Though many of us are feeling hopeful about the new POTUS, many of us are not. That usually benign tension between opposite sides of the floor has existed throughout the history of democratic nations around the world and is not the point of this article. The point is that never has the divide between us (racial, social, political, cultural, human, however-you-want-to-draw-it) been deeper, seemingly less bridgeable. And just what is “it” that has been driving us farther apart, to intentionally fall deaf, blind and intolerant to difference, to extreme views about each other and even more violent behaviour toward each other?
Brené Brown, American professor, author, lecturer, podcast host, and most likely the first academic to win herself a Marvel Comics superheroine in her likeness (the Shame-Shifter) gets to the root of this question in her latest “Unlocking Us” podcast episode Words, Actions, Dehumanization & Accountability. She uses the violent insurrection on Capitol Hill last month as a leaping off point to unpack what is at the root of ALL our intolerances. From dysfunction within our families, relationships, and communities to the highest offices of political and economic power and the rise of the alt-right – what is destroying us inside and out is dehumanization, a.k.a. the widespread practice of moral exclusion. And that moral exclusion fuels all hate, all intolerance, all division.
Now, forewarned is forearmed – whether you are familiar with her work or not – prepare to get real uncomfortable as you listen to this. Because, as Brené says, “…we are all vulnerable to the slow and insidious practice of dehumanizing; therefore, therefore, we’re all responsible for recognizing it, stopping it, and holding people accountable…for their words and actions.” She goes on later to promise, “This is not going to be an easy undoing.”
So, if you’re reading this you are likely not a white supremist, but how many times in the past 4 years especially have you referred to anyone who radically disagrees with you politically in less than human terms? If you are the (sole) unicorn exempt from this practice, then just hit the intertubes to peruse all the piling on that social media, for example, is known to be so toxic for and you will suddenly see what is all around you: relentless, widespread, systemic dehumanization.
What is scary is that we actually already know (and what Brown so compellingly reminds us) the path systemic dehumanization takes us down: genocide. She cites historical research that lays bare the dehumanizing process that began ahead of slavery and ahead of every single genocide in recorded history. That process began with our words and language which were then used to fuel and justify horrific actions. And she shows us just how prevalent that type of language usage is in our society now.
And so because we have discovered the power to use language in ways that actually goes against our fundamental human instinct to protect and belong to each other (proven by science), we also must see that if we want to do better, we must stop the practice of dehumanization and to do that we must “reconsider participating in any conversations that dehumanize someone,” hold accountable those who dehumanize in a respectful way, and be open to being held accountable ourselves.
What we take from this is: Resist dehumanization in all its expressions. Participate in what bridges rather than what divides. Be willing to see both your role and your responsibility in making this world a better place for every person in it.
Written by Jody Carrow
Image: Javier Zarracina for Vox