Monday, June 3, 2019

Will Humanism Save Us All?

It feels like an article of secular faith. It feels like a so-called truth foisted on us by our therapy culture. It oversimplifies a complex issue and leaves us feeling better about ourselves, while not really addressing the problem.

Here is the principle. Our psycho overlords keep telling us that people commit genocide because they refuse to see certain other people as human. If only, we are ceaselessly told, they could see that they share a common humanity with their victims, then there would be no genocide.

In short, a mere attitude adjustment, the kind offered by therapy, would solve the problem.

And yet, Paul Bloom argues in an important New Yorker essay, people persecute others because they see them as human, but as needing to be dehumanized. I would add, as Bloom also suggests, that people are not merely human. Being human makes you a member of a species. And yet, most of us do not identify as members of a species. We identify as members of a family, a community, a social group, a culture with rules and rituals.

It is another sleight of hand, perpetrated by the therapy culture. It wants to make us all feel like members of the same species… because then will live in peace and harmony in the New Jerusalem.

Beyond the obvious absurdity of it all, this deprives us of our identification with our nations. But then, might we not feel some animosity against those who want to strip us of our social being? Might we not want to fight to defend it?

Curiously, people who insist on identifying us by our humanity tend to divide the species into those who are human, those who are subhuman and those who are superhuman. And they are happy enough to exterminate those humans they consider to contain subhuman qualities, the better to prepare for the advent of a superhuman leader who can save them all.

As for subhuman qualities, they derive from alien cultures, from cultures that seem to threaten the cohesion of a primary culture. As Bloom will argue, correctly, many of the actions that we deplore when committed against innocent people also resemble punishments meted out by the justice system or acts of war.

I would add that when fighting a war we do not merely declare our enemies to be vermin… because they requires a different approach than we need when fighting against those who are monsters. To be clear, calling people monsters or monstrous criminals is not an excuse for extermination but a warning about the difficulty of the coming fight. And, not coincidentally, about the impossibility of negotiation, thus about the necessity of war.

In any case, the question is important and useful, so we shall examine Bloom’s reasoning. He begins by presenting the therapy culture argument:

... acts such as genocide happen when one fails to appreciate the humanity of others.

Another psychologist argues that some peoples are dehumanized because we possess a normal inhibition against killing our fellow humans:

In the words of the psychologist Herbert C. Kelman, “The inhibitions against murdering fellow human beings are generally so strong that the victims must be deprived of their human status if systematic killing is to proceed in a smooth and orderly fashion.” The Nazis used bureaucratic euphemisms such as “transfer” and “selection” to sanitize different forms of murder.

One might say that we feel inhibited about killing members of our family or members of our community. But, when it comes to enemy communities, the requirement to defend oneself seems, without too much difficulty, to override the inhibition against murdering our fellow humans. Failing to understand community behaviors and community ethics confuses the issue.

Bloom argues against the standard psycho theory:

The thesis that viewing others as objects or animals enables our very worst conduct would seem to explain a great deal. Yet there’s reason to think that it’s almost the opposite of the truth.

By his theory, diminishing other people serves to humiliate them. But that is only useful if the perpetrators feel a need to diminish the status or the prestige of the humiliated group. Keep in mind, systematic humiliation involves a calculus of prestige… and thus must be designed to enhance the status of those who are perpetrating it. For people who are demoralized, humiliating others can enhance pride, and thus be therapeutic:

But plainly these fans don’t really think the players are monkeys; the whole point of their behavior is to disorient and humiliate. To believe that such taunts are effective is to assume that their targets would be ashamed to be thought of that way—which implies that, at some level, you think of them as people after all.

Describing the systematic humiliation of Jews in Austria after the 1938 Nazi takeover makes this point clear:

The Jews who were forced to scrub the streets—not to mention those subjected to far worse degradations—were not thought of as lacking human emotions. Indeed, if the Jews had been thought to be indifferent to their treatment, there would have been nothing to watch here; the crowd had gathered because it wanted to see them suffer. The logic of such brutality is the logic of metaphor: to assert a likeness between two different things holds power only in the light of that difference. The sadism of treating human beings like vermin lies precisely in the recognition that they are not.

Moreover, such acts of persecution have a moral basis. Bloom summarizes a study by an anthropologist and a psychologist:

But “Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships” (Cambridge), by the anthropologist Alan Fiske and the psychologist Tage Rai, argues that these standard accounts often have it backward. In many instances, violence is neither a cold-blooded solution to a problem nor a failure of inhibition; most of all, it doesn’t entail a blindness to moral considerations. On the contrary, morality is often a motivating force: “People are impelled to violence when they feel that to regulate certain social relationships, imposing suffering or death is necessary, natural, legitimate, desirable, condoned, admired, and ethically gratifying.” Obvious examples include suicide bombings, honor killings, and the torture of prisoners during war, but Fiske and Rai extend the list to gang fights and violence toward intimate partners. For Fiske and Rai, actions like these often reflect the desire to do the right thing, to exact just vengeance, or to teach someone a lesson. There’s a profound continuity between such acts and the punishments that—in the name of requital, deterrence, or discipline—the criminal-justice system lawfully imposes. Moral violence, whether reflected in legal sanctions, the killing of enemy soldiers in war, or punishing someone for an ethical transgression, is motivated by the recognition that its victim is a moral agent, someone fully human.

The goal seems to be to protect the community, to exact justice, and also, let us not forget, to scapegoat one group in order to absolve the other of responsibility.

Bloom continues to note an obvious point. Surgeons operating on patients do not see them as fully human. Surgeons see their patients as bodies, as collections of organs:

If the worst acts of cruelty aren’t propelled by dehumanization, not all dehumanization is accompanied by cruelty. Manne points out that there’s nothing wrong with a surgeon viewing her patients as mere bodies when they’re on the operating table; in fact, it’s important for doctors not to have certain natural reactions—anger, moral disgust, sexual desire—when examining patients.

Doing the job of surgeon requires one to shut down one’s normal emotional reactions. Even in the most elementary medical examination, when a patient explains that he is in pain, the physician does not feel the patient’s pain. Empathy is neither desirable or required. He questions the patient in order to establish where it hurts, how long it has hurt, what kind of pain it is and whether there are other ancillary symptoms. Then he will perform tests. You might say that the process if dehumanizing, but it is designed to serve a purpose. If the physicians merely mewled over his patient's pains, he would not be doing his job.

Bloom concludes:

The limitations of the dehumanization thesis are hardly good news. There has always been something optimistic about the idea that our worst acts of inhumanity are based on confusion. It suggests that we could make the world better simply by having a clearer grasp of reality—by deactivating those brain implants, or their ideological equivalent. The truth may be harder to accept: that our best and our worst tendencies arise precisely from seeing others as human.


Sam L. said...

The Left demonizes the Right.

UbuMaccabee said...

"The thesis that viewing others as objects or animals enables our very worst conduct would seem to explain a great deal. Yet there’s reason to think that it’s almost the opposite of the truth."

I agree with Bloom. The thesis that dehumanizing people was a prerequisite to murdering them always seemed like an easy and lazy incantation, just received wisdom that people learn and repeat endlessly thereby thinking it makes it self-evidently true. It's something a vacuous CNN analyst says 15 times each month on almost any subject.

People just as often require their enemies to be entirely human--and then the joy of the knife is made that much more satisfying.

Anonymous said...


Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

The rise of pop neuroscience has a lot to do with this, too. Now the "Brights" among us feel perfectly justified in hating humanity because they read about some neuroscientific theory in some Malcolm Gladwellesque piece. They can tell you everything that's wrong with man, but nothing that the human person does well. That is indeed sad, but being arrogant about it is pathetic. Especially when you are also... human.

David Foster said...

In Remarque's great but neglected novel The Road Back, the narrator (Ernst) is returning home to Germany after the armistice that ended WWI. On the way, he encounters as hospital for German soldiers who are in very bad shape, who are dying as a result of gas attacks. Nothing can be done for them.

After speaking what words of comfort he can and continuing on his way, Ernst muses: How can he feel such a sense of joy at his survival and return home, when "there behind me on the stretchers my comrades are now lying and still they call. It is peace, yet they must die. But I, I am trembling with joy and am not ashamed. —And that is odd. Because none can ever wholly feel what another suffers—is that the reason why wars perpetually recur?”

"Because none can ever wholly feel what another suffers—is that the reason why wars perpetually recur?"...when I first read this, I thought it was only half the story, and I still think so. Wars occur not only because of lack of empathy, but also *because* of empathy...with those people, affiliated in some way (nationality, race, believe system, language,...) who are thought to be being protected or gaining from the particular war.

Although oxytocin is generally thought of in beneficent terms, as the 'love hormone' or 'cuddle hormone', there is also research suggesting that it can play a part in aggression against an out-group on behalf of an in-group.

trigger warning said...

I have no doubt that when we get the word-theories and the chemistry right, we will end war.