Growing up, I was thrown into the realities of addiction and poverty. I experienced the feelings of seeing a parent turn away from their family to a drink at a bar. My dad’s comfort was found in the bottom of a bottle, my comfort seemed lost, existing only in my imagination as I watched other little girls sway with their dads at dances and run into their arms after hitting a home run.
I grew angry at the lifestyle I felt stuck in, and soon my father was not a person to me. He became a broken bottle. A broken bottle that dripped with neglect, empty of the love most parents showed their own kids. As time went on, this anger towards him spread, and I saw others facing addiction in the same light. I saw a world of broken bottles. This is the effect of dehumanization: forgetting the individual behind your assumptions.
But as I grew up, I realized that some of the most important people in my life were recovered addicts. They were my neighbors, my colleagues, my best friends, and my family. I relearned one of the most important lessons our younger selves knew but our older selves often forget: we must see people for who they are, beyond how they appear.
By relearning this lesson, all of us can begin to create a society that truly promotes and values our humanity. A society that is inclusive to everyone.
This lesson is important to all of us as we look to build societies that are focused on supporting the people. It takes effort to recognize these dehumanizing behaviors in yourself and commit to improvement. First, we must understand what dehumanization actually is and how it affects our lives. Then, we can follow simple steps to build communities in which we want to live.
So what is dehumanization?
Dehumanization is the process of depriving people of their positive human qualities. Unfortunately, dehumanization is often perpetuated by the media and politics.
Think about social media, where social networks and digital identities provide us with a tribalistic approach to forming opinions of others. Our group can do no wrong, while opposing views are void of reason and lack the ability to think rationally. This feeling of total and absolute rightness is only further supported by algorithms.
Eli Pariser, co-founder of UpWorthy, explained that everyone online sees content tailored to their unique digital identity:
Your filter bubble is your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. And what’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But the thing is that you don’t decide what gets in. And more importantly, you don’t actually see what gets edited out (2011).
Politics even further dehumanizes individuals. In every political campaign, entire social issues become viewed as only black or white. Marginalized communities quickly become pawns for politicians to use to prove the validity of their own agenda. For instance, Immigrants that are undocumented face dehumanizing comments by politicians running on a campaign to pass legislation increasing border security.
These are only some examples of dehumanization. Because while we have created systems to support humankind, it appears this humanity has been lost. While my and many peoples’ experience with dehumanization leads to a lack of empathy towards others and holding personal prejudices, larger and more propagandized dehumanization can and does lead to violence, genocides and structural inequities.
We have the potential to work against dehumanization and build a people-based society. This starts with two simple steps we can all take: Pay Attention and Speak Up.
Pay attention as you go about your day, and reflect on your thoughts of others. When you see someone who is different from you on the basis of social class, religion, race, gender, or any other group, reflect. Some questions you can ask yourself to guide this reflection includes:
- What automatic assumptions and/or stereotypes came to mind?
- Have you recognized that they are an individual with a story and feelings?
- Are you treating this individual with the dignity and respect owed to another?
In the workplace and in your home, you can be an advocate for the people around you and start challenging outdated ideals or processes that exclude people. Create a space that is inclusive to everyone and promote equitable policies.
When I realized that my assumptions of other people were negatively impacting my perspective of the world and how our society operates, I had to spend time building self-awareness. And soon, by questioning my thoughts and taking action when it was necessary, I built a habit. We can all build this habit of reflection. I follow these steps because I believe in our community’s potential to one day be a just and equitable society. I also believe in humanity and the value a person with different experiences and opposing viewpoints brings to a conversation. Though the media and politics will continue to affect our view of others, we can and must continue to question ourselves and our view of the world.
Together, we have the potential and the responsibility to transform our communities. Change is accessible–all it requires is for us to pay attention and speak up.