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Since its birth, humanity has seen conflict. Chaos and genocide. Good and evil. Most people wouldn’t hesitate to call Hitler evil or any other perpetrators of the like. But these killers, murderers, rapists, thieves, were human beings. Hitler was a rebellious delinquent who desired to attend a classical high school and study the arts. Yet, he became the man responsible for the death of millions. How does one so normal, become festered with hate and evil?
The most common answer is that these people were dehumanised. They could not see the humanity of others and thus, could not see the harm they unleashed. They brought the evil suppressed by civilisation out for the world to see. Evil was committed because they could not see their target as people, only as lower beings and a means to an end. This argument has been evidenced in texts and studies and so there has been good reason to believe that this belief has been validated. However, recent thoughts have challenged the notion that dehumanisation causes evil, but rather the recognition of humanity and the fear it breeds for that creates it.
Many would not consider themselves to be inherently evil. Yet how can it be so prevalent in some? This suggests that evil is an inherent characteristic of humans, held down by society. Without civilisation’s basic framework of rules, manners and obedience, evil can run wild. When left to their own devices, people revert to savageness. This can be seen in the character of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, who without the civility and order of the late 19th century, succumbs to the free will of the Congo. He becomes mad, believes he’s a demi-god and this justifies his ‘suppression’ and ‘extermination’ in his own words.
This is also the basis of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a novel about a group of boys stranded on an island. While Ralph and Piggy believe maintaining structure and rules are imperative to their rescue while Jack finds violence, hunting and fun more attractive. The process of building a miniature civilisation becomes too difficult for the boys the prospect of Jack’s immediate rewards of hunting and violence attracts the boys and their hopes of rescue are dashed. Without civilisation to mandate law and order, Jack and his tribe become savages. They paint their faces, influenced by mob mentality and partake in strange rituals chanting, ‘Kill the pig! Cut her throat! Bash her in!”
Without the moral compass keeping people in check, they have no telling of what is good or evil. This is best demonstrated by Hank Mitchell in A Simple Plan. At first, he refuses to take the money, rebutting Lou’s comment about the American dream, ‘You work for the American dream. You don’t steal it.’ This contrasts with his actions later in the film when his moral compass has deteriorated and has killed countless in defence of the money. He knows it is wrong, yet why is he still chasing the money? Why has he committed acts of murder, evil?
This evil stems from the dehumanisation of others and comes about when people are treated as ‘things. Evildoers justify their actions based on their superiority or a means to an end. After their targets have been dehumanised, it is hard to feel any kind of remorse or guilt for such action. Hitler believed the Jews were inferior and so he was self-justified in his slaughter. Sarah Mitchell in A Simple Plan seemed sweet and motherly yet is the main mastermind behind setting up Lou’s false confession. Sarah treated others to an end from the corrupting touch of the money and as such, led to actions of evil.
One of the most prominent and notorious case of dehumanisation is the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. In 2006, photos were published of U.S military personnel abusing Iraqi prisoners. Such inhuman and humiliating abuses included smearing human excrement on a detainee as ‘interrogation’ and forcing detainees to form a naked human pyramid for the entertainment of the guards. Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo, known for his Stanford Prison Experiment, believes these people turned to these evil acts because the situation permitted these acts. The guards were overwhelmed and overworked, often working 12-hour days and so struggled to interrogate all the prisoners. Zimbardo believes that it was in this situation, that they decided they could get away with abusing the prisoners. ‘Situations can be sufficiently powerful enough to undercut empathy, altruism, morality and to get ordinary people, even good people, to be seduced into doing really bad things.’
Such disregard for humanity is a slippery slope that leads to more wrongdoing. Such as the Europeans in Heart of Darkness, who feel no inclination to treat the Africans as fellow human beings. Instead, only as native savages. This dehumanisation thus justifies more of their wrongdoings, such as slavery.
It is this consequence of dehumanisation occurring over centuries between cultures, religions and races that people have relative scales of humanity. Nour Kteily, psychologist at Northwestern University, argues that people are willing to admit to having prejudice against others. Kteily’s study told mainly white Americans, to rate people of different groups on how they evolved on a scale of 0-100. While many people gave all groups a perfect score, many others put them further down on the ranking, closer to animals. The study was conducted in 2017 and revealed new intolerance towards Muslims and immigrants and cited President Trump’s dehumanisation of migrants and refugee for this new dislike. It all points to a vicious cycle of dehumanisation, where one group is feared and dehumanised and that in turn provokes a more violent response from those angered by the dehumanisation.
This reasoning can be seen all around the world, in wars and battles. The previously stated Abu Ghraib abuses were stated as a reason for the beheading of American businessman Nick Berg by the hands of Islamist militants in 2004. The decapitator continues this cycle of evil saying, ‘We tell you that the dignity of the Muslim men and women in Abu Ghraib and others is not redeemed except by blood and souls. You will not receive anything from us but coffins after coffins,’
This has also been demonstrated in texts like Lord of the Flies wherein Piggy is dehumanised by the other boys by his unflattering nickname, asthma, accent and glasses. The consequences of dehumanisation influences people’s perception of others and can continue to bring out devastating evil if continued. As leading psychologist on dehumanisation, Nick Haslam says, “Dehumanisation doesn’t only occur in wartime. It’s happening right here, right now. And every day, good people who don’t see themselves as being prejudiced bigots are nevertheless falling prey to it.”
Yet what if evil begins because people can treat others as people? This is the argument that psychology professor at Yale, Paul Bloom makes in an interview with Vox’s Sean Illing. Bloom says, ‘A lot of the cruelty we do to one another, the real savage, rotten terrible things we do to one another, are in fact because we recognise the humanity of the other person.’ Bloom argues that humans see each other as blameworthy, cruel, undeserving and thus, deserves the evil done to them. Evil is done as the wrongdoers don’t believe they’re evil. ‘This is what some call instrumental violence, where there’s some end they want to achieve, and people are in the way, so they don’t think of them as people.’
The argument then is that the recognition of humanity itself that creates evil. Why would one of the main chants at the Charleston white supremacist rally be “You will not replace us!” Bloom says that white supremacists do recognise the humanity of those they’re discriminating against, and it terrifies them. “That’s what you chant at people you’re really worried about, people who you think are a threat to your status and way of life.”
Dehumanisation is what we most often refer to explain why evil has resulted. To treat others as things, as lower beings and a means to an end, justifies the behaviour of those who seek to do evil. Such actions bring out the evil that was once suppressed by society into the limelight. This explanation has been used to explain evil throughout human history and texts alike. However, it is also important to recognise the role humanity plays in breeding evil. The recognition of their humanity creates the fear of the ‘other’. So long as humanity exists, the capacity to create dehumanisation and fear will always create evil.
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