Saturday, March 05, 2011

Philosophy & Psychology of Genocide

A Philosophy of Genocide's Roots
Review of Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, by David Livingstone Smith
By David Berreby
The New York Times, March 4, 2011
"Consider, as Americans are so wont to do these days, the zombie. Once, he was a person, just like you or me, but then he changed. Now, despite his outward resemblance to a human being, he is a different thing altogether. He cannot disguise himself. He cannot change back. Another minus: He yearns to sink his zombie-plague-spreading teeth into your brain. But no cloud lacks a silver lining: He is a convenient image for people you despise -- as in the Tucson gunman Jared Loughner's 'zombie grin,' as in the 'zombie children' whom Amy Chua's 'Tiger Mother' philosophy supposedly produces, as in the 'climate zombies,' right-wingers who question the science of global warming. In 'Less Than Human,' the philosopher David Livingstone Smith explains why this sort of talk is not superficial metaphor-slinging. Dehumanization -- representing people to be lesser, non­human creatures, as when police officers label crimes against criminals as 'N.H.I.' ('No Humans Involved'), or when Muammar el-Qaddafi calls his critics 'stray dogs' -- isn't just shabby rhetoric. Dehumanization is a mind-set, as Smith writes, that 'decommissions' our 'moral inhibitions' about mistreating fellow human beings. Encased in law and custom, this psychological process has often licensed slavery, genocide and countless other cruelties. And it is, Smith writes in this stalwart attempt to tame the mystery with philosophy, a moral and cognitive problem as old as history.
He quotes Amenemhet, a pharaoh who ruled nearly 4,000 years ago, describing his conquests: 'I subdued lions, I captured crocodiles. ... I made the Asiatics do the dog walk.' Slave­holders from ancient Greece to 19th-century America spoke of their human property as livestock, Smith reminds us. George Washington wrote in a letter that both wolves and Indians were 'beasts of prey, tho' they differ in shape.' Nazis described the Jews as germs, rats and leeches, and Stalin's murderers called kulaks (affluent peasant farmers) snakes and vermin. The Tutsis during Rwanda’s genocide were referred to as cockroaches and rats, and the janjaweed of Sudan called the victims of their massacres dogs, donkeys and monkeys. From that record, Smith reasonably argues that dehumanization is rooted in human nature, not culture. He offers a rigorous philosophical theory to explain it, informed by his discipline's precision, and by certain well-founded suppositions about the mind. That makes for an interesting and unusually lucid book about an under-studied subject. It also makes for a theory that doesn't work. [...]"
[n.b. Thanks to Jo Jones for bringing this source to my attention.]

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Please be constructive in your comments. - AJ