Saturday, August 15, 2015

this week's Salon defense of elective abortion and an old David Livingstone Smith piece on dehumanization as a psychological prerequisite for killing

I didn’t have an abortion because I was raped, or because my life was in danger, or because the fetus was the product of incest. I had an abortion because I had recreational sex, got unintentionally pregnant, and wasn’t ready or willing to be a mother. This is something I haven’t written about before, but there comes a point when staying silent begins to look like shame — and I am not ashamed.

Back in 2012, when I first discovered I was pregnant, the man I was seeing at the time was so flustered and without resource that he typed “” into the search bar of the browser. I don’t blame him, because that was a scary moment for both of us. Fortunately for me, I knew better. I had been going to Planned Parenthood since 16, when a doctor recommended I get on the pill to regulate my menstrual cycle, and I trusted them explicitly with my health because I knew they trusted me explicitly with my body and my future. I didn’t have to tell them I was a 24-year-old working in a restaurant, living in a studio apartment in New York City. I didn’t have to explain that although I think I do want children someday, this man is not the person I wanted them with. I didn’t have to convince them I deserved their respect and kindness; they gave it willingly. And most important, I didn’t have to apologize. I still don’t.

A while back David Livingstone Smith published a piece about wartime acts of mass killing through usual but important case studies--the firebombing of Tokyo, the Holocaust, Rwandan genocide.
But the author zeroes in not on the atrocities as atrocities but on the rhetoric and narrative that featured in the rationalization:
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.


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.’

The internet being what is that invites a brief, dry joke about how Godwyn's observation that humans share common dignity might prevent people from rushing to make the kinds of statements that led to the other Godwin's law.

Anyway ... it would seem that the question of the ethics and methodology of dehumanization merit further thought.  The abortion wars have shown that pro-abortion advocates explicitly and emphatically deny the basic personhood of the fetus.  The fetus isn't a human, it is a clump of cells.  That in the history of humanity dehumanizing what you wish to kill in combat (note the "what" there in place of "who") it's striking and depressing that a magazine like Salon might not see the hierarchy difference between an individual celebrating the liberty to terminate a clump of cells on the one hand and objections from authors at Salon about a pre-emptive military activity to stop things going on in another country that might impinge upon American consumer activity.

But then the paradox of social conservatives not wanting a baby to be aborted who then don't want a social welfare system in place to provide for the child if it isn't a child from marriage may be literally the other side of the same coin, that we humans selectively humanize and dehumanize.

David Livingstone Smith's simple observation is that you dehumanize the person you want to justify killing in order to secure for yourself the thing you want. What seems a hugely depressing but necessary consideration is that humans have always, currently, and always will dehumanize in order to rationalize killing.  The reason we need to study how and why we do this is not because we will ever stop doing this but so that we can understand why a conservative might dehumanize people consider enemy combatants to justify continuing military activity in a foreign country as part of a pre-emptive war on the one hand, and why a progressive might dehumanize a fetus so that it cannot be considered human so that it may be killed in order to permit the pregnant woman to end the pregnancy rather than deal with the financial and consumer burdens and social burdens of raising an unwanted child.

The dehumanization gambit seems precisely the same in both cases but it's only regarded as morally suspect by the respective political/ideological positions.  Nobody's going to change their minds about this but if we consider that there is a dehumanizing move in both kinds of cases it may give us a chance to ask ourselves not "if" we dehumanize each other but why we might find it beneficial.  The author quoted above has proposed dehumanization is a necessary psychological/social step toward rationalizing a killing we would otherwise not be comfortable doing.

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