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

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

by David Livingstone Smith

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250003836
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 02/28/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 308,870
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

Less Than Human

Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others

By David Livingstone Smith

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2011 David Livingstone Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-6856-0



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.

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."

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."

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."

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.

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.

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."

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. "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."

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.

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."

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." 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." 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.

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.

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."


Excerpted from Less Than Human by David Livingstone Smith. Copyright © 2011 David Livingstone Smith. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Preface: Creatures of a Kind Somewhat Inferior 1

Chapter 1 Less Than Human 11

Chapter 2 Steps Toward a Theory of Dehumanization 26

Chapter 3 Caliban's Children 72

Chapter 4 The Rhetoric of Enmity 103

Chapter 5 Learning from Genocide 132

Chapter 6 Race 163

Chapter 7 The Cruel Animal 202

Chapter 8 Ambivalence and Transgression 224

Chapter 9 Questions for a Theory of Dehumanization 263

Appendix I Psychological Essentialism 275

Appendix II Paul Roscoe's Theory of Dehumanization in War 277

Notes 281

Index 317

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