The Humanity of Humans

From THE BRIGHTER SIDE OF HUMAN NATURE: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life (Basic Books, 1990)

The Humanity of Humans

By Alfie Kohn

I am looking at two photographs that are sitting on my desk. The first, which I clipped out of a newspaper, is of a teenage girl. She has a charming smile and shoulder-length hair, and she is wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the message: “THANK GOD FOR AIDS.”

I look at the photo for a long time, searching for clues in her face to explain this. I wonder how bigoted a pair of parents would have to be to produce someone who would pull this shirt over her head in the morning. Presumably she has never known a homosexual, or, for that matter, someone dying of a terrible disease — but something other than a simple lack of experience is at work here and I am not entirely sure I know what it is.

My eyes drift to the second photo, which immediately transfixes me just as it did the first time I saw it reproduced in a scholarly article on dehumanization. It is a photo of a Southern lynch mob: a crowd of white men and women in the foreground and the bodies of two black men hanging from a tree above and behind them. Eight or nine of the white people are facing the camera, several of them smiling as if they were at a picnic; one man points with his index finger so the viewer should be sure not to miss the two dead men or his own satisfaction with what has been done to them. In the lower left — and this is the area I keep returning to — stands a young couple. They are both looking at me and grinning. They seem friendly, the sort of folks I might enjoy having dinner with. She is holding her right hand behind her back and he is grasping her thumb affectionately.

How can this be? I am asked to accept not only that A can kill B, not only that C, D, and E can watch while this happens, but that C can hold onto D’s thumb. This pushes my imagination to its limits. How can these people be casual, relaxed, pleased when two corpses (which were people a short while before) are swinging from a linden tree not 15 feet away?

I continue to watch their faces intently as though it were sensible to hope that the gravity of what they have seen, what they have allowed to happen, will begin to sink in and their smiles will vanish before my eyes and their faces will turn ashen and he will drop her thumb and they will realize they are not on a date but present at a murder. At the same time the teenager in the other photo will look down at her chest and she will blink a few times in disbelief and, very softly, she will mumble, “Oh my God” and stand frozen with horror as tears well up in her eyes until suddenly she rouses herself and rips off the t-shirt, preferring the embarrassment of nakedness to the obscenity of applauding mass death.

But the subjects in the photographs continue to smile until at last I turn away from them. I cannot bear to see, nor manage to understand, these illustrations of what happens when a whole group of people — in this case, blacks or gays — is objectified. This is the logical conclusion of failing to appreciate the humanity one shares with the members of an out-group. In wartime, it happens predictably. It happens necessarily, in fact; otherwise, killing is not possible. Nazis did not shove human beings into gas chambers; they rid the Fatherland of Untermenschen as if they were skimming scum off the surface of soup. American soldiers in Vietnam did not pump bullets into people’s bodies; they simply exterminated Communist “insects.” Israeli soldiers are not (as I write) shooting children to death who could be their own younger siblings, or crushing bones by slamming down their rifle butts on the hands of innocent shopkeepers; they are protecting themselves from “terrorists”….


Part of what makes a lover exciting, a friend fulfilling, an author challenging, a dinner companion entertaining is the fact that their experiences are different from yours. There are as many ways of acting and reacting, construing and constructing, as there are people, and it is the irreducible otherness of these people’s ways that we find intriguing — or, on other occasions, unnerving, perplexing, appalling. Perspective-taking and empathy remind us of the general fact of multiplicity even while helping us to imagine what it must be like to be this particular other, the one sitting right over there, this person whom above all I am not.

But, then again, maybe not above all. Often unexpected similarities — shared idiosyncrasies and opinions — in the lives of two strangers stand out against a background of differences. And, just as important, figure and ground can be reversed: The differences can be appreciated in light of the fact that this person whom I am not is first of all also a person. It is this that allows us to bridge the gap, to feel into and imagine. Were we fundamentally dissimilar, we could scarcely apprehend the other’s experience, let alone translate it into our own dialect. The philosopher Martin Buber reminded us that without distance there is no relationship, but it is also true that without shared humanness, there is no overcoming the distance.

That you and I belong to the same species is a reality to be savored. The word “humanization” sounds contrived, but the reality to which it refers is important to acknowledge lest we assume that the only alternative to dehumanizing is doing nothing at all. I think we would do well to imagine a continuum here. At the zero point is the absence of any thought or feeling regarding this issue. The line extending to the left represents increasing degrees of dehumanization; to the right, the growing appreciation for the other’s humanity. I should like to begin with a closer look at the negative — the various ways by which we sometimes regard our fellows as less than human.



Before it flaked off into New Age supernaturalism, humanistic psychology offered a thoughtful critique of the discipline. It drew from existentialism and writings in the Eastern traditions, from the vigorous revisionism of the neo-Freudians and the growing discomfort of various heterodox personality theorists and researchers. Its mission was nothing less than the rescue of the human being from the rigid, positivistic science of behaviorism and from the dark, instinctivist determinism of psychoanalysis. Something of our potential is overlooked, the humanists argued, our three dimensions flattened into two, by these traditions and also by the uncritical and excessive reliance on natural science methods to study people. To experiment on subjects with the same essential methodology used to investigate microbes and quarks, to turn intangibles such as love or creativity or anguish over mortality into quantifiable variables, is to achieve precision at the cost of reducing us, fragmenting us, boiling us down. To see the person primarily as a mobile information processor or a clever rodent with vocal cords (man as computer, man as rat) is not only to create an inadequate theory but also to do violence to the reality of human life. With the best of intentions and credentials, theorists and researchers were said to have drained the humanness from the humans whose behavior and motivation they presumed to study.

To be sure, this precis collapses a varied set of critiques into a few phrases. The reason I include it here is that this line of criticism effectively charged Ph.D.s with an insidious form of dehumanization. The implication is that our humanity is at risk not only because of the attitudes taken by individuals but also because of institutional forces. Of course, academic psychology represents only one of these forces, and hardly the most prominent of them.

One thinks immediately of Marx’s critique of the dehumanizing impact of capitalism, a critique which he did not confine to his early philosophic manuscripts. The methodical dry prose of Capital, too, suddenly erupts into a passionate indictment of a system in which those with power exploit those without it: “They mutilate the laborer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine,…transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital.” Any number of social critics have called our attention to the effects of mind-numbing labor, chilly bureaucratic organization, the identification of each individual with a highly specialized task, and the society’s relentless pursuit of technological efficiency. These interlocking phenomena have been decried by an assortment of critics for squeezing the juice out of human beings.

We do much the same thing on a smaller scale when we reduce someone to a label, an abstraction, or a single feature. When a man judges a woman solely on the basis of her appearance, he is engaging in an act that is not merely sexist but dehumanizing, one analogous to the identification of someone solely on the basis of, say, mathematical ability. These handles (“the math genius,” “the one with the great body”) are convenient and can even come to be accepted by the one so labeled: It is better for one’s self to be identified with a single characteristic than not to have any identity at all. But this everyday reductionism leaves us with less than a whole and therefore less than a human — even if the descriptions themselves are intended to be flattering.

As the labels become less benign and the dehumanization more extreme, we begin to witness a cyclical relation between attitude and behavior. When we encounter people divested of dignity, destitute and desperate, we relate to them as subhuman and thus justify to ourselves turning away from, or even adding to, their misery. This is the secret of how the affluent of many cultures, cultivated and proud of their moral refinement, can accept (and profit from) the oppression of an entire class of people. Reduced by oppression to a ragged and pathetic state, deprived of opportunity to be otherwise, these people come to be seen as deserving their plight. Strip away their humanity and they seem unworthy of being treated as humans….The farther one moves in the direction of stripping an individual or group of humanity, the more license one feels to do harm; the more violent one becomes, the more likely that one will dehumanize….



If we are talking about the dehumanization that results from political and economic forces, then it would seem to follow that these forces will have to be addressed in order to rehumanize ourselves. The principles to guide any such structural changes are also applicable to altering individual interactions. One way or another, all of them deal with ways of making another person’s humanness as difficult as possible to avoid.

Two researchers put it this way: “Studies of aggression have yielded at least one clear generalization: an awareness of our own and of others’ humanity lessens the likelihood that aggression will occur.” The confidence in this finding impels us to try to figure out how to reach and maintain such an awareness, how to bring us together.

One approach to reducing figurative distance is to reduce physical distance. Virginia Woolf may have overstated things a bit when she wrote that it is “almost impossible to dislike anyone if one look[s] at them,” but her point is basically sound. Unless one is skilled at objectifying others or in the grips of some malevolent passion, merely coming face to face with the other can have the effect of making her humanness sharper and more salient. All else being equal, one is inclined to root for someone who is here in the flesh. Rivalry and cruelty thrive on distance because distance allows us to turn people into abstractions.

Studies by Stanley Milgram and others have shown that subjects are less likely to give severe shocks to people whom they can see, hear, and touch. The less remote the other is, the less willing we are to hurt him — precisely because it is more difficult to dehumanize someone who is palpably, undeniably human. (It is in this spirit that one psychologist proposes that arms control negotiators be required to talk to each other in the nude.)…

Researchers have found that even superficial eye contact or conversation with a stranger increases the probability of subsequently helping that person. Giving people the opportunity to communicate with each other before playing a laboratory game, meanwhile, makes it more likely that they will play cooperatively rather than just trying to maximize personal gain. Mediation programs that bring thieves and their victims face to face have had the effect of leading offenders to regret their actions and victims to abandon their desire for revenge. Finally, even this direct exposure to others is unnecessary for people whose capacity for empathy is most fully developed: For them, “direct personal contact…is not essential for building bonds of we.

In the last chapter, I argued that if perspective-taking is to help us capture the unique reality of the other, it must be conceived as a process of imagining him, not just imagining oneself in his situation. Here I want to qualify this: If the objective is to retain or recapture a sense of the other’s humanness — what we share rather than how we differ — then the imagine-self strategy may do nicely. The fact that one person regards another as similar to herself will tend to facilitate empathy, but empathy and perspective-taking also can promote that sense of similarity. If I reflect on how I would react in another’s situation, I come to recognize that I very well could be in her situation. To realize that I would likely be overcome with despair is to realize that this is likely how she is feeling — and perhaps it also means that I will share that feeling. In any case, this process facilitates the recognition of what we have in common. Small wonder that people who are asked to imagine themselves in the other’s place are less likely to blame that person for his predicament and more likely to react with compassion.

The antidote to dehumanization, then, is to appreciate not only the other’s distinctive point of view but also to see that other as a human subject — and to recognize that we share this attribute. This “emotional realization of the unity of mankind as a species” is not a contrivance to be employed on special occasions; it is a mode of being-in-the-world, a way of living. It emerges from the acknowledgment that one’s meaning — one’s own humanness — depends on affirming the subjectivity of others. Such a humanizing affirmation has the concrete consequence of reducing aggression, making life safer and more pleasant. But it is also an end in itself….

Maximizing personal knowledge, minimizing distance and anonymity, are useful not just for humanizing in general but specifically for overcoming the obstacle of deindividuation. Assumptions about a particular group are shattered as one comes into contact with its members, one by one. At first, the stereotypes persist and remain in uneasy coexistence with direct knowledge about an individual: He’s one of the good X’s. Eventually, as one comes to know too many counterexamples — and the chief reason prejudice endures is that this happens too rarely — the stereotypes teeter and collapse. Along with the sweeping assumptions about this particular group, the epistemological framework by which individuals are seen principally as members of one or another out-group is challenged. Concrete details nudge one upward toward seeing shared humanness, and downward toward seeing uniqueness. The combination makes it nearly impossible to objectify or to harm….

As the psychologist Leon Eisenberg put it, one whose “concerns extend beyond family and beyond nation to mankind has become fully human.”


[References, which have been omitted here, may be found in The Brighter Side of Human Nature.]

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