December 12, 2019
David Livingstone Smith, Ph.D., professor of philosophy, was featured in a recent episode of the podcast “Through Conversations,” in which he discussed the mentality behind dehumanization and the ways it can be resisted.
Smith spoke with show host Alex Levy about how he defines philosophy, how cultures influence people’s perceptions of others, and the role of an individual in an authoritarian state.
Speaking to the origins of dehumanization, Smith said people possess psychological tendencies that, under the right circumstances, allow them to form potentially destructive misconceptions about others.
He said these circumstances arise primarily from outside influences, namely culturally-held ideologies and propaganda.
“Dehumanization doesn’t just arise in the human heart,” he said. “It comes from external influences: ideologies that are embedded in a culture for decades or maybe centuries and propaganda by people who have an investment in us doing terrible things to one another.”
Smith also discussed the rise of hate speech and racism in the United States — particularly since the election of President Trump — as a catalyst for dehumanization.
“The racist undercurrents, which have been bursting into the ocean, especially since Trump’s election, they were always there. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in the Deep South, white people were openly racist; then it became socially unacceptable,” he said. “One of the things that made [Trump] so powerful was he gave these people permission to be authentic. Giving people permission to say what they believe and act accordingly is a very, very, very powerful thing.”
Smith has, in the past, spoken with TIME Magazine and radio station WNYC about Trump’s reference to some immigrants as “animals.” In November, Smith was quoted in a Washington Post article about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, where the use of derogatory language by both protestors and police has increased.
Smith is the author of the award-winning book “Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others.” His forthcoming book, “On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It,” is now available for pre-order.