During the Holocaust, Nazis referred to Jews as rats. Hutus involved in the Rwanda genocide called Tutsis cockroaches. Slave owners throughout history considered slaves subhuman animals. In Less Than Human, David Livingstone Smith argues that it’s important to define and describe dehumanization, because it’s what opens the door for cruelty and genocide.
“We all know, despite what we see in the movies,” Smith tells NPR’s Neal Conan, “that it’s very difficult, psychologically, to kill another human being up close and in cold blood, or to inflict atrocities on them.” So, when it does happen, it can be helpful to understand what it is that allows human beings “to overcome the very deep and natural inhibitions they have against treating other people like game animals or vermin or dangerous predators.”
Yes, but I think it can also be helpful to understand what it is that allows human beings to overcome the at least somewhat natural (in my view) inhibitions they have against treating sentient animals like…cartoon characters. Killing an animal quickly in order to eat it is one thing and torturing it for fun is quite another.
Human beings have long conceived of the universe as a hierarchy of value, says Smith, with God at the top and inert matter at the bottom, and everything else in between. That model of the universe “doesn’t make scientific sense,” says Smith, but “nonetheless, for some reason, we continue to conceive of the universe in that fashion, and we relegate nonhuman creatures to a lower position” on the scale.
Yes but we don’t want to torment sentient animals (in my view) even if we do see them as lower on a hierarchy of value, at least most of us don’t. We may want to use them and be indifferent to whatever discomfort and fatigue that costs them, but that’s some steps away from deliberately tormenting them.
Don’t mind me; I’m just collecting material.