“People are out there doing bad things to each other. That’s because they’ve been dehumanised. It’s time to take the humanity back into the center of the ring and follow that for a time. Greed, it ain’t going anywhere. They should have that in a big billboard across Times Square. Without people you’re nothing. That’s my spiel”.
This is one of my favourite quotes from the late Joe Strummer from The Clash. For me, Joe says so much in so little words here and recently I have found myself returning to this issue of dehumanisation, so I decided to take the opportunity to share my thoughts with you through this blog.
Dehumanisation is a concept often applied to the extremes; genocides, mass imprisonment and terrorism, but if we look a little closer at everyday interactions, our time in Late Modernity is resulting in greater dehumanisation. Jock Young spoke carefully about dehumanisation in warfare and even in the classic works of Karl Marx, we can see how workers are dehumanised in capitalism. I believe that dehumanisation has become a central feature of 21st century (Western) societies whereby social relations are becoming far more fragmented and the human element of everyday interactions is slowly disappearing.
Dehumanising each other means to remove human quality, remove moral obligations, and disown feelings of empathy. Everyday I walk to work I witness the public turn a blind eye to a homeless person or pass a glance of disgust at them. A person, who for whatever reason, has lost a safe place to stay, has limited access to basic needs like food and would give anything for a hot shower and clean clothes. As I lift my head and smile at the University cleaners in the morning, I see my very own colleagues not even acknowledge their existence. In everyday working environments people are labeled by their jobs; lecturer, cleaner, administrator as a means of distinction – forgetting that in essence we are all the same, working people. I have witnessed such dehumanisation in my own workplace as well as speaking to people in other industries. Countless times I have chatted with friends about how they feel devalued at work, that their line managers don’t see them as real people with lives outside of work. Family, illness, bereavements and general wellbeing aren’t taken into consideration in the working environment. Whilst academia is considerable one of the ‘better’ industries for such matters, for many other workers they are just that, workers, not fathers, not carers, not mothers, nor mental health sufferers. We become known for our title or job role not our human qualities or personal characteristics.
The refugee crisis just shows how dehumanised some Western societies have become. Closing borders to families fleeing for their lives, whilst people are risking their own lives to save their children is utterly heartbreaking. The current Syrian crisis has really opened my eyes to the narrow mindedness of groups and individuals I find it unfathomable that they fail to recognise the innocent people of Syria as fellow human beings. Labelling them as second class to us, seeing them as refugees not families and making judgements based on ignorance and fear mongering shows just how little moral obligation and empathy some people possess.
I see a large contributing factor to the loss in human quality and moral obligations being technology. In a digital age where so many people interact as online profiles, the values of being a person have become lost. Living a virtual reality life in gaming or spending endless hours on social media can result in people becoming detached from the ‘real world’. As such we unintentionally dehumanise people, we engage with people we have never met and know them only through digital communication. I have thousands of connections through social media and yet over 90% of those connections I have never met and probably never will. I ‘know’ these people in relation to their job roles or where they live/study but that’s as far as it goes – I know nothing of their personal lives (or struggles) and my knowledge and opinion of them stems from nothing more than what they post online. There is very little human quality in these digital interactions. This is evident in people’s willingness to express, often negative, opinions online; take for instance leaving bad reviews of customer service or outwardly disapproving of what someone posts online.
Dehumanising and deviance
The digital age has created a protective barrier where, whilst many of us wouldn’t dare say such negative (possibly hurtful) things to someone in person, we use social media, open comments and forums to put down others and express self-righteousness. Cyberbullying is a perfect example; people hiding behind their web-enabled devices whilst at the same time making someone else feel worthless. Hate crime online shows us the ugly side of the digital world. Only viewing people as ‘profiles’ removes the moral obligation to treat them as a fellow human,they are merely a digital representation. It is, in my view, that as we continue to dehumanise each other, we will witness a growth in the number of interpersonal crimes like violence. As society increasingly becomes more digital, we will immerse ourselves into these digital communities drifting further away from the physical communities, and as a consequence we will lose the moral compassion we once held. As people create profiles of how they want to represent themselves, these representations are often a glamourised idealistic version of ourselves, whether that be in how we look, how happy we are or how successful we are. By creating these idealistic digital profiles we play a role in our own dehumanisation because when we do come face to face with people we lose recognition of who we truly are.
The virtual and physical worlds continue to become blurred and we are seeing the impact of virtual deviance being transferred to physical victimisation, what happens online does not stay online. Our online profiles could have devastating impacts for us in our everyday lives, both in terms of those who act out deviance online and those who become online victims. If you are an online bully, outspoken critic or proliferate troublemaker, how do you separate this when you step outside the door to interact with people? Do you keep up the facade or try to persuade people that just your ‘digital persona’. Either way, people will find it more difficult to have those everyday face to face interactions. I see this everyday in my job whereby students tell me they don’t feel comfortable speaking face to face but are far more communicative using email. I am astounded at the number of students who come to me stating that they become too anxious around other people in classes impacting on their attendance, yet will happily join in the Facebook groups to converse with their peers. To feel moral obligations, empathy and understanding we need the human interaction, not just the digital, otherwise we view each other as a just a profile.
To return to my previous point, I truly believe we will witness a rise in interpersonal crimes both in the virtual and physical world. Police have already reported sharp rises in the online hate crime and online bullying and this will only continue for as long as people can hide behind their profiles. As the dehumanisation process widens I suggest we will see more interpersonal crimes in the homes, workplaces, in our communities and in schools. By not making an effort to create social relationships in the physical world we cannot feel that sense of understanding of one another to embrace the human quality in all of us. People who have been named and shamed online (whether in relation to crime, relationships or work) will have even more difficulty integrating into society being known only for what was said online. Individuals who have been victimised online will increasingly become anxious stepping out the front door and we will hear more tragic stories of young people taking their own lives. For those who can’t get revenge or justice in the virtual world may well turn to revenge in the physical environment. I do fear that whilst we have witnessed continuous decreases in crime since the turn of the millennium, this downward trend will change, unless we change.
I appreciate that many reading this will entirely disagree with me and that’s ok, it is merely my opinion. But I do worry that as our community cohesion continues to break down (where we possibly don’t even know the names of those living in our street) and our suspicions of one another increase (because we don’t know who we can really trust), we will become a far more selfish society. Selfish societies don’t consider the needs and struggles of others and fail to show the compassion to those in trouble. Instead they will take to their own online profiles and online forums to develop relationships based on idealistic profiles. I am an optimist (although this post may suggest otherwise) and believe we can avoid this dehumanisation if only we begin to see people as more than just a work colleague or a digital persona and realise that sometimes the simplest of human gestures can break down those virtual walls.
Thanks for reading.