My guest today is David Livingstone Smith, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of New England.
He has authored nine books, with his recent titles focusing on dehumanisation, race, and propaganda. His 2011 ‘Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others’ won the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf award for nonfiction. David’s most recent book ‘On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It’ was published by Oxford University Press in 2020, and his tenth book, ‘Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization’ will be published by Harvard University Press later this year.
David is an interdisciplinary scholar whose publications are cited by other philosophers and by historians, legal scholars, psychologists, and anthropologists. He has been featured in prime-time television documentaries, is often interviewed and cited in the national and international media, and was a guest at the G20 economic summit in 2012.
As many listeners will know, David is a leading thinker in this field and has influenced much of our understanding of dehumanisation. We had a wide-ranging discussion and covered topics such as:
- David’s motivation behind his research focus
- Race as a cultural construct
- The view one is ‘marinated’ in is what one perceives as ‘real.’
- Different races vs. human variation
- Race vs. Ethnicity
- Assigning values to lives and the psychological cost of it
- Overcoming the resistance to killing in war
- Racilising and Dehumanisation as a protective mechanism in war
- The cost of desensitisation to killing
- Definition of dehumanisation
- Psychological, political, and social dimensions of dehumanisation
- Why we’re all vulnerable to the process of dehumanisation
- Dehumanisation is not a choice but something that happens to us
- The power of the environment and social forces
- The need to assist soldiers ‘cleansing’ after killing on battlefields
- The need to understand why atrocities in war occur
- The ‘Essence’ of being human
- ‘Making Monsters’
- The need to face our ‘past’ to understand our ‘today.’
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David Livingstone Smith – On Dehumanisation
Before we dive into dehumanisation with David Livingston Smith, I’d like to take a moment to personally thank a few people who have either shared the last episode with Shannon E. French or who have tagged friends recommending the show. In no particular order, I’d like to thank Rob Hartley, Luke Millwood, Andrew Parsons, Nikki Coleman, Christopher Ankerson, Christian Nicholas Brown, and Alice and Nicolas from the Visualising War Podcast. This episode is another interesting one, and I would appreciate it if you could tag two friends who you think would like this show or share the episode on your social media. Let’s get on with the show.
My guest is Professor David Livingston Smith, who is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of New England. He has authored nine books. His 2011 Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others won the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf Award for nonfiction. His most recent book, On Inhumanity: Dehumanisation and How to Resist It, was published by Oxford University Press in 2020. His 10th book, Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanisation, will be published by Harvard University Press in 2021.
David has been described in the time’s literary supplement as a philosopher seeking not to interpret the world but to change it. His book, On Inhumanity, is spaced by philosopher Cornel West as a philosophically sophisticated and prophetically courageous treatment of dehumanisation, especially in regard to race. Yale University historian Timothy Snyder said, “Firm but gentle, wise and accessible.”
University of Pennsylvania law, Professor Dorothy Roberts, says, “On Inhumanity brilliantly provides a chilling warning of repeating the past and a hopeful call to create a more humane future. Science journalist Angela calls it a chilling, comprehensive, and passionate account of dehumanisation. Adding that, Smith offers a devastating reminder of the capacity of every human to treat other humans as lesser.
David is an interdisciplinary scholar whose publications are cited not only by philosophers but also by historians, legal scholars, psychologists, and anthropologists. He has been featured in primetime television documentaries. He’s often interviewed and cited in international and international media and was a guest at the G20 Economic Summit 2012.
To say that David has brought the notion of dehumanisation into our collective conscience and discourse would be a gross understatement. Google dehumanisation books and David’s name comes up first. I, for one, have certainly come across his work a lot in my studies and feel humbled to have him as a guest. David, thank you for joining me to discuss this uncomfortable but critically important subject.
Thank you for inviting me.
Before we get into the subject and set the context, when this show was born, the idea of dehumanisation and how it leads to genocide and war crimes were certainly part of the initial idea of the show. I’m humbled to have you on as a guest. Before we delve into that dark subject, we can start by exploring what motivated your exploration of dehumanisation.
I can answer that in two different ways because there are two different aspects to it. One is certainly autobiographical. I grew up in the deep South in the ‘50s and ‘60s. That was the Jim Crow era, the segregated South. I was surrounded by the most brutal and explicit racism. There was nothing subtle about it. These weren’t dog whistles. These were loudspeakers.
I grew up for a large part of my childhood in an extended family with my maternal grandparents. They were both Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. My grandmother is from Romania. My grandfather is from Belarus. They came to the United States to escape the pogroms long before the Third Reich, but in Ashkenazi Jewish families, there was always a sense of awareness of the brutality of one human being against another.
My grandmother was a self-educated woman. She had to leave school at the age of fourteen to work in a sweatshop, but she was utterly brilliant. She was particularly interested in the darker side of human beings. She was interested and well-educated in the history of the extermination of Native Americans, anti-Black racism, and antisemitism. Her influence helped me to make sense of the world I was living in. That’s a sensibility I carried forward in my life.
The other side is more academic. I eventually stumbled into philosophy and became a professor of philosophy. In 2007, one of my books came out. It was called The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War. When I was researching the penultimate chapter, I came across all this wartime dehumanising propaganda, representing enemies as vicious predators or unclean animals, representing wartime activities as hunts. I thought, “This is interesting.” I discovered that there wasn’t much literature on it. Virtually, all of it was in social psychology.
I found that literature is conceptually thin. It was a friend who said to me,” David, this has to be your next book. Everyone will have to cite you.” That’s how Less Than Human came about. When I wrote that, I was figuring things out as I went along. There has been a several-year interval. I understand a lot more now about what I was attempting to explore back then. It’s an important and urgent topic to address.
I love that with all your books, you take us on your own journey. How you are thinking is evolving, and your books. Having read two of your books, Less Than Human and Only Inhumanity, in close succession within a matter of weeks, I can see how that thinking is evolving. I haven’t seen that you are changing a lot. It’s more that you’re getting a more nuanced view. Before we touch on the books, I find it fascinating that you grew up in the Jim Crow era which, as you described, is the most overt form of racism in our modern, popular discourse. You also grew up in a family household that had deep scars from the pogroms against the Jews.
You were walking two worlds. Within the house, you experience one dimension of human suffering and the narratives that come with that. As you step outside, you witness those narratives played out in real life. How did that impact you as a child? That must have been confusing. Was that something that you wrestled with and helped shape and mould you towards the researcher and professor on this subject?
My father’s side of the family was more complex. My mother’s side of the family was fiercely anti-racist people, especially my grandmother. These two components were not entirely separate. A child entering that world cannot help but see and feel something terribly wrong. I wasn’t socialised into Southern culture. My family moved from New York City to South Florida when I was 3 or 4.
Unlike most of the kids I knew, I didn’t take this stuff for granted. I didn’t see it as normal. When you see that level of suffering and poverty, you cannot help but feel this is wrong. This is an atrocity. My grandmother’s influence went a long way toward helping me understand the wrongness of it. She confirmed the wrongness of it.
That’s hugely powerful and resonates strongly with me because, as a child growing up in Bosnia, which was before MegaSlavia was, in my memory, a functioning state, and overnight, it turned into atrocities that led to genocide. I was an ethnic Bosnian. Members of my family were killed. As a child at the age of ten, I felt I was confronted by, all of a sudden, this strange notion of, “Why does my name matter as to whether I live or die?”
When we fled Sarajevo, my dad couldn’t leave because he was a fighting-age male with a surname that would’ve seen him killed at the first checkpoint. It resonates strongly with me because there’s a tension there that you describe as a child. You were brought into an environment enculturated with racism, that to you was strange, which I find a perfect, almost nuanced segue into an important part of your book, and that is that race is a cultural construct. I’ll let you describe that. What do you mean by that? I’ll follow up with another question because I’ve had some discussions with some peers of mine where we are still wrestling with this idea. I’ll let you first describe it.
This is a standard idea among scholars who study race. There are three ways of answering the question. Is race real? The secondary question is, if it’s real, what sort of thing is it? One response to that is what philosophers call biological realism. Races are biological categories. They’re perfectly real. They’re as real as species and subspecies. It’s biology that makes them real. Hardly anyone accepts this anymore. It was taken for granted and accepted doctrine. The White supremacists and the neo-Nazis certainly are gung-ho about this, but few scholars are.
If it’s not biologically real and it’s real, what is it then? The other answer is that it’s a real invention. If you think about things that are invented, some things are real, and some things aren’t. The Zoom we’re communicating through is perfectly real. Dollars, marriage, and contracts are real, but they’re all inventions. That’s the majority position amongst people in the social sciences and the humanities who think about race. Race is socially real. Races exist, but they’re inventions like dollars.
The third position is that races are inventions, but they’re not real. They’re fiction. They’re like Bigfoot, Harry Potter, or the tooth fairy. That’s the position I favour. That’s the landscape irrespective of this fairly esoteric question, our race is real, and if they’re real, what makes them real? The more interesting fact we have to grapple with is that human beings think of them as real. Human beings racialise other human beings. That has deep consequences for human life.
That triggers another thought in me of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. It’s this idea that what we perceive as real is real. Nations, countries, and flags are only real insofar as they have been invented by a social group. It resonates with me strongly when you say that it is a cultural construct that is imagined and not real. The proof is, when you came as a child into an environment where it was perceived as real, it was something you recognise as like, “Something’s not right here.” It’s almost like it needs to be infused in your into your upbringing, environment, and social narratives that how you explain and view the world. That is culture. It is merely a habit of a social group.
All the people I interacted with, young and old, were marinated in this point of view. It seemed self evidently correct to them, but me coming from a different place, it seemed peculiar. One way to get at this is to ask, “What races are supposed to be?” Once we identify that, we can look out into the world and see if there’s anything that corresponds to that.
A viable account of what races are supposed to be can’t be too local. It can’t be restricted to how African-Americans have been and are seen by many White people. It can’t be restricted to how Bosniaks were seen in the former Yugoslavia. It can’t be restricted to how Jews were seen in the Third Reich. We can go on and on with many other examples. It’s got to be broad enough to encompass all of these things.
It works like this. The idea of race is the idea that there are a small number of fundamentally different kinds of people. There are clear divisions between these. Everyone on earth is a pure specimen of one of these kinds or a mixture of two or more of them. That’s the first component. The second component is membership is transmitted by dissent. The racial composition of your parents determines your racial composition. That is unalterable. It’s a life sentence, as it were.
Third and crucially, these human beings are arranged hierarchically. Some are intrinsically of greater value than others to use the language which has been taken off in the United States. Their lives matter more than others. If you look at race in that way, it applies as much to the Rwanda genocide, Jim Crow, the Holocaust, and any other example you could think of.
It seems that race is merely a heuristic that we install in our minds to distinguish between us and them. You rightly point this out in the book. It’s not necessarily between Black and White. The Bosniak Serb example is primary. You couldn’t tell a Bosniak and a Serb apart. That’s why it came down to the surname. God forbid, if you did lineage check, it would be a racial suicide because you’d be ultimately killing your own without a doubt because there were so much mixing. It’s such a shortcut.
One of the things that was discussed amongst the circles when I was chewing on some of these ideas with some of my peers, it seems many people still thought that race is self-evidently still a thing, which doesn’t mean that somebody is racist. It is almost some cognitive dissonance talking to you. If I’m seeing somebody as race, and some of my colleagues would be describing race, that there’s a physiological difference between somebody who’s Black and White. First, purely by the pigment in their skin. Secondly, by the density of their bone. We can find it over to differences. When you peel it all back, we all bleed red. We have the same blood running through our veins.
Someone who says that is already presupposing the categories of White and Black. Where do we get the category Black? Let’s go to the continent of Africa. It is immensely, biologically, and culturally diverse. On what grounds do we somehow draw a line around everyone with skin darker than a certain shade, say, “These are Black?” That’s a cultural and social invention. That came with the colonisation of Africa both by the Arabs and Europeans, where Black, in effect, meant enslavable.
Imagine going to West Africa 700 to 800 years ago. People would be most perplexed if you referred to them as Black. They would say, “What? No, I’m Ibo. What’s this Black business? We’re not all the same. We are different from one another.”Similarly, a Bosniak, a Russian, and an Irish person are all White. That’s a political and social line that’s drawn. It’s not a biological line.
People often confuse race with human variation. There’s plenty of human variation. Plenty of it is geographically linked. The physique of at least some groups in East Africa is different from the physique of at least some groups in West Africa, which is different. We can see the difference. That’s not race. That’s the spectrum of variation which we find in all species. Raises this notion of kinds, types, Black and White.
They change over time. I would be mixed race to the Nazis. My mother was Jewish. Looking at me, I’m 6’4” four and I have blue eyes. I had blonde hair when I had hair. I could almost have been one of Hitler’s bodyguards. I’m not quite tall enough. Why did Nazis require Jews to wear yellow stars? For many Jews, they were indistinguishable from members of the so-called master race.
We keep coming back to the point that we are a product of our environment. Whether in a physical environment or cognitive, cultural, humanly created environment, we adopt racism as a cultural habit within a social group. The environment has an impact on how we’ve shaped physiologically and skin colour. The cognitive leap here is, is there a difference between race and ethnicity? Is 1 cultural and 1 biological?
Theoretically, race isn’t biological.
We can put that as a cultural invention.
Let’s not ask that question. Let’s ask the question next door. Is race supposed to be biological and ethnicity cultural? Yes. That’s the case, but this is important. Ethnic groups readily get racialised. What starts as an ethnic group can get racialised. These people can start being treated as an alien and inferior race. It’s not a clean distinction at all. In theory, it is. In practice, it is not. Something else that should be noted here is these racial categories, lines, and concepts change historically and geographically. Non-Whites become Whites.
There’s almost a sliding scale towards dehumanisation and all of these different groups or our need to delineate between us and them. The social identity theory talks about that. We have an innate need to distinguish between us and them, but there’s a difference between ethnic groups to racial groups at the bottom of the scale of dehumanisation. Would that be accurate, in my mind, how I picture it?
There are three levels here. There are in-group and outgroup biases. That’s not necessarily toxic or dangerous. It can become dangerous. Race is hierarchical. It’s not just, “There’s us, and there’s them, and they’re different from us,” race. If you look historically at how races are born and how groups get racialised there, they’re relations of domination and conflict.
When it’s advantageous for one group of people to exploit or otherwise do harm to another group of people, racialisation is often one of the steps there. If they’re lower than us, it becomes legitimate to exploit, harm, and exterminate them, depending upon how this works. The idea of race and racism are bound up with the notion of race itself. If race is hierarchical, race has racism baked into it.
It’s the active component of race almost.
To racialise people isn’t to dehumanise them. They’re not less than human. They’re lesser humans. Dehumanisation demotes them more thoroughly and excludes them from the category of human altogether, or at least as an attempt to do so, because, from my book, it’s a little more complicated than that. When we dehumanise others, we push them below the threshold of those who count as fellow human beings, and that licenses and motivates much worse behaviour towards them.
It’s an interesting point, and we’re starting to touch on the actual idea of dehumanisation, but before that, if I can ask one question, and that’s the idea of racialising or race has within it infused this notion of hierarchy, that somehow my race, whatever that race is, is superior to the race that I’m fighting against. I’m going to bring in the war context of being a soldier and dealing with the idea of war in this show.
One of the things that I still wrestle with, and I had a profound conversation with your colleague, Shannon E French, about the point of the collateral damage or precision strikes, where we have a formula where we will allow and sign off on X amount of civilians killed by a precision munition to kill a high-value individual. Whether it’s an ISIS leader, we can accept civilian casualties. I’m still wrestling with how we are able to do that without racialising and dehumanising.
There’s a strong link between race dehumanisation and my disregard for the suffering of that race or that other over there. That, to me, is part of our collateral damage estimate. I am saying that the life of this terrorist is worth more than the life of these five civilians, but collectively, they’re all worth more than my life because I’m going to drop a bomb. I’m not going to send my soldiers in there to deal with it. There seems to be something there that I can’t quite put my finger on. I wonder if you can help make some sense of that.
This is assigning values to lives. That’s more or less a necessity in those circumstances. That doesn’t make the psychological cost of such judgments go away. There are pragmatic judgments that are made, but those pragmatic judgments coexist with flesh and blood human beings. I’m of the opinion that part of being human involves reluctance and inhibition against spilling human blood. We find evidence of this worldwide, even in highly militaristic cultures like the ancient Romans. We can’t magic that away.
One of the consequences of this is the psychological cost to soldiers, particularly those who are exposed to up close and personal killing, which is grossly underestimated often by soldiers themselves. These can be subtle things. War drives a lot of people crazy. Some have begun to acknowledge that part of that is the act of killing itself. The traumatic character of the act of killing is still grossly underestimated for obvious reasons. Who’d want to go to war?
War has always been painted in highly unrealistic terms. It is glorified, and the blood, gore, and stench are edited out of the picture. For centuries, men who went to war were thrown away as trash afterwards. It’s like a machine that eats people up. Most people have to have something that gets them through that night to comply with the necessities of combat. That’s costly to them, their families, and the culture.Men who went to war were thrown away as trash afterward. It is like a machine that eats people up. Click To Tweet
The natural question that follows from that is, is it possible to kill in war without dehumanising? I take the language or the symbols that we have or how we represent the enemy. We might not even use the language you described that Germans about the Jews being cockroaches and vermin. By saying the enemy, am I potentially progressively starting that downward scale towards dehumanising to facilitate at all the act of killing?
No, there are two related but distinct issues here. One is what it takes to get people to kill other people. Maybe I should say a little bit about the backstory of why that’s an issue. I used to get laughed at for saying these things. It’s now acknowledged a bit more. Here’s one indisputable fact about our species. We are hyper-social animals. There’s no other mammal that comes anywhere near our degree of sociality. Any social animal needs to have inhibitions against lethal or even sub-lethal violence directed against fellow community members.
In most animals, the community is the local breeding group, but our hypersociality is such that it extends way beyond local groups. When we cast our eyes on another member of our species, in my view, we cannot help but see humans. It’s an immediate response. Looking into a pair of eyes and, famously, killing someone while looking into their eyes is one of the most traumatic experiences. That’ve been drives people crazy. It haunts them for a lifetime.
We’re also smart and able to think instrumentally. We can think, “Wouldn’t it be great for those people living over on the other side of the hill if we could steal their stuff, enslave them, create room for ourselves, and wipe them out entirely?” We can make that call. We often do. Your collateral damage calculation is rather like that. If you look at it as I’ve described it, we’re between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, there are these deep inhibitions that are part of our legacy as social primates. On the other hand, we can recognise the advantages of doing violence against others.
In our endless creativity, we, human beings, have worked out various ways of getting around this problem of selectively disinhibiting lethal violence. Dehumanisation is one way. There are other ways, the use of intoxicants like alcohol. I’m reading a great book called Drunk on Genocide. It is about the use of alcohol during the Third Reich.
Hallucinogens, cannabis, and all sorts of concoctions are used and have been used to disinhibit aggression and ritual practices, which are still used, mind-altering rituals as preparation for going into battle, and certain religious ideologies. Dehumanisation is one of these. What do these all have in common? They create distance. That’s the crucial thing. They create psychological distance as long as the development of long-range weapons creates physical distance. Both shield the perpetrator from the consequences of their action.
Variation is the rule in psychology and biology. There are always people that are different, but for most people, killing in combat requires the creation of distance. The creation of distance is not yet dehumanisation. Dehumanisation is a particularly dangerous and toxic way of creating distance. Dehumanisation happens in war when the enemy is racialised. Look at World War II, Allied atrocities against the Japanese versus the Germans, and vice versa. The strapping blond farm boys from Iowa saw Germans as like them, and likewise, they’re Germans. The Japanese were racialised. The Japanese racialised Americans and Australians. It is much more vicious.Dehumanisation is a particularly dangerous and a toxic way of creating distance. Dehumanisation happens in a war when the enemy is racialised. Click To Tweet
That would suggest that dehumanisation is not a necessary component of war, but it’s one of the ways. If it’s a protective mechanism, It seems to me that it’s a feature as well as a bug. It’s a feature in the sense that it creates the furthest possible distance between you and those that you’re racialising. Therefore, it affords you the best protection, perhaps, which is a crazy thing to say, but I wonder if that’s potentially true.
That is true. Shannon makes a distinction between dehumanisation in the sense that I use the term and dehumanisation in the sense of seeing others as objects as things. She thinks that the latter is important in warfare. You can see this in the language of warfare. Others are targets. Whereas seeing them as subhuman creatures and monsters is dangerous in warfare. Both are protective of the perpetrator of the killing. It comes home to roost.
I’m reading Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam, which speaks to a lot of these points. It is about the pain and anguish. The cost one pays and the technologies we’ve used to enable killing. Technologies being the hallucinogenics. He speaks about the Greeks and the wine as a big component of all of this. We can now delve into dehumanisation itself. You’ve already alluded to it, but maybe I can ask you to first define dehumanisation as you mean for us to understand it.
The word dehumanisation means lots of different things to lots of different people. It entered the English language around 1819. It’s not like there’s a correct and an incorrect definition. Anyone talking about it needs to specify what they mean. I’m fond of making distinctions, particularly about important topics, because unless we make relevant distinctions, we don’t stand a chance of intervening properly in some of these dangerous and awful things.
What I mean by dehumanisation is the attitude of conceiving others as less than human creatures. Notice I didn’t say as animals. That’s part of the picture, but it doesn’t stay. That’s how dehumanisation starts, but that’s not how it stays. People are transformed into monstrous, demonic beings. That’s one reason why dehumanisation is dangerous.
That leads me to the next point. This is where you’re talking about the psychological dimension of dehumanisation. You also quite eloquently explained that it does have a social and political dimension as well, which is where it becomes which is how it becomes active and can turn into genocide or gross abuses of human rights.
This is something I didn’t understand when I wrote Less Than Human, and I understand now. Dehumanisation doesn’t arise spontaneously in the human mind. It’s not like, out of nowhere, people think of other people as non-human or subhuman. Our psychology works against that. Our exquisite sensitivity as social primates to others inclines us to see them as fellow human beings.
I see dehumanisation as a psychological response to political forces. If you look at all the examples of dehumanisation that can be studied, they begin with ideology and propaganda. It’s not spontaneous. People with an investment in getting us to do terrible things to other people give us a picture of those other people as less than human. In doing that skillfully, it exploits certain psychological vulnerabilities that we have that enable us to readily fall into that way of thinking. We are all vulnerable to this. I can’t emphasise this enough.
Skilful propagandists are hard to resist, particularly when their target audience already feels helpless and vulnerable. The propagandist gins this up. We are all suckers for someone promising salvation when we feel helpless. That’s a fact of the human condition. Part of the pitch is often these demonic others. You could take Hitler and Goebbels.Skilful propagandists are hard to resist, particularly when their target audience already feels helpless and vulnerable. Click To Tweet
I’m influenced by a paper that was written in 1941. A psychoanalyst named Roger Money-Kyrle called the Psychology of Propaganda. He was an interesting person. I’ll resist talking about his life here. He was invited by a friend, an Australian diplomat, to visit Germany in 1932. Hitler came to power in 1933. There were all these elections going on. Hitler is flying from one town to another, making these stump speeches.
He attends a couple of these. He’s fascinated by this. He describes his experiences in this 1941 paper. He says, “Here’s what I saw Hitler and Goebbels doing. First, they get their audience to feel depressed, hopeless, and bleak. ‘We were humiliated by the treaty on their side and the conclusion of World War I. The great destiny of our people is now in the dust.’”
“Once he works the audience into what Money-Kyrle calls an orgy of self-pity, he changes his tune and says, ‘It wasn’t your fault. It was the Jews and the Communists.’” They’re in a paranoid state. That’s usually where the dehumanising pitch comes in and the magical solution. It was like, “I’ll make Germany great again. Only I can save us.” If you’ve swallowed the first two, you’re a sucker for the third one. He generalised this to authoritarian propaganda, per se. There’s a great deal of truth in that.
This is going to be clear in my next book. There are two elements necessary. One is a preexisting ideology. In Nazi Germany, there were deep anti-Semitic beliefs going back at least to the 13th century. That’s a background, and that stuff can remain latent. In the 20th century, the social ecology changed. There’s economic hardship. There is the disaster of World War I. There are these far-right groups responding to these conditions.
There are political chaos and battles between the communists and the Freikorps. You have an environment in which someone like Adolf Hitler can spark. It’s like a match to dry kindling. That’s the crucial combination. That’s what we saw in Rwanda with the 1994 genocide. That’s what we saw in Bosnia, deep history baked in ideology and a spark.
It’s amazing how much the environment will facilitate those conditions. Whether created or real, it’s the belief and perception of the recipient. It speaks so much to this point that I often talk about it. We have this idea that we are hugely autonomous, independent, and irrational thinkers who feel that “I know the difference.” It is not true.
I love how you finished this book. I don’t want to come to an end on it at all, but you mentioned it already that we are all susceptible to it. It’s such a real point. The biggest takeaway of your book is, “Wake up.” I’m not sure if there was a Freudian slip. We have seen it in the American past about, “Make America great again.”
It wasn’t. It was quite deliberate. As soon as Donald Trump threw his hat in the ring and made his first speech, it followed precisely the pattern I described to you. My well-meaning Liberal friends patted me on the head. They were like, “He’s a clown.” I was like, “He’s not a clown.” There’s this background there. Trump is no longer president. That doesn’t make it go away, as we saw on January 6th, 2021.
It’s simmering below the surface. Whether this is our in-group or out-group need, we saw it in Australia. We are a multicultural nation like the US. It wasn’t racialised initially, but it grew from it. During COVID, we started with the toilet paper crisis. There were people having fights and physical altercations in supermarkets over toilet paper.
We started the increase of assaults towards Asians and Trump’s kung flu, which most people will laugh at. They were like, “He’s joking.”You’re missing the point.” It’s “funny” if taken in isolation as a single, but it’s still part of the same game of othering someone. That’s the danger. When you say, “It’s not over with Trump in the US,” I sense there’s more to that statement. Do you see the narrative is still powerful? COVID has become racialised or politicised.
A large percentage of the population still regards the last election as illegitimate. The crazy QAnon conspiracy theories, which are new additions to the medieval anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, are running rampant, not just in the United States and Europe too. There are two things going on. One is the United States, like many colonial nations. Nations generally are born in violence. The United States has never had to own up to it. When you lose, you have to own up. Germany had to own up. They lost. We were never brought to our knees.
There is this denial of the real horrible atrocities that are baked into our history that are incompatible with American exceptionalism, the cherished delusion that many people hold dear. They feel it’s slipping away from them. They fear that the American empire is going down the drain. The Chinese empire is rising. All empires see their days. That perfect storm for this thing is still there. It’s still in the background. It’s still dangerous. It’s not going away anytime soon. We need to recognise that.
This reminds me of a point you make in the book that dehumanisation, as you described, doesn’t include moral disengagement, but rather, it is viewed, presented, and exceptionally moralistic, which is the right thing to do. Stand up for your people and country, and fight for your survival.
This is important. The psychologists who talk about moral disengagement without qualifications are misleading. You can take any genocide. The genocide heirs and the perpetrators see themselves as saving the world from evil. They’re doing right. In their eyes, they have a moral obligation to do this. In Heinrich Himmler’s famous Poznan speech to SS officers, he said, “It takes a lot of moral strength to see a thousand corpses lined up to do your duty in the face of the natural human weakness of finding this repugnant.” That’s classic.
We have to understand that the people who engage in these actions are not cackling villains. We also have to understand they’re not monsters. To dehumanise the dehumanisers is a terrible mistake. It’s a form of distancing. What we need to do is look into that mirror that they hold up to us about what is possible for us. Everyone and their uncle says, “If I lived in the Jim Crow South in 1890, I wouldn’t have been a spectator in a mass lynching.”
It’s easy to be moral heroes in our fantasies. Dehumanisation isn’t something that’s a choice. Imagining that it’s something that’s within our conscious control is to greatly underestimate its danger. I love that passage. It speaks to the environment, and you used the word marinate. I love that because that speaks to this saturation of the environment within us. Therefore, dehumanisation ceases to be a choice. I can ask you to talk about that a little bit more because it might not necessarily be as obvious and evident by what you mean by dehumanisation is not a choice.
We should look at dehumanisation as something that happens to us. There are responses that we have to certain kinds of circumstances. They overtake us by analogy. On the Grand Canyon, there’s a platform that you can walk out over. It’s a transparent platform. You look down, and it’s a sheer drop. Almost everyone cannot help but get weak in the knees and reach for the rail. You wouldn’t have stepped on the damn thing if you thought there was the slightest chance of falling. You know that. These responses happen to you. You can’t turn them off. You can’t be like, “I choose not to be scared here.” That’s unrealistic.
This is true of many aspects of ourselves. We take these things for granted, but it’s not like we are autonomous beings separate from the world around us. We are deeply entangled with the world around us, and in particular, the social forces that make us who we are. When I went to high school, there were White boys who would brag about hunting for Black kids with their pellet guns on weekends for fun. They thought it was perfectly okay.
Why did they think it was perfectly okay? That was the whole environment in which they were formed. The environment makes, sustains, and discourages other things. It’s the peak of hubris. It’s a Victorian fantasy that we are masters of our souls. We’re not. That’s why social and political action is vitally important for constraining some of our worst tendons.
It echoes well a lot of what I discussed with Shannon. We discussed this point in relation to soldiers committing acts of war crimes and atrocities. We talked about the effects of constant deployment, the gradual desensitisation to combat and human suffering, and we know through research that fatigue reduces our ability to make ethical decisions.
Losing someone close to you does the same. Therefore, we ought not to be surprised when we put our men and women in uniform into these extraordinary situations without the means to come back down to have a respite from their deployment. We send them back in. We can’t be surprised that they will cross that line.
First of all, the whole experience is grossly underestimated. I find it infuriating when they said, “This combat veteran has PTSD,” like it’s a flu. This is a much more serious thing. The Nazis took it more seriously. They called it a burdening of the soul. They understood that the men who committed these mass killings in the East, tens of thousands of Jews were shot in the back of the head. It wrecked them. The project of using gas chambers was in the service of what Himmler called humane killing. Humane to the perpetrator. He was right.
There’s that basic contradictory situation that any combatant is placed in. It’s different if you have a personal gripe. The motivation isn’t there. The combatant is displaced in the situation. There are the natural inhibitions against killing, the injunction to kill, and the expectation to kill. How do you deal with that? You find some way of dealing with it. It extracts a price. When it’s repeated over and over, people get worn down, the spiritual burden of war is vast, and we’re stupid about it. We think, “People can come in and somehow miraculously adjust to civilian life.” In many other cultures, this is not the case.
I go into this in great detail in my next book. One of the sources of evidence that killings are a problem is the fact that in cultures worldwide, returning soldiers are felt to be contaminated by the act of killing, even in the Christian Middle Ages. Bernard Verkamp has a whole book about this. The knights are coming back from the Crusades. If they had killed, they had to undergo processes of purification. They had to do penance because the stain of blood was on their soul. Their culture thought that you contract an illness when you kill and special treatment has to be done. This is far wiser than this, “You’re a hero,” stuff that we get in the culture.
Standing ovations, and celebrating for standing up for what is right. It was oftentimes pour salt to the wound. In an episode, I spoke to a young British soldier who was tried for war crimes in Iraq. He was one of the first ones in Basra in 2003. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place. It was a decision that haunts him.
They were doing a wedding of people as a way to disincentivise looting. Everybody is walking the street wet. There’s a shame in the cultural context that everybody knows you were trying to loot. They were dropping off some looters by a river. One of them couldn’t swim but they had to withdraw and pull back. The fifteen-year-old boy died. He was tried and cleared for the war crimes but the profound trauma that he carries from having been put into this situation through no will of his own, and being unprepared for it, but to have to deal with this.
When the war crimes investigation started, he was ostracised. The Army washed their hands off him. He was on his own. That’s how he describes it. Therefore, he didn’t have anyone to share this experience with. He suffered exceptional trauma. He try to commit suicide four times. It is a moving story about this lack of connection to the people that sent him to do this job and through no fault of his own. He was unlucky that his state of mind and thinking interplayed with that environment there and then, at that point in time, and his path crossed the path of that unfortunate fifteen-year-old Iraqi boy who died.
It’s something we don’t give enough credit for. We are experiencing this in Australia. I have to be careful not to judge this, but some of our Special Forces are under allegation of war crimes at the moment. It seems to me an easy thing to say the few bad apples or to dehumanise the dehumanisers or alleged dehumanisers.
It feels to me like we’re washing our hands. We may continue enjoying our bliss in this wonderful nation of ours, having ticked the conscience box that we have done. We have upheld our civility and our morality by prosecuting these few bad apples. It was much bigger than that when we created this. This is not to say that we shouldn’t prosecute atrocities. It’s far from that. That’s not what I’m saying. Nor do I condone crimes of any nature but we need to look at this as an ecosystem that’s living and breathing and facilitates it.
This should be self-evident that the bad apples’ argument is almost always wrong for one reason or another. It is an ecosystem. We have to understand the burden of the soul to use that Nazi expression. We have to ask questions. How did this happen? We have to sincerely ask that. Not simply, “You’re bad.” That’s not an explanation of anything. How did it happen? What are the forces at play? Even for people who did terrible things, I believe a compassionate attitude is important. That does not mean they should not be prosecuted. I shouldn’t have to say that.Compassionate attitude should always be at play even towards people who did terrible things. But that does not mean they should not be prosecuted. Click To Tweet
For somebody of my ethnic background, I’ve made it clear that I can empathise with the Serbs who have been exterminated, which is never to say that I justify, support, or endorse it in any way. We have to do that to rationalise what’s happened and explain it so that we don’t become the victims. We hear this often, particularly from our most hardened warriors, “You have to fight evil with evil.” Shannon calls it the race to the bottom which is a great way to think of it.
It’s a scary realisation and one that’s uncomfortable to think that we are all capable of this. It was Stanley Milgram’s experiment, which has had some methodological questions asked, but it’s been repeated sufficiently to stand firm. This was post-Nuremberg trials about who will apply the electricity up to the lethal levels. It was the late ‘60s and ‘70s. It should have taken hold in our discourse more broadly in our politics, and it’s not.
I don’t think the lessons of Milgram’s experiment have been digested properly. These people were not like, “Turn the electricity up.” They were struggling with themselves. They were sweating. They obeyed even though it was against the grain of their attitude. It’s not evil and evil. Genocide ideas are trying to save the world. God’s always on our side in war, whoever we are.
I want to ask some questions as we head towards our close on the next book coming up because this is such a big topic. We’ve covered quite a lot, but is there something you think we haven’t covered? The idea of the essence is an important one. You explain that well and in-depth in both of your books in Less Than Human to more depth than On Inhumanity. It’s worth to touch on the human essence, which then is a bridge towards this notion of dehumanisation.
Let me try and be concise. It’s an important element of the psychology of dehumanisation. Psychologists from the late 1980s have been investigating something that they call psychological essentialism. That is a tendency of human beings to divide the world of living things into two kinds. Racial thinking is part of it. What makes any being a member of one of these categories is something deep inside of them. That’s called the essence. It’s important to understand this is a way people tend to think. There’s no scientific basis. It’s radically incompatible with anything that science tells us.
Is it cultural?
It is cultural. I don’t know if it’s purely cultural. It may be a psychological disposition that comes to us easily for whatever reason. No one knows the answer to this question. All we do know is it is pervasive. This is an important element of my work because it addresses a problem. Here’s the problem. Let’s say you’re a committed Nazi. You are an SS officer, and I’m a Jewish man. You’re looking at me. There’s nothing different about me from anyone that you would regard as a bonafide human being. I wear clothes, I speak your language, I put up an umbrella when it rains, I love my kids, and I eat stuff that you eat. How can you look at me and think of me as, to use the German term, Untermensch, subhuman?
The weirdness of that has led some people to say, “Dehumanisation couldn’t be real.” The body of psychological research helps us with that. What’s going on is you’re experiencing me as outwardly human. It is like a human appearing being, but inwardly lacking a human essence, where it matters to me being something else. I’m a counterfeit human being to you. Appearances are deceptive.
This brings us back to race. Why did the Nazis make Jews wear yellow stars? It is because they couldn’t look at them, and tell them apart from anyone else. The star is a badge of the racial essence. Taking it further, the subhuman essence. That’s crucial. When we dehumanise others, we don’t deny that they appear human. We deny that they are inside humans and claims about evil typically come into this.
You said, “Is there anything I haven’t said?” Let me add one more piece to the puzzle. I said right at the beginning of this conversation, which I enjoyed much, to dehumanise people as not simply to think of them as subhuman animals. I use the term subhuman creatures, and here’s why. Dehumanisation begins by regarding others as less than human animals, either traditionally unclean animals. That is going to vary from culture to culture. In the Middle East, a dog is a traditionally unclean animal. In the States, it’s a man’s best friend. Rats, lice, or dangerous bloodthirsty predators.
In combat, there’s a third one which the other is seen as a game animal. Someone that is to be shot for sport. That’s how it starts. We have some clever propagandists that want us to go out and kill. They say, “They are not human beings. We take this on their authority.” That makes it permissible to do things to them that we don’t do to human beings. We kill non-human animals all the time. We swap mosquitoes and slaughter sheets.
It becomes permissible, but it also becomes obligatory. People aren’t dehumanised as cute puppies and butterflies. They are creatures that need to be killed. They’re a threat. There is danger. It’s motivating, but it doesn’t stop there because we’re hyper-social creatures. When we look into the face of another person, we can’t help seeing humans and responding to them as human beings. What happens when people are placed in this intensely contradictory situation is, on one hand, they see the other as a subhuman animal. On the other hand, they see them as human beings. The fusion of these two states produces a disturbing cocktail. It turns the other into a monster and demonic being.
It is to resolve that cognitive dissonance because you have to resolve it.
They are all human and all subhuman together. They’re monsters and demons part of the tragedy of that. If we take it out of the warfare situation, let’s put it in the genocidal situation. I don’t think there’s such a tidy distinction between warfare and genocide. It’s often the most vulnerable members of a population who are imagined to be the most formidable, powerful, and dangerous because that’s what monsters are. African-Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War are vulnerable populations. Black men were represented as monstrous beasts, ravenous, killing, and raping Jews in the 1930s in Germany. We find this again.
The trains are coming up and rapists and murderers. We saw the same in Europe in 2015. I don’t know where we go from here as a civilisation because it doesn’t seem to be something we’re willing to contend with. It seems to me that we are falling for the same mistakes time and time again.
It’s all of recorded history.
I’m not sure if you would describe yourself as an optimist or a pessimist.
I take the line from Cornel West, “I’m hopeful, but not optimistic.” If I weren’t hopeful, I wouldn’t write these books. It doesn’t have to be this way, but I don’t have the illusion that I’m going to change anything much by writing these books. We got to wake up to this because we’ve got catastrophic climate change over the horizon. There’s a forecast now of collapse by 2040.
There are going to be refugee problems the world has never seen. It will be a perfect storm for the worst atrocities that human beings can commit. It’s possible. This is why the discourse of evil is stupid. If you want to dismantle something and take it apart, you need to understand how it works. Calling it evil does not contribute a shred to understanding. We need to pop the hood, look under the bonnet, see how the parts are interacting, and do something about it based on that knowledge.If you want to dismantle an idea, you must understand how it works. Calling it evil does not contribute a shred to understanding. Click To Tweet
I make various suggestions in the final chapter of the book. The problem is there are always people in positions of power who have an investment in us marching out to harm others. That’s the problem. The dehumanising stories are the best stories. People say counterstories. Fear works way better than kindness and compassion when you’re trying to motivate people.
It’s a great motivator. Therefore, interests override values. An ongoing debate about war or even geopolitics is interest versus values. Maybe we can start bringing it to a close. In the last chapter, you talk about some of the ways we can tackle this. We can take a minute to give us some of your most critical ways that we should be trying. What are some of the signs that we are falling victim ourselves to some of these?
All the time, it’s always a tenuous balance. Some of the things that keep us somewhat safe are robust social institutions, freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, and freedom of the press. All of these can be exploited by people who want us to do bad things. Nazis were always complaining, their freedom of speech was being interfered with. They had posters of Hitler with a piece of tape over his mouth. He was being silenced by the communists but these are all important things.
We also have to know ourselves. We have to know that we have this disposition to respond to political forces in these destructive ways. There’s no vaccine. It’s worse than COVID. What’s required is knowledge and vigilance. This should be part of everyone’s education. Third, a proper understanding of history, not the garbage that most people are taught in whatever nation they belong to. The flattering picture. Hang out your dirty laundry. Nations are born in violence. It doesn’t mean you’re uniquely bad. That’s humbling. If we’ve done it, we can do it again. Maybe we’re doing it now. Maybe we’re doing it to prisoners and racial minorities.
Those are the thing I discussed in the final chapter of On Inhumanity. There’s another one that I don’t discuss there, which is the most important of all. Propagandas, exploits, and feelings of vulnerability. This is an idea I get from Freud. In his theory of religion, part of being human is to recognise helplessness in the forces of nature, human aggression, cruelty, and injustice. The response to that feeling of helplessness is to seek salvation. Religion offers us the illusion of salvation.
Authoritarian politics and even non Authoritarian politics appeals to the same things. It’s a lot easier to get people to feel vulnerable and helpless if they are objectively vulnerable and helpless in ways that are not necessary. If they don’t have enough to eat, don’t have healthcare, or they’re threatened by disease. Give people enough to eat. Give them basic securities. That’s our best shot at protecting them. Nothing solves the problem, but it makes people a little less likely to treat the authoritarian politician as some messiah that’s going to deliver salvation to them.Giving people food to eat and basic security doesn't solve a war. But it makes them less likely to treat an authoritarian politician as a messiah who will deliver salvation to them. Click To Tweet
That’s going to prevent this inevitable decline of my people, my life, and my lifestyle. What I have now is at risk. That is profound and hugely important. I can think of examples. With your beloved president, Mr Trump, I shouldn’t even laugh at him because that makes it comical. I shouldn’t do that. It’s not comical. It’s real. It’s easy to laugh him off as a joker, which is anything because he has ticked all of these boxes that you’re talking about.
He’s still at it too.
With social media, the ability of technology to touch us, the funny for the information and the misinformation and disinformation to find us is more prevalent. We’ve taken propaganda to scale through information reaching out to us and finding us as opposed to us needing to go and find information, and interact with it. My last question is to talk about the next book, which is Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanisation. You’ve touched on a few key points about it. What’s this book about? What motivated this book? It’s still part of that same evolution of your thinking on the subject.
This book began before I began the last book. On Inhumanity is written for a broad audience. I wanted to write a book free of jargon and text references as much as possible. There’s a further reading section in the back. These are short chapters. You could pick and read it for 45 minutes and put it down. Each chapter is self-contained.
The Making Monsters covers a lot of the same territory, broadly conceived, but in much greater depth about everything addressed in On Inhumanity. It includes some other topics. For instance, to name one, I have an extended case study of anti-Semitic beliefs from the Middle Ages to the present, focusing on the persistence of specific ideas and discussing this in the context of what I call the apparatuses of reproduction. You’re talking about the internet.
In order to become ideologies, they have to be copied and reproduced to proliferate. In the Middle Ages, this was hard to do. Most people were illiterate. They got their images of Jews from works of art decorating churches and passion plays around Easter time. You had to come into town to see these things. It was slow and clumsy. In the 17th century, and even more so in the 18th century, when literacy became more widespread in Europe, the proliferation of anti-Semitic literature became much more. It happened quicker. It was bigger and more widespread. We get to the early 20th century. Part of the Nazi genius was radio.
Joseph Goebbels talks about this in On Inhumanity but I go into a lot greater depth in Making Monsters. He made an inexpensive radio receiver available to ordinary Germans. The propaganda could be piped and mixed with entertainment. It’s by an order of magnitude. Anything that distributes information can distribute misinformation. Now we have the internet. The internet is a wonderful thing, but it’s a correspondingly dangerous thing. All of these books are dangerous. Radio and the internet are dangerous.Anything that distributes information can also distribute misinformation. Click To Tweet
That’s important. I reflect on when I worked in Iraq. Facebook is the means of communication. This is a couple of years ago. I’m sure it’s still the case. When you go and purchase a phone and you purchase it in a certain company, you get free Facebook. You don’t have to spend any money because it’s prepaid-type stuff. Especially given what we know of Facebook since then, its power, the algorithms, and the stovepiping.
That lends itself powerfully to it, because you are enabling. Like Goebbels gave the transistors, you are giving a phone with Facebook, and that becomes your world. In Iraq, everything is done through Facebook. All emotions that we experience as humans are shared through Facebook. News, joy, happiness, sadness, and fear are all through Facebook. There is some change now to try and change that, but that will take some time.
The real danger is people migrating to other platforms.
David, I am truly humbled to have spoken to you and for you to have given me so much of your time. This is such an important topic. I look forward to reading your next book. When did you say it’s coming out?
It is October 12th, 2021 in the United States. In Great Britain and Australia, it’s October 29th, 2021.
I look forward to reading it. I also hope to touch base in the future. This is a wonderful conversation.
Thank you again for inviting me, and I’m humbled that you’re humbled. Thank you for your time.
- David Livingston Smith
- Shannon E. French – Past Episode
- Visualising War Podcast
- Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others
- 2012 Anisfield-Wolf Award
- On Inhumanity: Dehumanisation and How to Resist It
- Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanisation
- The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War
- Imagined Communities
- Drunk on Genocide
- Achilles in Vietnam
- Will Yates and Joe McCleary – On Trial for War Crimes: A Soldier’s Experience episode