l

Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Essence of Evil

 
The Essence of Evil

by David Livingstone Smith

In March 1945, Leatherneck Magazine, an official organ of the United States Marine Corps, published a brief, ostensibly humorous article describing a parasite named Louseous Japanicas. It included an illustration of a grotesque creature with stereotypically Japanese features. The accompanying text tells us that:
To the Marine Corps, especially trained in combating this type of pestilence, was assigned the gigantic task of extermination… Flame throwers, mortars, grenades and bayonets have proven to be an effective remedy. But before a complete cure may be effected the origin of the plague, the breeding grounds around the Tokyo area, must be completely annihilated.
Later that same month, US warplanes dropped 2,000 tons of incendiary bombs on the city of Tokyo. The stench of burning flesh was so intense that fighter pilots reached for their oxygen masks. Over the next five months, at least half a million Japanese men, women and children were, in the words of the US Air Force General Curtis LeMay, ‘scorched and boiled and baked to death’ in the firebombing of 67 Japanese cities. And then there were Hiroshima and Nagasaki…
Only a few years earlier in Germany, Jews were labelled Untermenschen (subhumans) and were likened to vermin, maggots and disease-transmitting parasites. Half a century later in Rwanda, Hutu g√©nocidaires referred to their Tutsi quarry as cockroaches and snakes. This year, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu characterised the Palestinian killers of three abducted Jewish teenagers as predatory beasts (an epithet that he did not apply to the Jewish extremists who burned a Palestinian boy alive in retribution). ‘They were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by animals,’ he said. ‘Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay.’
What is the common element in all these stories? It is, of course, the phenomenon of dehumanisation. But this is neither recent nor peculiar to Western civilisation. We find it in the writings from the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and China, and in indigenous cultures all over the planet. At all these times and in all these places, it has promoted violence and oppression. And so it would seem to be a matter of considerable urgency to understand exactly what goes on when people dehumanise one another. Yet we still know remarkably little about it.
Here’s what we can say. The term ‘dehumanisation’ has acquired a variety of meanings since its introduction in the early 19th century. Some people think of it as a derogatory language-game: the rhetorical practice of likening human beings to non-human animals or inanimate objects. Others understand it as the act of degrading others by subjecting them to cruelties or indignities. Still others believe that we dehumanise people by denying them subjectivity, individuality, agency or other quintessentially human characteristics. My focus is on a different conception of dehumanisation – a deeper one that typically underpins all the others. We dehumanise other people when we conceive of them as subhuman creatures. Dehumanisers do not think of their victims as subhuman in some merely metaphorical or analogical sense. They think of them as actually subhuman. The Nazis didn’t just call Jews vermin. They quite literally conceived of them as vermin in human form.
Look at how European settlers thought about the Africans whom they enslaved. As the US historian of slavery David Brion Davis remarks: ‘It was this extreme form of dehumanisation – a process mostly confined to the treatment of slaves and the perceptions of whites – that severed ties of human identity and empathy and made slavery possible.’ The writings of Morgan Godwyn, a 17th-century Anglican clergyman who campaigned relentlessly for the civil rights of Africans and Native Americans, throw considerable light on how English colonists thought about their putatively subhuman slaves. In The Negro’s and Indians Advocate (1680), he wrote that he had been told ‘privately (and as it were in the dark)… That the Negros, though in their Figure they carry some resemblances of Manhood, yet are indeed no Men.’ ‘They are,’ he continued, ‘Unman’d and Unsoul’d; accounted and even ranked with Brutes’ – ‘Creatures destitute of Souls, to be ranked among Brute Beasts, and treated accordingly.’    This pattern of thinking has been reproduced with spine-chilling fidelity across time and space, and from one historical epoch to the next
It is instructive to compare Godwyn’s account with a much more recent example of dehumanising discourse. Der Untermensch (‘the subhuman’) was a pamphlet published in 1942 under the editorial direction of Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi responsible for setting up the concentration camps, and it presented Jews as ravenous subhuman predators. ‘Not all of those who appear human are in fact so,’ the authors warned. Jews were not human beings, but rather ‘beasts in human appearance’ that were ‘lower on the spiritual and psychological scale than any animal’.
Although separated by centuries, these two mindsets – the colonial and the Nazi – are astonishingly similar. Both claim that the human appearance of certain groups belies their true nature. So, apparently, while Africans and Jews display all of the outward marks of humanity, deep down, where it really matters, they lack that special something that makes one human; their humanity is only skin-deep, concealing a subhuman core. This pattern of thinking has been reproduced with spine-chilling fidelity across time and space, from culture to culture, and from one historical epoch to the next. Its sheer pervasiveness suggests that it reflects something fundamental about the human mind.
Investigations into the phenomenon of psychological essentialism cast a powerful light on the psychological wellsprings of dehumanisation. The philosophical doctrine of essentialism (the belief that there are essences) has a lengthy history stretching back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle. The essence of a thing is supposed to be whatever property or properties it has that make it the kind of thing it is. Consider a wedding band fashioned from pure gold. What makes it the case that this chunk of matter is a piece of gold? Philosophers have pointed to the fact that it possesses the essence of gold. Its essence lies in its microphysical structure: a substance counts as gold if and only if the atoms from which it is composed have precisely 79 protons in their nuclei. It’s because every atom of gold has 79 protons, and every atom with 79 protons is an atom of gold, that the atomic number 79 is the essence of gold.
The Reverend Godwyn’s contemporary, the English philosopher John Locke, was an important contributor to the theory of essences. He distinguished between real essences and merely nominal ones. Nominal essences are ordinary, commonsensical concepts of kinds of things, whereas real essences are deep, unobservable properties that make a thing a member of a kind. The real essence of gold, hidden in its atomic structure, is inaccessible to casual observation, but its merely nominal essence is simply a list of the descriptors that we ordinarily associate with gold (heavy, yellow, precious ductile metal, etc). ‘Essence may be taken for the very being of any thing, whereby it is, what it is,’ wrote Locke in 1689, ‘And thus the real internal, but generally in Substances, unknown Constitution of Things, whereon their discoverable Qualities depend, may be called their Essence’. He warned, however, that ‘if you demand what those real essences are, it is plain men are ignorant and know them not … and yet, though we know nothing of these real essences, there is nothing more ordinary than that men should attribute the sorts of things to such essences’.
    What is it that makes a porcupine? It’s not its quilly appearance. A mutant porcupine without quills is a still a porcupine
Nearly 300 years after Locke had penned those words, the notion of real essences got up from the philosopher’s armchair and entered the laboratory. In 1989, the psychologists Douglas Medin and Andrew Ortony, both at Northwest University in Illinois, coined the term ‘psychological essentialism’ to denote our pervasive and seemingly irrepressible tendency to essentialise categories of things. Since then, researchers have accumulated a sizeable body of empirical evidence that humans are natural-born essentialists. We are disposed to think of the world as carved up into discrete kinds of things, each of which has a real essence.
Biological species are a good example. People the world over segment the animal kingdom into species. But what makes an animal a member of a certain species? What is it that makes a certain creature a porcupine? It’s certainly not its quilly appearance. A mutant porcupine without quills is a still a porcupine. Psychologists and cognitive anthropologists have shown that people tend to believe tacitly (and sometimes explicitly) that what makes an animal a member of a certain species is not its outward appearance but rather some deep fact about it – in this case, the porcupine essence – even though we might have no coherent idea of what that essence consists in (recall Locke’s insight that ‘it is plain men are ignorant and know them not’).
To appreciate how effortlessly we bisect the world into outward appearance and inner reality, one need only consider cinematic portrayals of vampires. Under most circumstances, vampires are indistinguishable from genuine human beings. You might strike up a conversation with one in a bar without having any suspicions at all, until the moment she sinks her fangs into your throat. Cinematic vampires are ersatz humans because they lack the inner spark that that all human beings supposedly share. I doubt that many people find this difficult to wrap their minds around. Likewise, the first audiences of A Midsummer Night’s Dream had no trouble understanding that though Bottom’s head looked like that of a donkey, he was really a human being ‘on the inside’, the donkeyish appearance concealing the human essence.
The phenomenon of psychological essentialism explains how we are able to think of others as non-human creatures despite all appearances. But it gives us no purchase on the crucial issue of subhumanity. When we dehumanise others, we do not simply regard them as non-human. We regard them as less than human. Where does that come from?
Read the rest of this article here: