Talking about ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ is ineffective

In the previous post (which you should read before this one), I promised I would talk about the problem with talking about things in terms of ‘recognize as fully human’ and so forth. Since then, I’ve realized that I want to discuss TWO sets of problems with this use of language, so in this post, I will only address one problem.

Talking about ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ isn’t effective communication.

Okay, there must be a situation somewhere where using ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ language is effective. But I think this type of language is often used in ways which don’t help anybody, and in the context of ace/aro discussions, I think it’s almost never effective.

A self-defense instructor I knew said that he used to teach his students to yell ‘Fire’ if they got into a physically dangerous emergency, even if it wasn’t literally a fire. Then he became aware of research that indicates that yelling ‘Fire’ doesn’t do much good. When people hear ‘Fire’ they tend to just come and watch, and do nothing to save the person in danger.

My own experience is consistent with this research. I have witnessed a number of uncontrolled fires in my life, and in each instance my behavior – I came to watch, and didn’t lift a finger to help. Granted, by the time I noticed that there was a fire in downtown Hsinchu (a city in Taiwan) there were already firefighters on the scene, so there wasn’t anything I could do to help. Likewise, when I noticed that a hill right above the town of Santa Clarita was on fire, half of the people in the town had already noticed it, since it was really, really obvious (Santa Clarita is possibly the wildfire capital of the USA). And when there was a fire at my middle school, the best thing I could do was follow the teachers’ instructions, which I did (by the way, fire drills do work – since we at first assumed that the fire alarm went off because of an unscheduled fire drill, we stayed calm, and even when we could smell the smoke and realized that it wasn’t a drill, we still didn’t panic, and nobody was injured in the fire). But when a building in the middle of San Francisco is on fire, what is my reaction? To go tell other people – ‘hey, check it out, there’s this building on fire, you want to come and watch?’

So, what does the self-defence instructor teach now? He tells his students (who live in urbanized parts of the USA) to yell ‘Call 911’. This gives bystanders a specific action they can do which might save your life (if you’re in an urbanized part of the USA).

As I explained in the previous post, when we talk about ‘being recognized as fully human’ and such things, we are actually talking about something else. Many people can probably deduce from context what we actually mean, but the extra mental steps it takes to deduce what we are trying to say means 1) they are more likely to misinterpret and 2) they are less likely to respond in the way we hope for. Likewise, someone who hears ‘Fire’ can probably deduce there is some kind of emergency, and if they come to look, they might figure out what kind of emergency it is, but they are unlikely to respond in a way which helps you. People who are already in the asexual and/or aromantic community don’t need to be convinced of the validity of asexuality/aromanticism, and telling people outside the community ‘aces/aros are fully human’ is unlikely to make them change their behavior.

Of course, in this regard, saying ‘aromantics/asexuals belong in your in-group’ is probably even worse.

Sometimes, we want to say ‘Stop saying that all people are sexual, because that excludes me and when I hear that I feel like you think I don’t matter’. Sometimes we want to say ‘I want more aromantic characters in fiction who are passionate about life, because I am an aromantic who is passionate about life and I want to see more people like me in fiction’. Sometimes we want to say something else. I think our communication is more effective when we go past the generalized vagueness of ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ and express more fully what we actually mean.

So that’s one problem. What’s the other problem? You might have noticed that I put this series of posts in the ‘Veganism’ category, which is a bit of a hint. If we all aspire to be recognized as fully human, what does that say about how we treat those who are not human? That’s going to be the topic of the next post.

8 thoughts on “Talking about ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ is ineffective

  1. I completely disagree with this.

    If you say, “I want to see more people like me,” people read that as a personal preference and decide how your feelings stack up against personal concerns. If you say, “X implies group Y are unworthy of empathy,” people consider whether group Y are worthy of empathy.

    They work fine for an audience that is already sympathetic, but most people without a personal connection to group Y or who have some incentive to support the other side of the argument are not going to be moved.

    If you say X “is dehumanising”, the word is used frequently enough that almost everyone will understand what you mean. It also tells people what they should feel about the sentence, tapping into an Enlightenment-based humanist philosophy. It suggests to people that they should see all of humanity as their in-group and strive for life and society to be fair and just toward everyone.

    As you said earlier, most people are very susceptible to this sort of reframing/ subtext. “Dehumanising” marks a matter as an issue of justice, as everyone’s problem, not just group Y’s, in a way most alternatives don’t.

    The phrase is rhetorically effective in a way that no alternative I have seen is.

    I acknowledge that it excludes non-humans from the worthy-of-empathy sphere and that it is deeply creepy that our language dictates our ethics in this way, but it isn’t ineffective. (I do, however, find that “humanising” requires an extra moment of thought and carries no particular emotive weight.)

    • Whoops, your comment ended up in spam, and I don’t check the spam folder very often. Hence the delay in approving your comment. Sorry about that.

      I generally think that trying to persuade a group which is not already sympathetic to some degree is very difficult, and that using ‘dehumanizing’ this way is more likely to make an unsympathetic audience get defensive rather than actually reconsider their thoughts on the matter.

      • I think people get defensive regardless of the presentation, but a more emotive presentation is slightly more persuasive to the undecided and a little harder to entirely dismiss.

        I’m not saying that there aren’t other good ways to phrase such issues or good reasons to reach for other phrasings, but I do think we keep hearing “dehumanising” is because it is effective.

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  3. I don’t know how common this is, but I genuinely did feel like I wasn’t quite human before I found AVEN when I was 24 (though going back to church when I was 21 eased a lot of that tension first.) It wasn’t that I thought I didn’t have human DNA, but “human” means something bigger than just a taxonomic category. It’s got…. philosophical, metaphysical, spiritual weight? Have you ever seen discussion about language or culture or cognitive thinking that draws a distinction between what We do and what Animals do? Sometimes it’s pretty scientific sounding and they’re looking for specific genes that crate the trait in question, sometimes it’s obviously cheap pop-psychology, but it’s a line that people seem fascinated with. Of course sex isn’t generally part of how they draw that particular line, but when other people start throwing around rhetoric like “sex is an essential part of being human” it feels like a very similar line being draw in a different place. Being on the other side of that line was very real to me, and I remember feeling almost like I didn’t exist, or like I was something strange and alien under my human skin. It wasn’t always a bad feeling; sometimes I felt like I was maybe secretly better than all the real humans. But that wasn’t really any healthier.

    • This line is what I was trying to capture with my ‘in-group/out-group’ terminology (which I admit it is very clunky terminology), as well as Self/Other in the first post in this series. And I was trying to make the point that labelling one side of the line as ‘human’ and other other side of the line as ‘not human’ doesn’t make sense because 1) there are abundant examples of Homo sapiens put in the ‘out-group/Other’ side of the line and 2) there are also examples of those who are not homo sapiens being put on the in-group/Self side of the line (for example, recent research indicates that some human mothers’ brains react to their family dogs in a similar way that they react to their own human children).

      You might want to read this post by epocryphal (which makes some of the points I plan to make later in this series, and which addresses homo sapiens who do not consider themselves to be ‘human’):

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