What Do We Mean When We Talk about ‘Humanizing’ and ‘Dehumanizing’?

A drawing showing a male mikado pheasant (top, mostly dark blue, with a red face, and long, black & white tail feathers) and a female mikado pheasant below (brown, shorter tail feathers).

In the discussion of many topics using the English language, it is common for people to say thinks like ‘we want to be seen as fully human’ or ‘these stereotypes dehumanize this group of people. One set of topics – though certainly not the only set of topics – where I see these kinds of language frequently is asexuality and/or aromanticism.

So what do we mean when we say things like ‘aces/aros want to be seen as fully human’?

Is there somebody who sincerely doubts that we are homo sapiens? Sure, there are boatloads of people who think that homo sapiens cannot be asexual and/or aromantic, but their logic is that we’re not really asexual and/or aromantic, not that we’re something other than homo sapiens.

There are a few cases where the issue really is determining whether somebody is, in fact, a homo sapiens, but I would guess that in 99% of the conversations which talk about humanizing/dehumanizing/being recognized as fully human/etc. are not actually about whether or not a set of people are biologically homo sapiens.

Discussions of sexism are another place where the ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ language is used a lot – as in ‘misogynists don’t regard women as fully human’. As a female, I will say this – if I could choose between the status quo, and an alternate universe where most non-female people mistakenly thought that women were Syrmaticus mikado rather than homo sapiens AND there was no sexism or misogyny, I would choose the alternate universe. Yeah, it’d be annoying if lots of people mistakenly thought I was a mikado pheasant, but (assuming that there is no prejudice against mikado pheasants, and people still correctly discerned my abilities – i.e. they knew I could use human languages, and did not expect me to fly, I could still receive medical treatment appropriate for humans, etc.) I think it would not be nearly as bad as sexism and misogyny. I think most female people would agree with me on this. Therefore, the issue isn’t really whether or not others recognize us as ‘human’.

So if we are not talking about whether somebody should be classified as a specimen of the species homo sapiens … what are we talking about?

I think, most of the time, what we’re really talking about is that a set of people are worthy (or not) of empathy, that their needs are valid (or not), that they are a member of the tribe (or not), that they are part of us … or part of the other.

So why do we describe this sense of belonging/respect/fairness/in-groupness as ‘human’ (or more accurately ‘being recognized as being human’)? Should, say, dogs be excluded simply because they are not homo sapiens?

The thing is, there are an awful lot of people who don’t consider a wide segment of the homo sapiens population to be worthy of respect, fairness, support, empathy, etc. I’m no psychologist/sociologist/anthropologist, but it seems to be that it’s part of ‘human’ nature to divide beings into in-groups and out-groups, and that one generally doesn’t need to respect members of the out-group the same way one needs to respect members of the in-group. And membership in the in-groups and out-groups rarely cuts strictly along species lines – for example, a lot of people would put dogs they have a personal relationship with in their in-group. It’s not even limited to animals (yes, homo sapiens are animals) – some people put, for example, trees in their in-group.

I think that what asexuals and aromantics are asking for is that we will not be pushed out of the in-group into the out-group (a.k.a. ‘the Other’) just because we are on the asexual and/or aromantic spectrum.

But language is never perfect, and I think most people understand that ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ rarely refers to a literal debate about whether a set of people are homo sapiens. Is there a problem with framing things in ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ language? I think there is, and I’ll discuss that in the next post.

21 thoughts on “What Do We Mean When We Talk about ‘Humanizing’ and ‘Dehumanizing’?

  1. I think that there’s a significant connection to the concept of “human rights” as well as just plain empathy. If there are a set of “basic human rights” that are granted to all “humans”, (such as those described by the US Declaration of Independence) then some people have (as unfortunate as it is) a vested interest in excluding people from that use of the term “human” without ever caring about the literal meaning as rooted in biology. I’ve also seen cases of the opposite, where people attempt to include other entities in that category, not by expanding the qualifications needed to be in that category, but by applying the term “human” to things that are not, in fact, homo sapiens.

    • The US Declaration grants rights to ‘men’, not ‘humans’. It’s a famous example of excluding those who aren’t men from the group which is endowed with ‘inalienable rights’ (and this is before we consider issues such as slavery). It goes to show that in practice, it’s not about whether or not someone is a human, it’s about something else, whether it’s those vested interests you mention, or plain empathy, or another thing.

  2. I always assumed it had to do with the “human = sentient” assumption. But it’s a fair question to raise.

    I have more complicated thoughts about the in-group/out-group stuff but I’m going to have to think about that some more.

    • Yeah, ‘in-group/out-group’ is an oversimplification (and is probably not the best way to express that idea … I’m not sure know what the antonym of ‘the Other’ is), but I had to use some way of saying it. It IS complicated.

      • The antonym of the Other is the Self! I read way too much on this this semester. >.>

      • I probably don’t recommend any of the readings we did, ’cause they’re mostly psychoanalysis, which is pretty urgh. Let me think about it, though!

  3. I can only add that propaganda in Nazi Germany made a valiant effort to present some groups of people literally as vermin and/or unworthy of life.
    Sorting people into the out-group will mean less empathy, as you pointed out, and one can indeed make the situation worse by denying that they’re human.

    • ‘Vermin’ means animals which are a nuisance (and should be eliminated), so that definitely covers ‘unworthy of life’, but … that’s not quite saying that they are *literally* not human.

      I might refer to your comment in a future post in this series (though not the next one because, surprise, this train of thought is too long to fit into two posts).

      • Sure they’re literally still Homo sapiens, however, there seems to be a mindspace available wherein not all Homo sapiens are regarded as actually human. Odd, but that’s what it looks like from my POV.

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  5. When I talk about wanting to be considered “fully human”… I am talking about quite literally being compared to a car, an alien, a doll, a robot, or some other non-human object, which I have been on many, many occasions. Usually that goes along with being pathologized in other ways, and also compared to a child or called immature. All of this should be counted as verbal abuse, but it frequently isn’t recognized as such. So when I say “stop dehumanizing me” I mean “stop telling me I am not human.” Maybe other people mean something different by that? In that case, sure, it’s probably ineffective communication. But honestly, I really can’t think of any clearer alternative when that is exactly what I mean when I say that.

    It’s not that being inhuman is necessarily bad in and of itself… but I don’t identify that way, and I’m literally not whatever they’re comparing me to. It’s about having people force these kinds of othering comparisons/ideas on me. The one situation in which I’m okay with this sort of thing is when people say “you’re such a cat!” because my personality is similar enough to a cat’s that I think it’s a fine comparison—and it’s not about othering me in the way that the other things are.

    • Though I have been called ‘childish’ and ‘immature’ on many, many occasions, I cannot recall any particular instance when I have been directly compared to inhuman objects in a derogatory way. It might’ve happened, but it did not make much of an impression on me.

      I think I need some time to process your comment.

      And yay, you commented on my blog :D:D

      • Haha, aww. I read it when I get the time, just usually don’t have much to say. 🙂

        I think… maybe to summarize what I was trying to say, you could say it’s primarily about agency. Like it’s not that any of those things are bad, just… I don’t see how I’m like them, and hate that people so often use the non-human metaphors to try to represent me, reflexively, without considering whether it’s really accurate. All of those get exceptionally triggery for me though even though they’re often meant as a joke, because my perpetrator went through every one of them as a “joke” that was never really a joke. The car one is the most offensive—maybe I’ll make a post explaining that at some point, ’cause thinking about it now I realize there’s a lot to unpack there.

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