Exploring the Kyriarchy: Dehumanization
It is difficult for a person to kill a person, and the psychological effects of doing so can last for years. People don’t want to kill other people, but we do sometimes. The act of killing or harming or using a person becomes much easier when the perpetrator doesn’t see the other being as the same, or as human as he. But it doesn’t take physical violence to dehumanize a person. For example, referring to a grown woman as a ‘chick’ dehumanizes (and infantilizes) her. Racial slurs, and homophobic, transphobic, and other anti-LGBTQ slurs work to dehumanize as these words suggest that the individual is not a person, but only this one thing, not worthy of respect. The suggestion is that the person is sub-human, or not fully human.
Dehumanization occurs in several ways. We’ll look at three types: objectification, animalization, and monsterization.
Objectification is perceiving a human more as an object than a full human being. Objects are tools to be used, and don’t have inherent rights or autonomy.
The most commonly cited example of objectification is the sexual objectification of women. When men treat women as though they only have value as sexual objects, they dehumanize women. Women have been objectified in advertising in order to sell products. A common trope seen in TV and movies is that the beautiful woman is the reward for the hero, as opposed to a person who can make her own decisions. In culture this translates into the idea that “nice guys” deserve to hookup. Men expect women to have sex with them. Women aren’t treated as fully autonomous human beings, but as tools for male sexual gratification.
Sometimes women are seen as property. Gaslighting is a common form abuse in interpersonal relationships, in which the victim is lied to and lead to doubt her sanity. Gaslighting is manipulative, in that the victim doubts herself and believes her abuser. Gaslighting takes away her agency and power to make her own decisions as she cannot trust her own perceptions. Domestic violence is also an aspect of objectification, in which women are seen as property. Women who don’t meet every expectation of her abuser could be subjected to physical violence. Researchers have found that the decision to leave - to no longer to be his property - is the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship.
Objectification affects more than women. It occurs when human beings are used as tools. Nations use soldiers as tools in war to gain territory, resources, and power. In his infamous War Is a Racket, Major General Smedley Butler wrote that “for a very few this racket, like bootlegging and other underworld rackets, brings fancy profits, but the cost of operations is always transferred to the people -- who do not profit.” Often those costs are the lives lost in war. Similarly, terrorists use both suicide bombers and their victims as tools in a greater agenda toward power. Corporations use employees - especially low wage employees - as tools for profit. Sometimes humans have been used as tools for scientific research, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, or the gynecological experiments that J.Marion Sims performed on enslaved women.
Society also sees entertainers, particularly people of color, as tools for entertainment. Some of the criticism against professional sports players who take a knee during the national anthem, or otherwise protest police brutality, includes the argument that they make so much money they should just do their job and not bring politics into it. This argument treats the players as tools for entertainment when pundits or presidents say “shut up and play.”
Animalization means that one person sees another, or a group, as animals. The group is seen as less than human, and not deserving of the same status, rights, or privileges as those considered to be fully human. It is the ability to treat another person as an animal, game to be hunted, or as a pest to be eliminated.
One of the most infamous examples of animalization is the institution of American slavery. The idea that another human being could be owned and used like a farm animal made slavery possible. Frederick Douglas wrote about the dehumanization of slaves, writing that infants were separated from their mothers; were fed in troughs, being denied utensils; and sold at auction like cattle. Currently, slavery is only permitted by law as a punishment for a crime. In 2017 one sheriff in Louisiana complained about a prison release program by suggesting that the “good” prisoners needed to stay locked up because they provided free labor. Another historical example of animalization was Nazi propaganda that described Jews as an alien race. Jews were compared to rats and carriers of illness. This language effectively characterized Jews as an infestation that needed to be eradicated.
Animalization has been used to alienate and marginalize groups of people, including LGBTQ people. By comparing homosexuality to beastiality, one makes that argument that same sex behaviors are not natural. This argument can facilitate disgust toward LGBTQ people. A current example is the Trump administration policy of separating undocumented immigrant children from their parents. This action is not unlike the separation of children from their mothers during slavery.
Monsterization is perceiving or treating a person as a monster. A monster is a threat, a scary being, not a human being. There is an overlap between monsterization and animalization, but the key difference is that monsterization perceives the individual as a threat.
This idea leads to police brutality. A research study published in 2014 compared police officers’ racial bias and perceptions of humanity with their records of use of force. According to the APA, “only dehumanization and not police officers’ prejudice against blacks — conscious or not — was linked to violent encounters with black children in custody.“ The same study also examined undergraduate students’ (mostly white women) perception of the age of white, Latino, or black boys. The study found that the students perceived black boys, on average, as 4.5 years older than they were. This perception removes the culturally accepted idea that children have a presumption of innocence, but only from black boys.
In a previous essay, we looked at America’s desire for punishment over justice. Research has found that innocent black people are more likely to be convicted of murder and sexual assault than innocent whites. This is an example of how America’s inclination toward punishment - ‘lock the monsters up!’ - contributes to mass incarceration, as black men are perceived as dangerous criminals; therefore, they deserve to be punished. The media contributes to this perception when they include images of mugshots or descriptions of criminal histories, even when the black person had been a victim of police brutality.
Perceptions that black people feel less pain are a part of dehumanization. Believing that a black person is harder to hurt than other humans is a form of monsterization. Research has shown that even medical students believe this falsehood. This may result in ineffective treatment plans for black patients.
Monsterization also plays a role in shaping Americans’ perception of immigrants. Donald Trump has a record of criminalizing and dehumanizing immigrants. Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims in the US have faced hate crimes, as they have become associated with terrorism in the American mind. In this way, monsterization can lead to threats and violence.
To see others as full human beings, we have to admit that they are like us. This doesn’t mean washing away differences. People of color, women, LGBTQ individuals - we all have differences in experiences and needs. To acknowledge those differences, and meet those needs, is to treat others with humanity. Addressing our tendency to dehumanize others is a part of addressing violence and injustice in the US.