Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others
  • Alternative view 1 of Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others
  • Alternative view 2 of Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others

Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others

by David Livingstone Smith

View All Available Formats & Editions

Winner of the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction

A revelatory look at why we dehumanize each other, with stunning examples from world history as well as today's headlines

"Brute." "Cockroach." "Lice." "Vermin." People often regard members of their own


Winner of the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction

A revelatory look at why we dehumanize each other, with stunning examples from world history as well as today's headlines

"Brute." "Cockroach." "Lice." "Vermin." People often regard members of their own kind as less than human, and use terms like these for those whom they wish to harm, enslave, or exterminate. Dehumanization has made atrocities like the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, and the slave trade possible. But it isn't just a relic of the past. We still find it in war, genocide, xenophobia, and racism. Smith shows that it is a dangerous mistake to think of dehumanization as the exclusive preserve of Nazis, communists, terrorists, Jews, Palestinians, or any other monster of the moment. We are all potential dehumanizers, just as we are all potential objects of dehumanization. The problem of dehumanization is everyone's problem.

Less Than Human is the first book to illuminate precisely how and why we sometimes think of others as subhuman creatures. It draws on a rich mix of history, evolutionary psychology, biology, anthropology, and philosophy to document the pervasiveness of dehumanization, describe its forms, and explain why we so often resort to it. Less Than Human is a powerful and highly original study of the roots of human violence and bigotry, and it as timely as it is relevant.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Smith reasonably argues that dehumanization is rooted in human nature…. He offers a rigorous philosophical theory... informed by his discipline's precision, and by certain well-founded suppositions about the mind...an interesting and unusually lucid book about an under-studied subject.” —New York Times Sunday Book Review

“Smith's compelling study and his argument that the study of dehumanization be made a global priority to prevent future Rwandas or Hiroshimas is well-made and important.” —Publishers Weekly

“Smith offers an impressively thorough survey of 'dehumanization' as it has been deployed against Jews, African-Americans, and other 'Others' -- as an accompaniment to exploitation or extermination.” —Barbara Ehrenreich, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Books like Smith's should be required reading for all with a social conscience, and his ideas ought to find their way into every school curriculum.” —Valerie Curtis, Ph.D., Journal of Evolutionary Psychology

“In this powerful and original work—ranging widely and with impressive interdisciplinary scope over different epochs and cultures while remaining compellingly readable—David Livingstone Smith demonstrates that our practice of representing our fellow-humans as subhuman is both inhuman and all too human. He forces us to recognize that monstrous atrocities are routinely carried out not by monsters but, alas, by ourselves.” —Charles W. Mills, Ph.D. author of The Racial Contract, John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy

“David Livingstone Smith produces a clear and illuminating vision of why human beings are the way we are and how we got this way. The scholarship is broad, the insight is deep and the prose is compelling. Less Than Human will change the way you think about things that matter profoundly. This is dazzling stuff.” —Steven E. Landsburg, Ph.D., author of The Big Questions

“Warning: This book will challenge you! Not that it's hard to understand -- in fact, it's wonderfully accessible -- but it raises some terrible realities. For this reason, it is all the more important that you read Less that Human. It is brilliantly written, carefully researched, and a wonderful and much-needed opportunity for us to explore what it might mean to be ‘truly human'.” —David P. Barash, author of Payback: Why We Retaliate, Seek Revenge and Redirect Our Aggression

“This is a beautiful book on an ugly topic. David Livingstone Smith uses the newest research in cognitive science to address the problems of racism, genocide, and atrocity, presenting a provocative theory as to why we come to see others as less than human. There are deep and important ideas here, and this engaging book should be read by anyone interested in the worst aspects of human nature -- and how we can come to transcend them.” —Paul Bloom, author of How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like and professor of psychology, Yale University

“Smith is a philosopher with a strong interest in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. His book offers a gripping history of the horrific ways in which human beings have turned other humans into "sub-humans" and "beasts in human form," from American rhetoric rationalizing African slavery, to the Nazi persecution of the Jews, to the justifications offered for the genocide in Rwanda. He identifies a key thematic in all these campaigns of dehumanization: namely, convincing the persecutors that, when it comes to the persecuted, there is a difference between being essentially human and merely appearing human. He then speculates...that the propensity to draw an essence/appearance distinction is a legacy of natural selection itself. One need not find the evolutionary speculation convincing to nonetheless find his synthesis of the ways in which the essence/appearance distinction figures in the rhetoric of hatred and genocide throughout history insightful and memorable.” —Brian Leiter, Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence, University of Chicago Law School

“One part detective story, one part horror story, one part evolutionary philosophy, Less Than Human is actually a book about what it means to be human. As such, there are few of us who can afford to miss it.” —Peter Swirski,Ph.D., author of American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History, Professor of American literature and culture at the Department of English, University of Missouri, and Research Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies

“Dehumanization is a thoroughly human behavior. It is a tool we have used for millennia to bolster our self-esteem, to justify slavery and exploitation, to get ourselves to kill and exterminate. Yet, despite its terrible significance, surprisingly little scholarly attention has been trained on the phenomenon -- on its origins, how it works, and how we might avoid its dreadful toll. Bringing enviably acute skills as a philosopher to bear on the subject, David Livingstone Smith draws on an impressive range of sources to argue that dehumanization emerges from the very core of our humanity, our ability to reflect upon our own thoughts. Writing in an engaging and accessible style, he uses an incisive logic to pare away the layers of his subject to reveal this troubling conclusion. This is an important book for anthropologists, who are interested in ethnocentrism, and for any human concerned about our capacity to harm one another.” —Paul Roscoe, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology, University of Maine.

Publishers Weekly
Smith (The Most Dangerous Animal), cofounder and director of the Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology at the University of New England, interrogates why man alone, in Mark Twain's words, can go "forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind." Smith explores the ancient practice of labeling rival tribes; specific ethnic, racial, or religious groups; and species as undeserving of compassion. He is intent on untangling the mystery of dehumanization: it's insufficient to merely demonize the criminals, he argues; we must understand why, say, the Nazis believed they had a "moral duty" to annihilate the Jews. He looks into possible biological bases, psychological and developmental roots, clues in paleolithic art, and how, over the ages, philosophers and artists have criticized or goaded on the practice. Vivid and horrifying examples of incidences (and consequences) of the harassment, torture, and extermination of certain groups saturate the book—from the European decimation of indigenous peoples in the Americas to Israeli soldiers' attacks on Palestinian children. Smith's compelling study and his argument that the study of dehumanization be made a global priority to prevent future Rwandas or Hiroshimas is well-made and important. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews

Penetrative research on the brutal dehumanization of societies and why it's been happening for centuries.

Smith (Philosophy and Evolutionary Psychology/Univ. of New England; The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War, 2007) admits his surprise that the issues surrounding how humans denigrate their own species hasn't garnered more importance within our culture. The author informatively deconstructs the nature of dehumanization by discussing its historical relevancy, biological components and resultant destructiveness. Though focused on the grim, historically influential events like the Holocaust, the slavery of sub-Saharan Africans and the ambush of Native American civilizations, Smith also recognizes the plights of women, the handicapped, immigrants and sexual minorities as subgroups who feel routinely stripped of their humanity. A structured combination of "biology, culture, and the architecture of the human mind," the author believes this toxic bias, observed in chimpanzees and ants, is rooted in base differences, prejudicial behavior and the psychological "conflicting motives" of a civilization. Woven into Smith's dense, circuitous analysis are references from psychologist, cognitive scientists, philosophers, alchemists and the research of anthropologists Jane Goodall and Lawrence Hirschfeld, who contribute conjecture on the dangerous and complex nature of racism, genocide and same-species killing. By analyzing the nature and the characteristics that make us intrinsically "human," Smith hopes to reach a better understanding of why we hate and kill each other. An optimistic conclusion offers several possible solutions, all bolstered by the general public's need for education and a thorough understanding of the basic mechanisms of this behavioral phenomenon.

An overstuffed yet scholarly and informative book on a regrettable aspect of humanity.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt




Palestine is our country.

The Jews our dogs.


Arabs are the same as animals. There is no animal worse than them.


“COME ON DOGS. Where are all the dogs of Khan Younis? Son of a bitch! Son of a whore! Your mother’s cunt!” Degrading taunts in Arabic rang out from behind the fence that divided the Palestinian side of the Khan Younis refugee camp from the Israeli side. Located near the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, just outside the ancient town of Khan Younis, the camp was established to house 35,000 of the nearly one million Arabs who had been displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. By the beginning of the twenty-first century its population had swelled to over 60,000 souls housed in thirteen squalid cement blocks.

The torrent of invective did not come from the mouth of an angry Muslim; it was broadcast from a loudspeaker mounted on an armored Israeli Jeep. New York Times journalist Chris Hedges was in the camp that day, and watched as Palestinian boys began to lob stones at the Jeep in a futile gesture of defiance. Hedges recounts:

There was the boom of a percussion grenade. The boys, most no more than ten or eleven years old, scattered, running clumsily through the heavy sand. They descended out of sight behind the dune in front of me. There were no sounds of gunfire. The soldiers shot with silencers. The bullets from M-16 rifles, unseen by me, tumbled end-over-end through their slight bodies. I would see the destruction, the way their stomachs were ripped out, the gaping holes in their limbs and torsos, later in the hospital.2

Four children were shot. Only three survived. One of them, a boy named Ahmed, explained to Hedges what had happened. “Over the loudspeakers the soldiers told us to come to the fence to get chocolate and money,” he said. “Then they cursed us. Then they fired a grenade. We started to run. They shot Ali in the back.”3

Khan Younis had long been a stronghold of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, and when the Israeli troops pulled out of the Gaza Strip in the fall of 2005, the bright green banners of Hamas fluttered from the asbestos rooftops of the camp. Hamas was founded in 1987 to end the Israeli presence in the region and to establish an Islamic state with Jerusalem as its capital. Although Hamas is devoted mainly to supporting schools, hospitals, and cultural activities, it is best known for its violence—its abductions, assassinations, suicide bombings, and rocket attacks against Israeli civilians. Osama Alfarra, the mayor of Khan Younis and a member of Hamas, was one of the many Palestinians who rejoiced when Israel relinquished control of the Gaza strip. “Gaza was a beginning,” he told a reporter from the British Guardian newspaper. “You know how you hunt foxes? You dig them out of their holes. The fox is gone from Gaza to the West Bank. The resistance will dig him out of his hole there.”4

Osama Alfarra and the anonymous soldiers in the Jeep stood on opposite sides of a single conflict. And yet, their attitudes were uncannily alike. Each portrayed the other as a nonhuman animal. The soldier represented Ali and his companions as dogs, unclean animals in both Jewish and Islamic lore. Likewise, Osama Alfarra’s depiction of Israel as a fox represents a whole nation as vermin, fit to be hunted down and destroyed. The sly fox, an amalgam of greed and guile, has much in common with the traditional derogatory stereotype of the Jew, as exemplified by thirteenth-century Muslim writer Al-Jaubari’s characterization of the Jewish people in The Chosen One’s Unmasking of Divine Mysteries:

Know that these people are the most cunning creatures, the vilest, most unbelieving and hypocritical. While ostensibly the most humble and miserable, they are in fact the most vicious of men. This is the very essence of rascality and accursedness.… Look at this cunning and craft and vileness; how they take other people’s moneys, ruin their lives.…

And more recently, the remarks of Imam Yousif al-Zahar, a member of Hamas, conveyed the same idea. “Jews are a people who cannot be trusted,” he remarked. “They have been traitors to all agreements—go back to history. Their fate is their vanishing.”5

The soldier in the Israeli military Jeep dehumanized his Palestinian targets, and Osama Alfarra and his comrades dehumanized their Israeli enemies. In both examples—and in many, many more that I will describe in this book—a whole group of people is represented as less than human, as a prelude and accompaniment to extreme violence. It’s tempting to see reference to the subaltern other as mere talk, as nothing more than degrading metaphor. I will argue that this view is sorely misguided. Dehumanization isn’t a way of talking. It’s a way of thinking—a way of thinking that, sadly, comes all too easily to us. Dehumanization is a scourge, and has been so for millennia. It acts as a psychological lubricant, dissolving our inhibitions and inflaming our destructive passions. As such, it empowers us to perform acts that would, under other circumstances, be unthinkable. In the pages and chapters to follow, I will do my best to explain what this form of thinking consists in, how it works, and why we so readily slip into it.

Before I get to work explaining how dehumanization works, I want to make a preliminary case for its importance. So, to get the ball rolling, I’ll briefly discuss the role that dehumanization played in what is rightfully considered the single most destructive event in human history: the Second World War. More than 70 million people died in the war, most of them civilians. Millions died in combat. Many were burned alive by incendiary bombs and, in the end, nuclear weapons. Millions more were victims of systematic genocide. Dehumanization made much of this carnage possible.

Let’s begin at the end. The 1946 Nuremberg doctors’ trial was the first of twelve military tribunals held in Germany after the defeat of Germany and Japan. Twenty doctors and three administrators—twenty-two men and a single woman—stood accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. They had participated in Hitler’s euthanasia program, in which around 200,000 mentally and physically handicapped people deemed unfit to live were gassed to death, and they performed fiendish medical experiments on thousands of Jewish, Russian, Roma, and Polish prisoners.

Principal prosecutor Telford Taylor began his opening statement with these somber words:

The defendants in this case are charged with murders, tortures, and other atrocities committed in the name of medical science. The victims of these crimes are numbered in the hundreds of thousands. A handful only are still alive; a few of the survivors will appear in this courtroom. But most of these miserable victims were slaughtered outright or died in the course of the tortures to which they were subjected.… To their murderers, these wretched people were not individuals at all. They came in wholesale lots and were treated worse than animals.6

He went on to describe the experiments in detail. Some of these human guinea pigs were deprived of oxygen to simulate high-altitude parachute jumps. Others were frozen, infested with malaria, or exposed to mustard gas. Doctors made incisions in their flesh to simulate wounds, inserted pieces of broken glass or wood shavings into them, and then, tying off the blood vessels, introduced bacteria to induce gangrene. Taylor described how men and women were made to drink seawater, were infected with typhus and other deadly diseases, were poisoned and burned with phosphorus, and how medical personnel conscientiously recorded their agonized screams and violent convulsions.

The descriptions in Taylor’s narrative are so horrifying that it’s easy to overlook what might seem like an insignificant rhetorical flourish: his comment that “these wretched people were … treated worse than animals.” But this comment raises a question of deep and fundamental importance. What is it that enables one group of human beings to treat another group as though they were subhuman creatures?

A rough answer isn’t hard to come by. Thinking sets the agenda for action, and thinking of humans as less than human paves the way for atrocity. The Nazis were explicit about the status of their victims. They were Untermenschen—subhumans—and as such were excluded from the system of moral rights and obligations that bind humankind together. It’s wrong to kill a person, but permissible to exterminate a rat. To the Nazis, all the Jews, Gypsies, and the others were rats: dangerous, disease-carrying rats.

Jews were the main victims of this genocidal project. From the beginning, Adolf Hitler and his followers were convinced that the Jewish people posed a deadly threat to all that was noble in humanity. In the apocalyptic Nazi vision, these putative enemies of civilization were represented as parasitic organisms—as leeches, lice, bacteria, or vectors of contagion. “Today,” Hitler proclaimed in 1943, “international Jewry is the ferment of decomposition of peoples and states, just as it was in antiquity. It will remain that way as long as peoples do not find the strength to get rid of the virus.” Both the death camps (the gas chambers of which were modeled on delousing chambers) and the Einsatzgruppen (paramilitary death squads that roamed across Eastern Europe following in the wake of the advancing German army) were responses to what the Nazis perceived to be a lethal pestilence.7

Sometimes the Nazis thought of their enemies as vicious, bloodthirsty predators rather than parasites. When partisans in occupied regions of the Soviet Union began to wage a guerilla war against German forces, Walter von Reichenau, the commander in chief of the German army, issued an order to inflict a “severe but just retribution upon the Jewish subhuman elements” (the Nazis considered all of their enemies as part of “international Jewry,” and were convinced that Jews controlled the national governments of Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Military historian Mary R. Habeck confirms that, “soldiers and officers thought of the Russians and Jews as ‘animals’… that had to perish. Dehumanizing the enemy allowed German soldiers and officers to agree with the Nazis’ new vision of warfare, and to fight without granting the Soviets any mercy or quarter.”8

The Holocaust is the most thoroughly documented example of the ravages of dehumanization. Its hideousness strains the limits of imagination. And yet, focusing on it can be strangely comforting. It’s all too easy to imagine that the Third Reich was a bizarre aberration, a kind of mass insanity instigated by a small group of deranged ideologues who conspired to seize political power and bend a nation to their will. Alternatively, it’s tempting to imagine that the Germans were (or are) a uniquely cruel and bloodthirsty people. But these diagnoses are dangerously wrong. What’s most disturbing about the Nazi phenomenon is not that the Nazis were madmen or monsters. It’s that they were ordinary human beings.

When we think of dehumanization during World War II our minds turn to the Holocaust, but it wasn’t only the Germans who dehumanized their enemies. While the architects of the Final Solution were busy implementing their lethal program of racial hygiene, the Russian-Jewish poet and novelist Ilya Ehrenburg was churning out propaganda for distribution to Stalin’s Red Army. These pamphlets seethed with dehumanizing rhetoric. They spoke of “the smell of Germany’s animal breath,” and described Germans as “two-legged animals who have mastered the technique of war”—“ersatz men” who ought to be annihilated.9 “The Germans are not human beings,” Ehrenburg wrote, “… If you kill one German, kill another—there is nothing more amusing for us than a heap of German corpses.”

Do not count days; do not count miles. Count only the number of Germans you have killed. Kill the German—this is your old mother’s prayer. Kill the German—this is what your children beseech you to do. Kill the German—this is the cry of your Russian earth. Do not waver. Do not let up. Kill.”10

This wasn’t idle talk. The Wehrmacht had taken the lives of 23 million Soviet citizens, roughly half of them civilians. When the tide of the war finally turned, a torrent of Russian forces poured into Germany from the east, and their inexorable advance became an orgy of rape and murder. “They were certainly egged on by Ehrenburg and other Soviet propagandists,” writes journalist Giles McDonough:

East Prussia was the first German region visited by the Red Army.… In the course of a single night the Red Army killed seventy-two women and one man. Most of the women had been raped, of whom the oldest was eighty-four. Some of the victims had been crucified.… A witness who made it to the west talked of a poor village girl who was raped by an entire tank squadron from eight in the evening to nine in the morning. One man was shot and fed to the pigs.11

Meanwhile, halfway across the world, a war was raging in Asia. Like their German allies, the Japanese believed that they were the highest form of human life, and considered their enemies inferior at best and subhuman at worst. American and British leaders were depicted with horns sprouting from their temples, and sporting tails, claws, or fangs. The Japanese labeled their enemies as demons (oni), devils (kichiku), evil spirits (akki and akuma), monsters (kaibutsu), and “hairy, twisted-nosed savages.” Americans were Mei-ri-ken, a double entendre translated as “misguided dog.”12

Japan pursued its military goals with extravagant and unapologetic savagery. Consider the systematic atrocities following the capture of the Chinese city of Nanjing in December 1937, where—for six weeks—soldiers killed, mutilated, raped, and tortured thousands of Chinese civilians. The details are set out Honda Katsuichi’s book The Nanjing Massacre: A Japanese Journalist Confronts Japan’s National Shame. Katsuichi reports that one former staff sergeant told him, “of soldiers disembowling pregnant women and stuffing hand grenades up women’s vaginas and then detonating them.” Another sergeant confessed that, because a crying infant disturbed him while he was raping the child’s mother, he “took a living human child … an innocent baby that was just beginning to talk, and threw it into boiling water.”13 It’s hard for the mind to encompass such horror. How can ordinary men (and they were ordinary men) do such things? Yoshio Tshuchiya, another Japanese veteran, tells us the answer. “We called the Chinese ‘chancorro’… that meant below human, like bugs or animals.… The Chinese didn’t belong to the human race. That was the way we looked at it.”14 Tshuchiya describes how he was ordered to bayonet unarmed Chinese civilians, and what it was that enabled him to comply with this order. “If I’d thought of them as human beings I couldn’t have done it,” he observed. “But … I thought of them as animals or below human beings.” Shiro Azuma, who participated in the atrocities at Nanjing, told an interviewer that when the women were raped they were thought of as human, but when they were killed they were nothing but pigs.15

What about the Americans and their English-speaking allies? We were the good guys, weren’t we? Allied personnel also dehumanized their enemies (as one soldier wrote in a letter home, “It is very wrong to kill people, but a damn Nazi is not human, he is more like a dog”) but on the whole dehumanized the Germans less than they did the Japanese. Germans, after all, were fellow Anglo-Saxons—strapping blue-eyed boys who might just as well have grown up on farms in Oklahoma. But the Japanese were another story. A poll of U.S. servicemen indicated that 44 percent would like to kill a Japanese soldier while only 6 percent felt the same way about Germans.16

The “Japs” were considered animals, and were often portrayed as monkeys, apes, or rodents, and sometimes as insects (in Herman Wouk’s novel The Caine Muntiny, they are described as “large armed ants”). In a typical example of xenophobic zeal, Australian general Sir Thomas Blamey told his troops in the Pacific theater, “Your enemy is a curious race—a cross between a human being and an ape.… You know that we have to exterminate these vermin if we and our families are to live.…” Pulitzer Prize–winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle, whose folksy dispatches were published in hundreds of newspapers, confirmed that this attitude was not limited to commanding offers, but was common among ordinary grunts as well. Pyle reported that “the Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman and repulsive, like cockroaches or mice.” Ordinary citizens far away from the sharp edge of battle participated, too. The theme of the most popular float in an all-day parade in New York City in 1942 was bombs falling on a pack of yellow rats. It was named “Tokyo, We Are Coming.”17

Viewing the Japanese as subhuman may have contributed to the practice of mutilating their corpses and taking their body parts from them as trophies. Charles Lindbergh recorded in his wartime diary that U.S. servicemen carved penholders and paper knives out of the thigh bones of fallen Japanese soldiers, dug up their decaying corpses to extract gold teeth, and collected ears, noses, teeth, and even skulls as wartime mementos. Taking human body parts as trophies was rare in the European theater. As military historian John Dower points out, if Allied troops had similarly mutilated German or Italian corpses this would have provoked an uproar.18

The dead weren’t the only targets. Surrendering soldiers and prisoners were frequently killed and sometimes tortured. The philosopher and World War II veteran J. Glenn Gray recounts a revealing anecdote in this connection.

An intelligent veteran of the war in the Pacific told a class of mine … how his unit had unexpectedly “flushed” a Japanese soldier from his hiding place well behind the combat area.… The unit, made up of relatively green troops, was resting and joking, expecting to be sent forward to combat areas. The appearance of this single enemy soldier did not frighten them.… But they seized their rifles and began using him as a life target while he dashed frantically around the clearing in search of safety. The soldiers found his movements uproariously funny and were prevented by their laughter from making an early end of the unfortunate man. Finally, however, they succeeded in killing him, and the incident cheered the whole platoon, giving them something to joke and talk about for days afterwards.

To this Gray adds:

In relating this story to the class, the veteran emphasized the similarity of the enemy soldier to an animal. None of the American soldiers apparently even considered that he may have had human feelings of fear and wished to be spared.19

One of the most unsettling examples of dehumanization of the Japanese by Americans appeared in the U.S. Marine Corps’ Leatherneck magazine. It’s a brief piece, apparently intended to be humorous. Emblazoned across the top of the page is an illustration of a repulsive animal with a caterpillar-like body and a grotesque, stereotypically Japanese face, labeled Louseus japanicus. The text below it explains that the “giant task” of exterminating these creatures will only be complete when “the origin of the plague, the breeding grounds around the Tokyo area” are completely annihilated. The article was published in March 1945, the same month that U.S. aircraft rained incendiary bombs on Tokyo, burning up to 100,000 civilians alive. Over the next five months, around half a million noncombatants—men, women, and children—were, in the words of Major General Curtis LeMay, “scorched and boiled and baked to death” as sixty-seven Japanese cities were incinerated by fire bombs. And then, in August, nuclear weapons flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with massive civilian casualties.20


I saw two naked detainees, one masturbating to another kneeling with its mouth open. I thought I should just get out of there. I didn’t think it was right … I saw SSG Frederick walking toward me, and he said, “Look what these animals do when you leave them alone for two seconds.”


Dehumanization is aroused, exacerbated, and exploited by propaganda. It’s common knowledge that, prior to and during the 1994 genocide, government radio broadcasts characterized Rwandan Tutsis as cockroaches, and that Nazi Germany had a propaganda apparatus devoted to painting horrifying pictures of Jews and other supposed enemies of the Volk. Russian political art from the 1930s and ’40s portrayed German and Italian fascists and their allies as a veritable menagerie, including rats, snakes, pigs, dogs, and apes. And when fascists were depicted in human form, they were endowed with subhuman attributes, like pointed ears, fangs, or a nonhuman complexion. But apart from notorious examples like these, there is little awareness of the extent to which the mass media are instrumental for propagating dehumanizing stereotypes.22

Journalists have always had an important role to play in disseminating falsehoods to mold public opinion, and this often involves dehumanizing military and political opponents. In a speech delivered at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1936, against the background of the gathering storm of fascism in Europe, Aldous Huxley argued that dehumanization is the primary function of propaganda.

Most people would hesitate to torture or kill a human being like themselves. But when that human being is spoken of as though he were not a human being, but as the representative of some wicked principle, we lose our scruples.… All political and nationalist propaganda aims at only one thing; to persuade one set of people that another set of people are not really human and that it is therefore legitimate to rob, swindle, bully, and even murder them.23

Collections of twentieth-century political posters confirm that visual propaganda from the United States, Germany, Britain, France, the Soviet Union, Korea, and elsewhere have often portrayed “the enemy” as a menacing nonhuman creature.24 But you don’t need to sift through historical archives to find examples of dehumanization in the popular media. All that you need to do is open a newspaper or turn on the radio.

On September 4, 2007, the Columbus Dispatch published a cartoon portraying Iran as a sewer with a swarm of cockroaches pouring out of it. The subtext wasn’t subtle, and readers quickly got the message. “I find it extremely troubling that your paper would behave like Rwandan Hutu papers that also published cartoons depicting human beings … as cockroaches,” one reader wrote, “calling for them to be stamped out—leading to genocide.” Another wrote, “Depicting Iranians as cockroaches spewing out of a sewer was a vile slur on the Iranian people.… Cartoons like this only cause the neoconservative drums of war sounding for a disastrous military attack against Iran to beat louder.”25

Three years earlier, when the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq became public, Rush Limbaugh—the most popular radio broadcaster in the United States, whose syndicated radio show has, at last count, 13 million listeners—described the prisoners who had been killed, raped, tortured, and humiliated by or at the behest of U.S. military personnel, as less than human. “They are the ones who are sick,” fumed Limbaugh.

They are the ones who are perverted. They are the ones who are dangerous. They are the ones who are subhuman. They are the ones who are human debris, not the United States of America and not our soldiers and not our prison guards.26

Limbaugh’s view of the detainees was shared by members of the U.S. military establishment, including, presumably, their persecutors. The commander of Abu Ghraib, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, subsequently disclosed that Major General Geoffrey Miller had told her to make sure that the prisoners were treated like animals. “He said they are like dogs and if you allow them to believe at any point that they are more than a dog then you have lost control of them,” she said. (Miller had earlier “reformed” military interrogation techniques in Iraq along the lines used at Guantanamo Bay, and became deputy commanding general for detainee operations in Iraq after Karpinski’s removal.)27

Michael Savage (the pseudonym of Michael Alan Weiner) is another popular radio host whose syndicated radio program is followed by 8 to 10 million listeners. Like Limbaugh, Savage derided the detainees as “subhuman” and “vermin,” and suggested that forcible conversion to Christianity is “probably the only thing that can turn them into human beings.” And in words uncannily reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s diatribes against the Jews, radio broadcaster Neal Boortz characterized Islam as a “deadly virus spreading through Europe and the West,” adding, “We’re going to wait far too long to develop a vaccine to find a way to fight this.”28

Limbaugh, Boortz, and Savage play to the xenophobic gallery, so it’s not surprising that they indulge in dehumanizing rhetoric from time to time. But this sort of talk is not confined to right-wing populists; it is well represented in mainstream media by journalists of all political stripes. Pulitzer prize–winning New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote in a 2003 editorial that Muslim terrorists are “replicating and coming at us like cockroaches.”29

Dehumanization makes strange bedfellows.

Newspaper headlines are a prime source of dehumanizing rhetoric. They’re designed to catch the eye and to motivate you to read further. Describing human beings as bloodthirsty animals or dangerous parasites gets us to look because it plays on some of our deepest fears. Techniques like these arouse terror and close minds. If international conflicts are explained by the fact that our enemies are evil subhuman creatures, then no further analysis is needed.

Propaganda researchers Erin Steuter and Deborah Wills point out:

The symbolic lexicon used by news media since 9-11 demonstrates a clear pattern. Suspected terrorists, enemy military and political leaders, and ultimately entire populations are metaphorically linked to animals, particularly to prey. This holds true both nationally and internationally: headlines of newspapers of many political affiliations across the US, Europe, and Australia generate, with remarkable consistency, this journalistic framing of the enemy as hunted animal.…30

Sometimes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are presented as a hunting expeditions (“As British close in on Basra, Iraqis scurry away”; “Terror hunt snares twenty-five”; and “Net closes around Bin Laden”) with enemy bases as animal nests (“Pakistanis give up on lair of Osama”; “Terror nest in Fallujah is attacked”) from which the prey must be driven out (“Why Bin Laden is so difficult to smoke out”; “America’s new dilemma: how to smoke Bin Laden out from caves”). We need to trap the animal (“Trap may net Taliban chief”; “FBI terror sting nets mosque leaders”) and lock it in a cage (“Even locked in a cage, Saddam poses serious danger”). Sometimes the enemy is a ravening predator (“Chained beast—shackled Saddam dragged to court”), or a monster (“The terrorism monster”; “Of monsters and Muslims”), while at other times he is a pesky rodent (“Americans cleared out rat’s nest in Afghanistan”; “Hussein’s rat hole”), a venomous snake (“The viper awaits”; “Former Arab power is ‘poisonous snake’”), an insect (“Iraqi forces find ‘hornet’s nest’ in Fallujah”; “Operation desert pest”; “Terrorists, like rats and cockroaches, skulk in the dark”), or even a disease organism (“Al Qaeda mutating like a virus”; “Only Muslim leaders can remove spreading cancer of Islamic terrorism”). In any case, they reproduce at an alarming rate (“Iraq breeding suicide killers”; “Continent a breeding ground for radical Islam”).31

Do you think that I’m making too much of these examples? Perhaps they’re only metaphors—just colorful ways of speaking and writing that shouldn’t be taken to imply that anyone is regarded as subhuman. You may have noticed that even Steuter and Wills explicitly describe them as metaphors. True, sometimes this sort of language is metaphorical—but it’s foolish to think of it asjust metaphorical. Describing human beings as rats or cockroaches is a symptom of something more powerful and more dangerous—something that’s vitally important for us to understand. It reflects how one thinks about them, and thinking of a person as subhuman isn’t the same as calling them names. Calling people names is an effort to hurt or humiliate them. It’s the use of language as a weapon. But dehumanizing a person involves judging them to be less than human. It’s intended as a description rather than as an attack, and as such is a departure from reality—a form of self-deception. Whatever one’s opinion of one’s nation’s enemies, the fact remains that they are human beings, not subhuman animals.

So far, most of my examples have been plucked from recent history. But dehumanization is far more widespread than that. It is found across a far-flung spectrum of cultures and appears to have persisted through the full span of human history, and perhaps into prehistory as well. It appears in the East and in the West, among sophisticates of the developed world and among remote Amazonian tribes. Its traces are inscribed on ancient cuneiform tablets and scream across the headlines of today’s newspaper. Dehumanization is not the exclusive preserve of Nazis, communists, terrorists, Jews, Palestinians, or any other monster of the moment. We are all potential dehumanizers, just as we are all potential objects of dehumanization. The problem of dehumanization is everyone’s problem. My task is to explain why.


Copyright © 2011 by David Livingstone Smith


Meet the Author

Dr. David Livingstone Smith is a professor of philosophy and founding director of The Human Nature Project at the University of New England. He is the author of Why We Lie and The Most Dangerous Animal and lives in Portland, Maine.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >