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.