Humanizing and dehumanizing may be two of the most powerful capabilities of the human mind. If we humanize a stranger, we will almost always want the best for them. This doesn’t even have to be a real stranger. What else would you call a character in a book, but an imaginary stranger that you get to know? On the other hand, if we dehumanize someone, even someone we know well, we become capable of causing them a great deal of harm. In a sense, we make them “not real” anymore, and unless we have a strong personal code that is relative to the manner our actions rather than the consequences of those actions, many of us don’t consciously identify our behavior as immoral.
I’m not saying a person is bad for doing this. It’s a survival mechanism. In a world where there is a finite amount of resources, whether material, emotional, or chronological, we have to limit where we expend those resources. If we cared about every person we ever met as much as we care for a best friend, we’d expend all of our resources on everyone else and have nothing left to keep ourselves healthy. So this isn’t a judgement on the tendency to dehumanize. Just an observation of its power, and as such its danger. It’s something that I think everyone would benefit from being conscious of.
A lot of people rail about how the internet is destroying our society because the relationships people form on it are “not real.” Except that many of the closest relationships I now have are with people I see mostly online, so I know that can’t be true. I think instead the actual source of the symptoms people fear are that it is easy to dehumanize someone online. Whether to make them a villain or a hero. Both strip people of their humanity. Of their imperfections, vulnerabilities, and short-comings. It is much easier to look at a few lines of text and see what you need to online. To see a perfect being to worship, or a horrible parable of a person to tear apart. But the reality is that we’re just looking for an ideal to aspire to, or an aggressor to oppress us. We’re looking for what we need or want. And we make paper cut-outs of humans and put them in the place of real people. Much easier to do, when we don’t have to see the impacts of what we do or say first-hand. And we don’t have to deal with the little quirks and mistakes and mannerisms on a regular basis that make them unique personalities.
The internet is amazing because it allows us to humanize people we’d otherwise never know. And it’s terrifying because it lets us dehumanize people with a remarkable amount of ease.
How do we combat the dehumanizing capabilities of this new system? How can we embrace the humanizing potential? And does doing either threaten our survival mechanisms?