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What is Dehumanization?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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During times of conflict or war, conventional moral and ethical codes concerning the treatment of others are often challenged. Political leaders often seek out methods to override their citizens' objections in order to gain support for their cause. One such method of public manipulation is called dehumanization, which is the deliberate removal of sympathetic human traits when referring to members of an opposing ideology, race, political party or other source of conflict. Adolf Hitler's references to Jews as "vermin" or "rats" is one example of this in action.

Convincing an average citizen to commit a violent act or to murder a fellow human being is extremely difficult. Most people's moral code tells them that such acts are immoral and indefensible. Through the skillful use of dehumanization, however, leaders throughout history have succeeded in doing just that. Once the enemy has been stripped of humanity and becomes an object worthy of punishment, the idea of mistreating or even destroying this threat becomes morally justifiable.

Dehumanization often begins with the removal of personal identification. A convicted criminal is issued a prison identification number, for example, which allows the guards and other authorities to maintain an impersonal relationship with inmates. This practice is also used by military prisons to maintain a feeling of superiority over captured enemy combatants. Viewing the enemy as a human being may compromise a soldier's ability to interrogate him or her later.

These methods can also be seen in other controversial areas. Those who support the rights of women to seek abortions, for example, rarely use the words baby or child in their literature. Using more clinical terms, such as fetus, could be seen as an effort to dehumanize an important element of the issue. Conversely, pro-life supporters may use such methods to reduce the staff members of a health clinic to uncaring baby killers.

Another example occurs during media coverage of wars or conflicts. The enemy forces are often described as extremists, rebels, or terrorists, while friendly forces are described as troops or freedom fighters. This allows the public to override their natural aversions to conflict by perceiving their enemies as inhuman. Such tactics also tap into a person's innate prejudices, such as by creating the character of the "Muslim extremist" or the "Jewish threat." It is far easier to justify the annihilation of a caricature than an actual race or religion.

Dehumanization is an effective propaganda tool when used skillfully. In the case of capital punishment, for instance, details of the convicted prisoner's crime are often given more media attention than details of his or her personal life before the act. As long as the public continues to view the inmate as an inhuman monster, it is relatively easy to permit the execution to occur. This tool succeeds when average people with average morals and ethical principles no longer see the person behind the label.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon989081 — On Feb 18, 2015

I totally agree. Nowadays people can just treat you any way they want, forgetting we're all humans. They use humiliation as a justification, grouping people according to race and gender. It's sad because it still happens. We don't have to go back to the past.

By anon327330 — On Mar 27, 2013

If times are difficult, finding a scapegoat, or someone to blame, tends to happen. The government, through the media will attempt to redirect anger via propaganda to a number of things to deflect blame. But I believe it is the rage that fuels the hysteria and then the maniacal response, a hatred and need for a witch hunt. Dark era.

But poor leadership with bad policies (corruption), crop failure and hunger, disease, weather-related destruction of infrastructure/crop could begin first, setting the stage for riots as people go crazy when there is not enough to eat. It gives rise to a panicked feeling, very urgent and aware of every second (I need food, must find food).

By anon298688 — On Oct 21, 2012

We need help with dehumanization connected to non us citizens being suspected of terrorism. They should get the same due process rights as citizens.

By anon244973 — On Feb 03, 2012

The tribal wars in the world, mostly in Africa, have been caused by ethnocentrism.

By TrogJoe19 — On Jan 11, 2011

We should never lose our historical regret for dehumanizing atrocities of the past such as slavery and the holocaust. The fact that these were both caused by a sense of racial superiority is also a necessary point that should be driven home. Anyone who harbors a sense that they are a member of some distinct race which is somehow better than any other group should be questioned and exposed for their absurdity.

By BostonIrish — On Jan 09, 2011

The crucifix is a dehumanization of criminals which was reserved for the worst enemies of society in the Roman empire. The cosmic irony of the story of Christ is that Jesus was not only brought down from his Godlike state, but was made less than human by being tortured and crucified.

By arod2b42 — On Jan 09, 2011

Dehumanization can be based on racism or religious fervor. During the Crusades, Christians were taught to treat their enemies as subhuman. Settlers in the New World even saw members of a different sect of Christian faith as of the devil. People will find numerous methods of escaping from guilt and justifying the slaughter of their enemies.

By BigBloom — On Jan 07, 2011

I would disagree that it is historically difficult for people to see other people as animals. The Japanese did it in the rape of Nanking, which is why they felt no qualms about raping and murdering a massive number of Chinese. Medieval Europe witnessed innumerable massacres in which people saw other people as subhuman. From an historical perspective, it seems implausible to state that it is difficult for people to treat each other this way. Luckily, our moral code has advanced to the point where we could say it would be difficult for most people to do so, but this was not always the case, nor is it a given.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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