On the heels of ending a long-term relationship with a malignant narcissist, Lauren vehemently and unceasingly blamed herself for ‘allowing’ him to sadistically debase her. Although she intellectually concurred with M. Scott Peck’s premise that genuine love is volitional, that true intimacy is contingent on honoring one another’s humanity and that another’s proclivity to abuse and exploit is because of who they are rather than evidence of another’s unworthiness, she persisted with scornful self-incrimination.
As our therapy session carefully explored how self-flagellation is often a locus of control for victims seeking to deflect from unbearable helplessness, it became clear that Lauren was not quite ready to fully accept that she was engaged to a man who was systemically intent on reducing her to nothing, for the sole purpose of exacting complete control and domination. As cognizant as Lauren seemed to be about the nature of her ex-fiancé’s pathology, she nevertheless struggled with the surreal impact of being on the receiving end of dehumanization.
Fueled by the need to assert superiority by making others into subhuman beings, dehumanization is the process of stripping a person of every quality that makes them human. What one values and believes, the traditions one adheres to, the lineage one descends from, and even one’s genetic make-up are leveraged as grounds for methodical assault and marginalization.
Given that dehumanization is rooted in what we believe about others, the experience of those targeted by dehumanization is one of shame and guilt. Victims of dehumanization begin to doubt the integrity of their intrinsic nature and succumb to a self-fulfilled prophecy in which pejorative projections are assimilated as truth. Hence, for individuals such as my client Lauren, having one’s humanness denied, especially within the context of an ostensibly meaningful relationship, invariably warps self-perception.
Indeed, as survivors of traumatic abuse attest, dehumanizing techniques such as character assassination, stonewalling, smear campaigns, and other sundry forms of devaluation are employed by malignant narcissists (NPD) to ensure compliance and servitude. To compensate for deep-seated fears of being dehumanized and the inability to identify or tolerate feelings, engage in insightful self-reflection, or form a genuine, meaningful attachment, the malignant abuser will set out to obliterate and shame the humanity they lack within themselves.
Shielded by a facade of superiority and unquestionable authority, the orchestrating of dehumanizing tactics guarantees a steady supply of masochistic obedience and deference from a perceived threat. The target of dehumanization is persecuted into fitting a superficial construct of a lower rank. The relegation to an inferior status serves to justify lowering the bar on basic moral decency.
Dehumanization purports that if one is inherently damaged, inferior or depraved, then treating them with cruel, amoral indifference is excusable.
Of course, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that one need not be a disordered narcissist to commit mundane acts of dehumanization. After all, bias is rampant across all groups of people. We collectively and individually favor certain things and people over others. Our biases determine where our empathy is directed. Hence, those judged as not deserving of our empathy are subject to mistreatment and marginalization.
Collectively we condemn those who fall outside of popular opinion and stigmatize those who disrupt basic norms of social control (E. Goffman).
Unfazed by others’ pain, those who are global masterminds at dehumanization dictate which groups are arbitrarily assigned inferiority and amorality based on ethnicity, social class, gender, genetic make-up, and disabilities. Being assigned to the low end of the stratified totem pole generally means that one’s individuality, spirit, and identity will be vulnerable to objectification and censure.
Undeniably, history has repeatedly shown us that categorizing groups of people as lacking honorable strengths, values, traditions, and beliefs, concomitant to embodying unprincipled traits and differences, contribute to supporting egregious social policies. Specifically, the condoning of torture, carrying out drone strikes, enforcing slavery, caste systems, and acts of genocide have all relied on dehumanization strategies.
In view of the fact that dehumanization plays an important role in war, human rights abuses, and genocide, it’s clear that it does not occur in an isolated vacuum. The purging of opposition and ideological impurities by elitist ‘moral gatekeepers’ is as old as time itself.
By playing to the instinctual need for tribal belonging and highlighting the ethos of upward mobility while simultaneously igniting fear, all-encompassing compliance amongst the multitudes is ensured. In fact, ostracizing those who are collectively reviled even becomes regarded as one’s moral and civic duty.
The Eugenics Movement in the United States exemplifies this premise.
Guised as endeavors to cure mental illness, barbaric beliefs and medical practices were instituted with the intent of eradicating ‘diseased’ populations.
During the American Industrial age in the late 1800s, maximizing the potential of the land in order to feed the hungry masses led to the selective breeding of crops and farm animals. Extrapolating from this technology, it was proposed that the genetic future of the human species could be shaped.
Funded by Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, the Eugenics Movement endorsed designating those with ‘fit’ genes as eugenic, while those who were deemed genetically unfit were labeled cacogenic. Naturally, those who were economically and politically prominent fell into the eugenic category, while minorities, the impoverished, and the mentally or physically disabled were assigned cacogenic status.
These ‘diseased’ cacogneic individuals were to be exterminated through segregation, sterilization, or death. Held captive in lunatic asylums, these men and women were subject to inhumane treatment of unsettling proportions.
Psychiatry’s early support and endorsement afforded scientific validation for eugenics. Money and influence encouraged politicians and judges to make eugenics legal, and by 1933 those deemed cacogenic were imprisoned in asylums so as to prevent them from reproducing in the general population.
The United States victimized roughly 80,000 people with eugenic sterilization so that they could never again reproduce. This estimate includes targeted minority women in the 1960s. Due to America’s example of putting eugenics successfully into practice, Hitler was able to persuade the Germans to institute their own eugenics program.
By amplifying a readily discernible attribute, such as one’s skin color or religion, or a hidden but nonetheless discreditable trait if revealed, such as one’s criminal record or struggles with mental illness, targets of dehumanization are established. Social psychologist Erving Goffman’s theory of stigma (1963) explains how the deliberate process of marginalizing a group and treating them inhumanely is designed to discredit those who disrupt basic norms of social control.
As Goffman imparted in, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, “By definition, of course, we believe the person with a stigma is not quite human. On this assumption we exercise varieties of discrimination, through which we effectively, if often unthinkingly, reduce his life chances. We construct a stigma theory, an ideology to explain his inferiority and account for the danger he represents, sometimes rationalizing an animosity based on other differences, such as those of social class.”
Believing that one is ‘not quite human’ relates to what philosophy professor Dr. David Livingstone Smith cites as our innate penchant for essentialism. In his book, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, Livingstone Smith explains that the historical perpetration of inconceivably cruel human atrocities are rooted in the belief that the intrinsic value of one’s unique inner essence differentiates worthy humans from those classified as sub-human.
The assessment of intrinsic value (essentialism) informs what levels of obligation and consideration take place. Livingstone contends that this hierarchy of values is interwoven into our morality. If one is regarded as subhuman and deemed intrinsically unworthy of moral conduct, then violence is sanctioned, supported, and even exalted.
Clearly, dehumanization exists because we benefit from harming others. Folks on the malignant end of the narcissistic spectrum may be more prone to dehumanization, but aside from providing an outlet for sadism and the desire to cause suffering, dehumanization is considered a solution, a means to an end for everyone.
There is always a fall guy who affords advantages to those who need to level blame. By matching the sinner to the sin and righteously denouncing their personhood, a false sense of agency and security is ensured. What differs from ‘civilization’ or humanity is explicitly disapproved of and neatly labeled as social deviance.
Fundamentally those who are dehumanized are seen as dangerous. Identifying the evil out there assists with carrying out both self-directed personal goals, and objectives within the cooperative public domain.
Whether it is an ambient abuser characterizing all their exes as insane, or designating all Muslims as terrorists, women as witches, Native Americans as uncivilized, or African American men as sexually savage, social dominance is safeguarded and power-submissive ideologies (sexism, ageism, racism, imperialism) thrive when those perceived as the opposition are dehumanized.
As a professor of comparative mythology and theology, Joseph Campbell wrote, “One way or another, we all have to find what best fosters the flowering of our humanity in this contemporary life, and dedicate ourselves to that.”
Should we fail to heed Campbell’s wisdom, we will reap the ongoing consequences of literally and figuratively lynching those who are deemed subhuman and embody the fate philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche prophesied in Beyond Good and Evil.
“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
As Nietzsche forewarns, to resist becoming what we hate we are challenged to increase empathy in a world riddled with fear and consumed by technology, in a world in which human nature’s insatiable thirst for violence and power cannot be measured. As impossible a feat, this alone is the panacea to dismantling dehumanization and the wreckage it leaves behind.
We always appreciate articles from Sheri and this is a good example of why. Well done!
Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW is a NYC psychotherapist, freelance writer/author, and an interfaith minister in private practice specializing in the treatment of complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome, and addictive disorders. Learn more about Sheri at www.sheritherapist.com.