Trigger warning: all of them. Mentioned, but never in detail.
I don’t believe we’re born with the innate ability to dehumanize another person, I think it’s taught. Hurt people hurt people, dehumanized people dehumanize people. It springs from many wells and hides behind many masks: severe mental illness, religious extremism, a bad upbringing. Whether it’s a knife or a gun or a van or a bomb, to commit an act of mass violence with the purpose of taking as many lives with you as possible before being taken down requires you to sever all ties to your own humanity, and/or that of others. Quite often, there’s a belief-system that goes along with that, be it your own or that of a larger group.
It spans all scales and levels of society – rape, terrorism, slavery, partisan politics. You dehumanize others in order to follow an ideology that you believe not just benefits you, but protects you and perhaps those you care about. You pick a side. Then, you either decide that you have an elevated status, above human, or that others have a demoted status, below human. Or both.
But if you look at a newborn baby, could you ever tell if they’d develop that type of ideology on their own? What would cause them to turn their back on their own species? Could they really be born not seeing the value in other humans? No, because they need other humans to survive for so long. It would either have to be words passed down through a vehicle (family lore, religion, fiction, outright lies), or come from having had a horrible experience with someone who, to them, represents a certain group. Or both.
Violence brings an endless cycle of pain and retaliation, and on it will go until the end of humanity. Literally. We kill their children in the name of ________, they kill our children in the name of ________. Maybe if we stop killing each other’s children, we wouldn’t be in so much pain all the damn time. It’s always justifiable to someone, though. And that’s sad, because that clearly doesn’t work. We hear it over and over, “violence begets violence”, “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”, “the best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury”, “you can’t fight fire with fire”. Hitting them back is only going to make them hit back. It’s a downward spiral of violence until someone eventually decides, “Enough is enough! This life (or this group of lives) needs to be wiped out! They’re irredeemable.” POWs, death penalty, air-strikes, shoot-to-kill, genocide, terrorist attacks, BAM! Dehumanized.
Here’s an ugly, high-road pill to swallow: we really have to stop dehumanizing the Commander-in-Cheeto. The Evil Orange. The father of all Oompah Loompahs. Why? Because the silly names and vilification do 2 things – 1) they give him the perceived power of something otherworldly, which he is not, he’s just another human, one of literally billions, and 2) it teaches the next generation that if you disagree with someone, even on a fundamental way of life, you can simply write them off as “other”. This is where we begin to self destruct, because then we can say horrible things about them and do horrible things to them because “they aren’t one of us”. I can’t stress it enough. We. Are. All. Human. We give… GIVE each other different positions of power and social statutes, most of which were made up centuries ago by a bunch of angry runaways who landed on a different continent and made up the rules as they went, but guess what? We’re all still human. So were they. We really have to figure that out sooner rather than later.
All social justice movements have the same message: we’re human, we’re tired of being the “other”, and we demand to be treated as equals. All genocides have the same message: we’re superior, you are the “other”, and you must be eradicated. All terrorism has the same message: we are superior, you are the “other”, BUT we know we don’t have the means to eradicate you, so we’re going to randomly hurt you until you give us what we want or leave.
It’s a scary time in the world, as some try protect and enforce invisible boundaries and ancient ideologies, but this is when we need to dig in and ask ourselves, “How can I make a REAL difference?” The Facebook platitudes and condolences aren’t enough, sadly. So what can you feasibly do?
You can’t shut off darkness, but you can provide light. You can’t kill violence, but you can birth and nurture peace. You can’t impeach every politician, but you can become one or volunteer for one. You can’t eradicate all the terrorists, but you can build strong ties across many different borders, so that maybe one day, a could-have-been terrorist says, “Oh no… I can’t kill these people. They remind me of _______, and we have things in common. I love _______, and _______ has never hurt me. What am I doing???” You have the power to humanize a group.
In London, Kabul, Manila, Mosul, and Mawari, they are afraid and in mourning today. All because someone cut their and others’ ties with humanity. Every day, thousands die at the hands of other people who have done this too. While we do not have the capacity within us to mourn the death of every one of them individually, we can use the pain we feel for some to propel us towards meaningful change for all.
One last time, for the folks in the back: We’re all human.