An NPR story from 2011:

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.


  1. latsot says

    Another thing that bothers me about this sort of thing is the fact that people apparently don’t care what other people think about them when they gleefully torture animals (or people). Perhaps they don’t feel that there’s anything to be ashamed of. Perhaps they assume – despite the evidence – that everyone else feels the same way. I don’t know.

    It’s perhaps a clichéd example, but I was in a taxi around the time of some bad flooding throughout much of the country. A child had been swept away and drowned. The taxi driver was of the opinion that this was a good thing on the grounds that the child was “just another paki.” He seemed genuinely confused when I told him to stop and let me out. He really didn’t seem to understand that anyone might find that sentiment offensive.

  2. johnthedrunkard says

    I don’t know how much of it reached down to the ‘street,’ but Descartes’ notion that animals had no consciousness, were really ‘machines,’ DID contribute to a cavalier attitude towards the treatment of animals.

    Also the ‘special,’ separate-from-nature status that Christianity teaches us. I gather from English writers that cruelty to animals in Catholic countries was a shock to them.

  3. says

    I’ve seen that said about Descartes but I’ve never really been able to understand it. (That’s true of so many things, isn’t it…) I can understand thinking that about insects, fish, maybe reptiles…but mammals and birds? Not so much.

    Although there was that hummingbird I was watching yesterday evening at the local viewpoint over Puget Sound – it was hovering for a few seconds over the wildflower-filled hillside, then shooting up into the air and zooming down again to return to the same spot to hover for a few seconds then repeat. That could look somewhat machine-like I guess.

  4. iknklast says

    I’ve seen way too many teachers (even science teachers) use the phrase “humans and animals”. The book we use in my class uses that all the time (I have trouble finding a decent book that doesn’t have some nonsense in it!). I think this helps to see ourselves on that ladder – instead of humans and other animals (my preferred phrase) or just “animals, including humans” (another preferred phrase), we put ourselves separate. There are humans, and there are animals. As a result, many of my students are unable to represent which group of species we belong to. They have put us everywhere from bacteria to fungus to plants when asked where we belong – animals comes in only slightly above the level of chance.

    That’s the same othering that is done in other ways. There are scientist – then there are women scientists, African-American scientists, Native American scientists. There are playwrights – then there are women playwrights, LGBT playwrights, African-American playwrights, etc. If you are a white male, you are allowed the title without the qualifier – I never hear anyone refer to a white cis-male playwright or scientist; they are just playwrights and scientists. (This is in other fields, too, of course; I only express the two fields I work professionally in, as a woman scientist and a woman playwright. I suppose I should be glad to be white, so I don’t have to have multiple adjectives strung before my job title).

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