What’s behind dehumanization?

A book about the psychology and politics of doing terrible things to one another

Philosophers believe in the power of thinking—not positive thinking in the Norman Vincent Peale and Joel Osteen sense, but precise thinking. They may place too much hope in the power of conceptual precision to make a difference in the real world. Perhaps it is their occupational hazard. But it is also one of their primary contributions to the human family. On Inhumanity helps make the case that philosophy is indispensable to making a better world, which requires first understanding what has gone wrong with the world we have made.

On Inhumanity is an update and popularization of David Livingstone Smith’s 2011 book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others. Smith wants to reach a broad, nonacademic audience with concepts that he considers utterly critical to human well-being. In 26 short, crisp, deeply disturbing chapters, he offers an accessible path into understanding the psychology and politics of the phenomenon of dehumanization.

Smith begins by showing why dehumanization matters: it “fuels the worst brutalities that human beings perpetrate against one another.” In particular, it enables people to murder others at mass scale. He believes that dehumanization is not the cause of our “desire to harm others” but rather a tool we use to fulfill this desire. We develop processes of dehumanization to overcome built-in inhibitions against shedding human blood as we build up to genocide. “Dehumanization isn’t always in the service of slaughter,” Smith adds. “It’s also the handmaid of oppression. We find its bloodstained fingerprints all over chattel slavery.”