Why Do We Dehumanize Others?

Stephen Rockwell • 27 May 2018
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One of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. was borrowed from Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister, prominent American Transcendentalist, and early abolitionist preacher.  The quote is:

The Arc of the Moral Universe bends towards justice.  

This quote is a fundamental tenet to progressive thinking in the United States.  it creates an escape for America's injustices.  Yes, there was slavery and Jim Crow, but we slowly eliminated the slave trade, then slavery itself, then Jim Crow and legal discrimination, and then we had a black President.  Whether its racial justice or the trajectory of liberation struggles amongst women and LGBTQIA, there has been progress so we can buy in to a world  where the long arc eventually bend towards justice. 

Except when it doesn't.  This maxim, in which we all live by, doesn't happen by itself. This week we heard that not only is ICE separating parents from their children.  Think about the complete denial of humanity it takes to rip a crying child from the arms of a loving parent whose only crime was crossing a border seeking a better life for that child.  Think about then separating them and detaining children in what amounts to a prison, a child who has committed no crime.   

And the problem is not just ICE officers, Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump denying the humanity of these families.  Indeed, we hear these same efforts at dehumanization in many of the conversations we have with family members and friends who are Trump supporters choosing xenophobia and racism over humanity and in many cases, their own economic self-interest. Below are recent conversations I had around immigrants and refugees with these folks.  I share only my replies as an example of how far dehumanizing others can go:

"...Beyond the clear xenophobia in this social media post, what you said is factually untrue. Immigrants are not drains to the economy, but a key part of growing the economy. Immigrants pay taxes and are net gains to the economy."

"...You clearly haven’t done your homework here, choosing xenophobia over facts. You are choosing xenophobia and racism over what’s actually true. It doesn’t say anything about me or Democrats, but it says a lot about you.  You sound uneducated and I believe you are better than such displays of xenophobia."

"...I think your legal argument doesn’t hold up. There weren’t really any immigration laws in place when most Europeans came to the Americas. There were significant illegal and immoral actions confiscating the land from Native Americans. The US has always taken in refugees fleeing economic, political, and religious persecution."

We see these forms of denying the humanity of folks on the other side of a border in places all over the world.  Just two weeks ago, Israel fired on unarmed civilians in Gaza as Ivanka Trump and Jarred Kushner opened up the US embassy in Jerusalem.  The world looked on in horror, but not all.  I still find it shocking that some of my most progressive Israeli and American Jewish friends can be so clear-minded about issues of justice in every context except that of Israel-Palestine.  Here's what I found myself saying to Israelis:

"..You are defending the murder of unarmed civilians. Have you denied the humanity of your brothers and sisters on the other side of the wall so much that you can justify the shooting of unarmed men women and children?  The civilians were protesting, not human shields for an attack. Everyone was unarmed. There have been no claims by either side that the Gazans were armed. Unarmed civilians were shot."

"...Unarmed civilians protesting, children and mothers, all qualify as innocent to me. You all are suggesting that the only way to handle the situation is through completely disproportionate use of force. No one except the most rabid right wingers and those who no longer see the humanity of Palestinians in America and Israel support such a point of view."

"...Why are Israelis embracingTrump, even though the rest of the world and most of his citizens despise Trump for so many reasons not the least of which calling Neo-Nazis good people and associating with evangelical pastors who preach hate against Muslims and Jews?

"...Talk about over the top propagandizing. No Israeli was under any immediate threat of harm. Therefore shooting live ammunition at unarmed civilians was not okay. You think it is because you have a whole narrative about what could have happened, even though Gazans have been protesting for weeks with none of that in fact happening. We haven’t even discussed the deplorable conditions of Gaza to which in part folks are protesting...the actual merits of the case. You have made it clear are you are ok killing unarmed civilians even when under no immediate threat. If that’s ok with you than you clearly have dehumanized the other side. You lose a piece of yourself and your goodness in that process. I would encourage deeper reflection."

In 2018, you have to say to otherwise well meaning people that shooting an unarmed protestor is not okay.  Trump in American and indeed the rise of right wing demagogues globally demonstrates, that progress is not inevitable.   As we see our country regress as our institutions and basic norms are attacked, we now understand that we can regress.  Indeed the arc of the universe bending towards justice rings hollow to the young woman shot by border patrol on the US border or the Palestinian young person who went to protest unjust living conditions to find themselves dead by the work of a sniper.  It seems meaningless in the face of the 1500 children that the US government has lost. 

The maxim is in fact not true.  But if I may, I would add a clause to make this most hopeful of quotes from our history be true.

The Arc of the Moral Universe Bends Towards Justice, If You Make it So.

Have we done our part to pull that arc in the direction of justice?  What can we do today, this week, and every day to make a more just world so?  Have you called out those who dehumanize others?  These aren't political arguments because denying someone else's humanity is beyond politics.  This is a moral duty to see and defend the humanity of those who are subject to people who attempt to strip their humanity from them.  Engage. Challenge. In Trump's America, we can't normalize hateful words and actions.  We have to resist going backwards.  A more just world, a more perfect union, is possible, but we must work together to make it so.