Report on the Conference, “Dehumanization: New Approaches to the Politics of Human Nature”

April 20, 2016

A group of international and local experts from history, law, social psychology, art, and philosophy met at the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archive on Apr 6–8, to discuss dehumanization: regarding, depicting or treating some people as ‘less human’ than others.

The conference revolved around the central question, what does it mean to dehumanize people? The term ‘politics of human nature’ was used to convey the idea that the concept of human nature – capturing what it means to be human – is as much a normative and thus political concept as it is a descriptive and thus scientific one. ‘Human nature’ is used not only descriptively but also to conceptualize and regulate interactions and boundaries between people: it is in the background of our normative attitudes to the ways we should interact (i.e., what is a morally or legally adequate behavior) and to whom should count for such considerations (i.e., who is in – humanizing – and who is out – dehumanizing).

In addition to addressing the above-mentioned central question, the speakers also discussed more specific questions, such as: What is the ‘humanness’ that is denied or unequally attributed to different people (Haslam, Machery)? How to understand the development of theories of human nature, in particular the ‘killer ape’ theories after WW2, in the context of studying dehumanization (Milam)? How to understand explicit likening of people to animals? Were Jewish people, as part of the NS anti-Semitism, literally or only metaphorically regarded as ‘vermin’ etc. (Steizinger)? Do rapists literally objectify women or do they implicitly acknowledge that they are fully humans, i.e. acknowledge the subjectivity and experience of the victims in order to humiliate them (Mikkola, Smith)? What was the difference between ‘freak shows’ and ‘ethno-exhibitions’ of people (Abbattista)? Is hate crime and hate speech a matter of violating human rights and in that sense dehumanizing (Posselt)? Why do human rights still fail to legally protect all humans, e.g. refugees (Smieszek)? When is appraisal of people dehumanizing (Brynjarsdóttir and Sigvaldason)? How can art make dehumanization visible, e.g. in the context of war or poverty, and can it re-humanize those who got dehumanized (Einsele)? How is the portrayal of refugees in the media (e.g. as bogus, as criminal, as suffering) influencing dehumanization in the sense of automatic associations of humans with animals (Esses)? How do sexualized portrayal and identity threat (e.g. femininity or masculinity threat) mediate visual objectification, rape proclivity and sexual harassment (Eyssel)? Should we eliminate the term ‘human nature’ (e.g. in science), given that it facilitates dehumanization (Kronfeldner)?

Local contributors commented on the contributed talks and thus opened the dialogue with the audience, which included participants from Budapest, from Hungary generally and from abroad. The conference ended with a poetry slam on dehumanization (Molnar).

The goal of the conference was to elucidate dehumanization by taking its diverse facets seriously. The conference thereby initiated a constructive dialogue between so-far mostly isolated discourses on dehumanization in history, law, art, sciences and philosophy.

Among the many threads of discussion, one can be regarded as central: there is high systematicity in the social psychology of dehumanization (exhibiting much agreement in what is meant by ‘dehumanization’, despite a rather broad concept of dehumanization). This contrasts with the diverging usages of the concept of dehumanization within the humanities. This is not necessarily a bad thing: the humanities can serve as a constructive source for new hypotheses to be tested by psychologists and the hypotheses tested by social psychology can serve as an empirical corrective for the humanities. The discussion during the conference highlighted some ‘nuts and bolts’ of understanding dehumanization so that a multi-faceted ordering emerged. People can be dehumanized in a manner that is explicit or implicit, categorical or gradual, metaphorical or literal, synchronic or temporal, de jure or de facto, in representation or in action, in science or in politics. Dehumanization can happen in the mind of the perpetrator or in the mind of the victim, via relations or by individuals.

For program, abstracts and motivation see here.

For photos visit our Flickr site.

Watch our Dehumanization slam poetry art performance on Youtube.