continuation of the same thing.

I wrote an essay on that as well. I said, “This is real dangerous stuff. I totally understand. Hamas has committed terrible atrocities. They have taken these hostages. God knows what’s happened to most of them. Israel has to do something, but when you move into this kind of rhetoric, you are in a pre-genocidal condition. What more can be said? We know what’s going on, what’s happening.

Human beings commit atrocities. They aren’t any monsters. Share on X

For an audience, to set the context, it’s gone after 10:00 PM on the 25th of October Israel time. For you and I, that’s very different. You in the US and me in Australia, but to give people an indication of where we are in time and space, much of this episode will be published rather quickly, but what is the purpose of dehumanisation? You must have an evolutionary reason.

I’d imagine, perhaps in this instance, these narratives and phrases may be even planned in a way to desensitise both the Israeli population, but perhaps more importantly, the 360,000 Reserves that have been called up who are all of a sudden, although they’re trained the Reserves. Today, they are teachers. Tomorrow, they’re warriors. Prepare them for what they might be asked to do. I’m half answering the question, but it’s a loaded question. Maybe you can delve into a bit more detail as to what is the actual revolutionary reason for dehumanizing.

First, I think it’s worth noting that some Israelis and Palestinians have both been engaging in dehumanising propaganda. The answer to the question, “What made these human beings?” Members of Hamas are capable of committing the atrocities that they did. I would say it is very likely a dehumanising representation of Jewish people.

From a very young age.

Some Palestinians are marinated in that. We need to be very careful here and some Israelis. That’s a terrible cocktail for violence. When we talk about the evolutionary function, they have to be very careful there as well. Evolution does come into my analysis but through the back door. I don’t think dehumanisation is something that evolution has directly produced in us. It has produced psychological dispositions that can be manipulated to get us.

It’s paradoxical. Here’s an uncontroversial fact about Homo sapiens, you and me. Homo sapiens are what biologists call ultra-social. There is no other mammal that’s as sociable as we are in place of inhibitions against violence against community members because it’s obvious. You can’t carry on a social way of life if you’re ripping each other’s throats out.

VOW 103 | Dehumanisation
Dehumanisation: You can’t carry on a social way of life if you are ripping each other’s throats.


Evolution has got to be part of the makeup of most of us. There are always exceptions when speaking biologically. There are some people who have no inhibitions, but there are the exception rather than the rule. We also have these great big brains and we can recognise that it is advantageous sometimes for us, whatever us refers to harm, exploit and exterminate others, to take their resources, enslave them or whatever.

On the one hand, there are inhibitions against violence, particularly lethal violence, and on the other hand, a recognition that for practical purposes, violence, including lethal violence, can be advantageous to a group. Being the clever primates that we are, over the millennia, we developed various ways of subverting them and there are many. There is the use of intoxicants, drugs and alcohol. There’s the use of religious ideologies of mind-altering rituals. There’s the use of dehumanising propaganda.

If we can think of the other as dangerously subhuman monsters, demonic in particular, then this undercuts the inhibitions that we might feel against doing acts of terrible violence to other members of our species. This isn’t usually a smooth process because, as ultra-social animals, we automatically see humans. You look into someone’s eyes and you see a human. It clicks in. That is why killing at a distance is easier than killing up close and personal. Even in execution, practices like blindfolding are used. There’s something terribly difficult and traumatic about looking at a human face and plunging a blade in their gut or blasting them with bullets.

Dehumanisation has the property of disabling inhibitions against violence. Propaganda is a little too limited because sometimes these views are distributed through a culture. I grew up in the Deep South. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the idea was Black people were subhuman. It was distributed as people’s parents would tell them and they’re the sheriff, pastor and so on, but very often, it is propagandists that do this and sometimes they are sincere. Sometimes they believe it. Sometimes, it’s cynical or instrumental. It’s a means to get people to do their bidding.

One of the things that follows from this is that If we want to protect ourselves from A) Being dehumanisers and being either complicit or getting our hands dirty and acts of terrible, unjust violence. We need to understand these processes. We need to understand what it is in the human mind, including the human mind, you and me, that makes us vulnerable to this kind of propaganda. We can push back so we can protect ourselves.

If you want to protect yourself from being a dehumaniser, you need to understand the human mind and the things that make you vulnerable to propaganda. Share on X

That’s an important piece. To talk about this propaganda piece, it seems this particular conflict is globally divisive, where you’re globally being forced to choose the side. Not being forced. Force is a wrong word, but you’re inclined or encouraged to, and you feel like you are being led down a golden path. How do you view that? Why is this particular area region conflict so divisive? All one needs to do is open X or Twitter to see how divisive it is and how quickly it goes down this kind of sliding path to dehumanisation?

That’s a big question and a hard question. I figure I can’t do it justice, but I’ll give you my two cents. A small part of this has to do with historical ignorance. This is a very complex situation. It’s not clean. The creation of the state of Israel and the two wars that followed are very easy to give a cartoonish representation of Israelis’ struggle for existence in the aftermath of the Holocaust and, indeed, centuries of genocide.

Similarly, it’s very easy to give a cartoonish representation of the terrible plight of Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed, which is a euphemism for genocide, let’s be straightforward, from their homes relegated particularly in Gaza to I think what is appropriately called an open-air prison. This is a complex and terrible history where it’s not entirely straightforward, looking historically, who are the good and bad guys.

In fact, we should never look at conflicts, but it’s easy to do. There are people with agendas who like to stir us all up and get us in one position or another. Fear is motivating. Fear or terror is a predominant emotion on both sides of this. Authoritarian politicians want to manipulate our behaviour and capitalise on fear. They know what buttons to push and they push them. That is certainly going on in Israel and Palestine. The other point I wanted to get to, which I pre-empted myself, is that dehumanisation comes very readily if racialisation is there first.

Dehumanisation comes readily if racialisation is there first. Share on X

What do I mean by racialisation? That would be a long story with the story for another episode, perhaps. Let me cut to the chase. When we think of others as belonging to a different race, as many Israelis and many Palestinians do to one another, we think of them as, first of all, these others as fundamentally different from us, not trivially.

The difference is a life sentence that, deep down, they are different. We think of them as inheriting that difference from their parents, grandparents and so on. Very crucially, we think we situate them as being on a hierarchy. They think of them as inferior. Racialisation is the doorway to dehumanisation. As I like to put it, dehumanisation is racism on steroids. We have this here. American and Australian readers, for different reasons, might find this strange.

Americans think of race as Black and White people. I would suspect that Australians basically think of race in terms of indigenous Australians versus Euro-Australians. These are socially and historically contingent variations on a broader theme. When we racialized people, we demote them in the category of the human. When we demonise them, we take it further. They’re not human at all. There’s something.

I hope collectively we can start appreciating how powerful words are and how much, as you rightly say, they motivate. A phrase like a human animal that is a demonic creature and something that needs to be exterminated. How much that incites an emotion? It invokes an emotion. You said fear from the demons. There’s now a whole bunch of emotions rising up and if a skillful orator can channel that energy into destruction, turning into anger, that then motivates the structure. That is, I guess, the ultimate goal, one would say. That is what will allow war to continue or start. That’s probably what we’re seeing.

It was of a particular sort because you and I know of course, that inevitably there are atrocities in war. When she let the demon out of the bottle, it’s hard to control. There’s war and there’s war. If dehumanisation is playing a significant role, the rules don’t apply. If you’re fighting monsters, anything goes. There’s no honour.

From your perspective, and I suspect you’re looking at what’s going on perhaps too much through the lens that you’re familiar with, but to what extent does the general media portrayal of both sides contribute to this dehumanisation? How do you see that play out?

I’m not sure there is such a thing as the general media. Your various media sources and some of them play explicitly to certain groups of people who already have vested interests in dehumanising one side rather than the other. That’s dangerous and it’s profoundly objectionable. I’m a humanist. Taking these sorts of attitudes, not roundly condemning everyone who does terrible things and not roundly supporting those who are suffering unjustly, is awful. It’s destructive. It could spell the into us. You and I both know how this conflict could lead to something much larger.

These are people who are interested in making their own profits and feeding the flames of bigotry and ignorance. They have to be left to do that, but it’s paradoxical. When the Nazis were rising to power, one of the things that Goebbels said was, “Democracy has given us the means for its own destruction.” We have freedom of speech. By using that, we can subvert democracy itself. I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that propagandistic media presentations are subversions of democracy because democracy requires people to be informed. It’s not just being able to vote. It’s being able to understand.

VOW 103 | Dehumanisation
Dehumanisation: Propagandistic media presentations are subversions of democracy.


How poignant that Goebbels said that. It reminds me of Hitler’s quote, “What luck for leaders that men do not think.” He speaks to that very point. Coming from subject matter experts in the field as Ludacris as it is to say that. What are some of the things that you would say we ought to have our eyes open? What are some of those things that trigger alarm builds in your mind when you read and see across the whole media space, whether it’s mainstream, social media or whatever?

The weaponization of the Holocaust is a terrible thing. The Holocaust was a terrible thing, but its exploitation in this context, which is very different, is awful.

What do you mean?

There’s a lot of discourse. We’ve seen it from Netanyahu, if I’m not mistaken, comparing Hamas or maybe Palestinians generally to Nazis. We can condemn Hamas without making a ridiculous claim like that.

VOW 103 | Dehumanisation
Dehumanisation: Comparing Hamas or Palestinians to Nazis is a mistake. You can condemn them without making such a ridiculous claim.


It’s a cognitive link.

He knows what he’s doing. One kind of thing is if you hear something like that, I think you should back up. You should be prepared to push back because you should know that you’re being manipulated. Let me be very clear. I would be happy with Hamas not existing. There’s a sense in which I’m a Zionist, not a nasty Zionist. Israel exists and Israelis have a right to live. Generally speaking, nations are born in violence. We can’t single out Israel as having some unique history in that respect.

Having said that and having condemned Hamas, the position of Palestinians who are trying to get on with their life and like all human beings, want basic securities, comforts and to be treated justly is a terrible thing. I think apart from those who benefit from creating conflict and feeding the flames of violence, there are a lot of people who would be happy to live their lives together.


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