Over the weekend, NPR ran a story/review of Jonathon Littell’s book, The Kindly Ones, which they describe as “the fictional first-person memoir of a cultured German who loves Bach, cherishes great literature — and also happens to be a former Nazi exterminator.” Interestingly, the writeup on NPR’s website focuses on the sexualization of violence and draws parallels between Nazi Germany and Abu Ghraib at the exclusion of what I think is Littell’s larger point. During the broadcast (available on the same web page linked above), Littell talks about the capacity of ordinary Americans (and others) to carry out atrocious acts against other people when placed in positions of “absolute power of life and death over people that their bosses tell them are not human beings and [are told] they can do anything they want with them.” With this suggestion posed, he goes on to illustrate and support it with comparisons between Nazi Germany, the Balkan wars, and Abu Ghraib.
The larger issue, however, is one that peaked my interest. Almost two years ago, I wrote about the military’s use of desensitization as a part of military training. In concert with this sort of training, nations and militaries have often resorted to dehumanization to bolster support for their cause during times of war. If you don’t believe this, take a look at how we depicted Germans and Japanese on our own propaganda posters distributed during WWII. Talk to a veteran of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, or the Middle Eastern theater and listen to the words they use to describe the enemy. Without using the terms here, I think everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about. By distancing ourselves from our enemies and suggesting that they are somehow subhuman, it becomes easier for us to rationalize and accept killing them, an act that at a very base human level is repulsive. The atrocities of Abu Ghraib are one of the most poignant reminders that this kind of activities still take place, either as formal training or simply stemming from the individual soldier’s coping mechanisms.
This sort of dehumanization goes beyond times of war, however, and extends to most all acts of hatred and so-called ‘hate crimes’–from the cross-burning racism of the American South to genocide in various parts of Africa to the painting of swastikas on Jewish synagogues around the world to acts of harassment and brutality against homosexuals in the United States. Look and listen to how people write and speak of those against which they wage any sort of these kinds of deeds. They are presented as subhuman, unworthy, illegitimate, or (fill in the blank).
One of the very obvious yet unmentioned targets of dehumanization and its resulting atrocities are the unborn. For many years now, those in positions of real power (government, courts, etc.) or perceived power (academia, special interest groups, etc.) have repeatedly told us that the unborn are not really children in the proper sense and so there is no issue in ‘aborting’ them. This tactic is nothing more than what Littell described above. Specifically, our ‘bosses’ have been telling us–we who have the power of life and death via our democratic process–that the unborn are not human beings and we can do anything we want with them.
So what am I saying?
- Should we continue to ignore the widespread dehumanization of those different from us? No. We must be agents of change in spite of the very ‘deep ruts’ of history.
- Should we marginalize and treat with disdain those who have had abortions? No. On the contrary, we should do everything in our power to help them heal.
- Should we rally the voters to try an overturn Roe v. Wade? Perhaps surprisingly, no. As has been pointed out by Little Cog, “abortion is a moral decision…the state should keep its inept hands off of“
- Should we continue to condone desensitization/dehumanization as a means to advance our agendas, political or otherwise? No. If we cannot bring others to share our viewpoint without resorting to such despicable practices, perhaps this should be a clue that we are probably wrong to begin with.
- To social conservatives and social liberals alike, you must realize that you cannot rely on government to legislate your understanding of morality because ‘we the people’ are often as guilty of this wrong on the societal/governmental level as we are on the individual level
- To social conservatives and social liberals alike, you must realize that no one wins when you resort to these tactics to make your case, pass your legislation, or further your agenda
- To all, we must recognize the powerful effects of dehumanization as it rears its head in many different areas and in many different agendas…in order to reject it