The Holocaust, Rwanda genocide and slavery occurred, in part, because of dehumanization. Those events aren’t the only instances.
David Livingstone Smith, the keynote speaker at Pacific Lutheran University’s symposium “Legacies of the Shoah,” said dehumanization happens every day. “Every time we think of people as monsters, we’re dehumanizing,” he said. “Monsters don’t exist.”
Smith said that being classified as human is not the same as appearing human, because “the essence of a person is not reflected in appearance.” He compared this to the difference between gold and fool’s gold–although both look like gold, one is not what it seems.
During the question and answer period of his presentation, Smith responded to inquiries about how religion intersects with issues of dehumanization and the difference between dehumanization and sexual objectification. Smith clarified that when we objectify, we see people as tools or things stripped of humanity. When we dehumanize, we see them as subhuman, an idea of them that removes their essence.
Smith also answered questions about how people differentiate animals, deeming some of them as tools or food and others as personified kin. “It [How we view them] depends on what suits us,” Smith said. Smith said that to be human means to be of a similar kind. “My pet is of my kind,” Smith said.
As audience members continued to raise their hands, Smith was asked how many more questions he was able to answer. “Oh, we could go on for weeks,” he said. “It [Dehumanization] comes easy. That’s the problem.”
Smith is the author of “Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others,” which received the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf book award for non-fiction. After his presentation, Smith autographed copies for the crowd gathered in PLU’s Chris Knutsen Hall.
“Less than Human” sells for $14.95 on Amazon.com. David Livingstone Smith can be found on Twitter, @Porcuspine.