Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Ease of Dehumanizing Strangers

A couple weeks ago, Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology wrote an interesting post titled Tales of the Demonic. In it, he discusses how the bureaucratic structures of institutions can dehumanize human interactions.

As an example, he shares a story where a worker from the electric company comes to shut off his electricity due to non-payment. Beck, knowing that he has been paying his bill, becomes understandably upset. Obviously, the electric company has made an error. However, despite the fact that this mistake is not the fault of the worker in his backyard, and that the worker is merely doing his job, Beck directs his anger at him. Instead of seeing the worker as another human being, he sees him solely as the agent of the faceless electric company.

All of us have been in a similar situation at one time or another. Just last week, I became quite frustrated while speaking to a representative of my cell phone company. I had a $40 charge on my bill I knew was wrong and the representative did not seem to know how to assist me. I was rather impatient with him, which I now regret. Although he was not the one who messed-up my bill, just a guy working in the call center, I focused my anger on him, just as Beck did with the electric company worker.

Beck points out:
Consider the stories above. In each of the cases human beings are not interacting directly. We are, rather, interacting through the power structures of the world. I don't know the name of the man in my backyard about to turn off my electricity. And he doesn't know my name. Our relationship is, rather, defined by our locations in a bureaucratic power structure. He's an agent of the electric company. I'm an address on his work order. That is how our relationship is defined. A relationship stripped of its humanity. And as a consequence I have to work mightily to treat this man with respect. He isn't to blame. But everything about this dehumanized interaction makes me want to yell at him. To direct my anger at him.
I think Beck makes an absolutely wonderful point. However, I do not think this effect is limited exclusively to bureaucratic power structures. Certainly bureaucratic structures make it disgustingly easy to dehumanize people, but human beings have been demonstrating for thousands of years that we are terribly efficient at dehumanizing people on our own. We dehumanize those who are different from us. We dehumanize those whom we disagree with. We dehumanize those whom we are angry at.

Sometimes, it's obvious. The Nazi's dehumanized the Jews, first taking away their civil rights and then exterminating them en masse. American whites dehumanized blacks in order to justify slavery, and we still have not escaped the curse of racism in the US. Throughout world history, one religion has dehumanized the adherents of another religion, leading to countless wars. While there were often bureaucratic institutions, particularity governments, behind those examples of dehumanization, I believe the feelings originated on an individual level. The governments came later, specifically created in order to carry out the discrimination of the dehumanized groups.

However, often the dehumanization is not so obvious. What is your first reaction when someone cuts you off on the highway? Or when someone bumps into you hard at the store and then walks away quickly without even glancing at you, let alone apologizing? Or when a clerk at the bank treats you discourteously? Or when we hear someone expressing political/religious/social views completely opposite of our own?

We become angry and indignant. We think that these people are idiots or thoughtless jerks. Sometimes, we retaliate, give them a taste of their own medicine. Most of all, we think "I would never do/believe such a terrible thing".

Basically, we dehumanize them. We believe their behavior to be base, below us and that we, being better people, are above such behaviors.

But that is where I see a major problem. 

Can you honestly say that you have never done something unintentionally idiotic or rude? Maybe you were distracted. Maybe you just got some bad news and were upset. Maybe you were in a rush to get somewhere. No matter what it is, we usually find a way to justify our actions, to explain it away. We do the same when a family member or friend does something foolish or mean. We know there are extenuating circumstances.

Of course, if we admit the possibly that we might have unintentionally committed stupid or inconsiderate acts, we must also admit that the people who are rude to us might also be acting unintentionally. Perhaps the guy who cut you off is heading to the hospital because his father is sick. Perhaps the person who bumps into you at the store and just walks away is in a daze because they just lost their spouse. Perhaps the clerk at the bank was rude because she was having an awful day.

Too often, I believe we make assumptions about people we are not familiar with; assumptions which allow us to dehumanize them.

Over the past few years, I have become quite sensitive to the human tendency to disparage people they do not personally know. I have worked to recognize when I am doing it and to remember not to harshly judge people I do not know on the basis of a single negative interaction.

The reason I have become so cognizant of this came from watching my step-dad. Anytime I go somewhere with him, he find reasons to insult the strangers who cross our paths. Every person in a parking lot is a moron too stupid to watch where he or she is going. Every person in a suit and tie is a worthless administrator who spends their days firing people who actually work for a living. Every person whose children aren't absolutely quiet are bad parents.

While I realize my step-dad is an extreme example, once I began to pay attention, I was amazed at how often I or others would harshly scorn others for actions which probably had no ill-intent.

I believe it is extremely vital that we remember the inherent worth of each person we interact with, even if our interaction with that person is not positive. While at times it can sound trite, we are all human beings deserving of respect, no matter our race, age, nationality, gender, political ideology, or religious beliefs. If we have to choose between condemning a person or giving them the benefit of the doubt, I believe we should always choose the latter. We will become better people for it.


  1. I think you might be right to suggest that a sort of objective or dispassionate compassion is an antidote to dehumanizing people.

    Also, I think our tendency to dehumanize people can be fueled by an assumption that they are free moral agents. Yet, it only takes a few years, if that, to raise a kid up to be insensitive, manipulative, and hyper-aggressive. And even if something later on in life causes that kid to want to change, the odds seem very good he or she will take decades to undo the conditioning of their early years.

    I don't think we should condone bad behavior. I think we should stand firmly opposed to it. But I believe we can do that without dehumanizing the people who are engaged in it.

    Last point, dehumanization seems to me something our species might have evolved in order to psychologically prepare us for assault, murder, and warfare. That is, for extreme aggression. If that's indeed the case, then what would it say about our society that we so routinely indulge ourselves in it? If it evolved as a preparation for extreme aggression, then it's as if we walk around with chips on our shoulders.

  2. I completely agree: we should not condone bad behavior. However, when someone is acting badly, and that action is more of an irritation than an actual threat, it is important to acknowledge the possibility that something is is going on with this person which you are unaware of. People's lives are often messy and stressful, but, for some reason, we seem to forget that truth when interacting with strangers who are annoying you. Instead, we assume that their lives are basic and/or simple so that they don't have a valid excuse for their bad behavior.

    Plus, I believe you will feel better as well. It's not fun to always be getting angry or frustrated about the random people you encounter throughout the day. Quite the opposite: it raises your stress level. By taking a step back and realizing that the person who just irritated you in some way most likely did not mean it as a personal insult, but instead had their mind focused else where.

  3. Sammy, that's an excellent point about feeling better. You can get a high from getting angry or self-righteous, but it tends to come with a hell of a hang-over.