In Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, David Livingstone Smith attempts to answer three questions: What does it mean to think of someone as a human being? What is it that dehumanized people lack? And finally, what sorts of creatures are dehumanized people? These questions are important to consider as people who are dehumanized are regarded as subhuman.
By engaging in an interdisciplinary discussion, Livingstone Smith draws from history, biology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy and numerous other disciplines to provide us with compelling and horrific stories about the dehumanization of other humans. Through the use of biological, psychological and cultural factors that contribute to the dehumanization process, Livingstone describes why thinking of others as subhuman and associating them with nonhuman animals is so persuasive and compelling when using violent acts against, and ultimately exterminating other humans.
In chapter one and chapter two Livingstone Smith paints a picture of why we should focus on the process of dehumanization as well as how the concept evolved over centuries, dating as far back as to Aristotle, Augustine and Boethius.
In chapter three, four and five Livingstone Smith turns his attention to describing acts of dehumanization throughout history by referring to colonization, slavery and genocide. The stories and depictions of human violence, bloodshed and suffering are at times horrible, but Livingstone Smith challenges the reader to face the realities of dehumanization through the narratives and depictions of those dehumanized. In these chapters the thought often goes through one’s mind; what makes us able to kill other human beings?
It is in the following chapters that the author describes the theoretical understanding of dehumanization. In his discussion of race, Livingstone Smith describes how we carve up humanity into human kinds (also called ethnoraces), how we ascribe an essence, an inner “something” carried by body fluids (blood especially) to these ethnoraces, resulting in a distinction between ethnic groups as if they were biological species. Subhumans are believed to lack the essence that makes them human, resulting in them being human only in appearance.
In chapter seven, Livingstone Smith defends the statement that Homo sapiens are the only animal capable of cruelty and war. In doing so Livingstone Smith delves into a discussion of concepts such as cruelty and harm while comparing humans with ants and chimpanzees.
Finally, in chapter eight, the author examines ambivalence and transgression in terms of the killing of other humans. Livingstone Smith points out that in order to conceive of others as less than human (subhumans) we must adhere to five psychological features. These five features include: a domain-specific cognitive module for folk-biology, a domain-specific cognitive module for folk-sociology, engaging in second-order thought, biological species must have a unique essence, and finally an hieararchy of natural kinds.
As humans are ambivalent about killing, dehumanization serves as a response to override this ambivalence. If we believe that other humans are really subhuman, lacking human essence, then we are more inclined to commit violent acts towards those people. Livingstone Smith also points out that the dehumanized are never described as appealing animals, but rather considered as either one of three types of animals or creatures: predators, unclean animals or prey.
In chapter nine, Livingstone Smith reiterates the main ideas of the book in an interesting and accessible manner. After that, the author turns to a more pressing matter and one that is not easily solved: What can be done about the problem of dehumanization? After discussing two concepts, the rationalistic view and the sentimentalist view, Livingstone Smith concludes that in order to deal with dehumanization in a productive manner we need to understand its mechanics, how it really works.
Even though Livingstone Smith very much attempts to write the book in a manner accessible to a broad audience, it is still fairly academic and at times very philosophical as Livingstone Smith discusses what it is that makes us human, what subhumans lack, and the process of dehumanization. Therefore, even though I certainly recommend the book to all readers due to its fascinating depictions and explanations of dehumanization, it may require going over several times.
In order to restrict his focus, Livingstone Smith points out those groups of people omitted when studying dehumanization, such as women, sexual minorities, the mentally and physically handicapped, among other ethnic groups. As it is very much understandable that Livingstone Smith narrows his focus in the book, one question still seems to remain in thought: are women and men equally likely to dehumanize?
© 2011 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss is a graduate student in Sociology at California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.