So you’re not a bigot? Why, then, dehumanize the other?

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Stroop_Report_-_Warsaw_Ghetto_Uprising_06bScene 1 — dehumanizing refugees

One October morning in 2001 while having coffee at a bustling university refectory I was intently focused on a major story in The Australian newspaper. Claims had been made by leading government figures, including the Prime Minister, that some desperate asylum seekers on a leaking boat had attempted to coerce a naval vessel into taking them to Australia by threatening to throw their children overboard if their request was denied. Some did actually carry out their threat. Children were tossed into the ocean in order to force our sailors to carry out the refugees’ demands.

I did not need to wait for the eventual official inquiry to know that the claims were false. I was a parent and I knew many other parents. I know how parents behave. They do not do what our Prime Minister was telling us that these particular parents did. I could not bring myself to believe that Muslims parents lacked the parental devotion to their children that we find throughout the human race, indeed among probably all mammal species.

But these asylum seekers were Muslim so many Australians did believe the official government sources.

More recently I seem to recall reading about a directive from a government minister for reporters to be kept away from refugees so they unwelcome arrivals could not have their human faces displayed to the wider public.

Scene 2 — dehumanizing SDAs

Twenty years earlier Australians were again deeply divided over the news that parents belonging to a religious cult, the Seventh Day Adventists, had taken their infant child out to central Australia and murdered (many said sacrificed) her. At the time I belonged to a cousin cult, the Worldwide Church of God, and I knew several Seventh Day Adventist. Other members I knew well and I understood very well the strong effort the parents maintained to appear stoical when confronted by the media and again in the court hearing, because such a front how members are trained to act in public in the face of hostile pressure. We knew that the probability that the parents really murdered their own infant was small compared with the probability that much of the purported evidence for their guilt was fabricated in the minds of a public (and jury) ignorant of and hostile towards religious cults.

It took thirty-two years for the parents’ names (or in particular the mother’s name) to be exonerated and the cause of the baby’s death to be officially stated to be the result of a dingo attack. I know people today who still refuse to believe in the mother’s innocence, and I really don’t want to know them.

Scene 3 — humanizing Hitler

I have never seen the 2004 film The Downfall (Der Untergang) but I recall reading about the controversy it was causing. Many were criticizing it because it was thought to “humanize” Hitler. In principle I thought the idea admirable. We should see Hitler as a real human being, as one of us. How else could we ever really understand him, and understand how humans can create so much terror? Always viewing him as a monster, unlike the rest of us, as one whom we can theorize might justly have been murdered in his cradle, does not strike me as the best way to understand how people can create the events of the 1930s and 40s.

Scene 4 — dehumanizing Asians

I grew up being taught that Asians, and especially the Japanese, had a cruel streak in them that was alien to most of us white people. I don’t recall ever challenging that teaching because I knew it was the belief of a generation who experienced the Second World War and for whom the treatment of POWs by the Japanese was fresh in their memories. But as I grew older I came in contact with Asians in a very different context and could not bring myself to believe that their human nature was any different from mine. I was also learning about cultural and historical differences, and even learning that our white soldiers were capable of extreme cruelty themselves in the “right” circumstances.

Pausing to understand

A few days ago a new book I ordered arrived in the mail: Why would anyone believe in God? by Justin L. Barrett. In the Preface the author writes:

I do not regard believe in God as strange, loony, or irrational. Indeed, once examined from a scientific perspective, both believers and nonbelievers should appreciate how very natural and almost inevitable widespread religious belief is. What follows is my argument in a nutshell. (p. vii)


In other words, I don’t think it is helpful to treat religious believers as stupid and gullible. It that sounds strange then I suggest it’s because we don’t understand very well how humans work. Maybe we should read some works like Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained or Scott Atran’s In gods we trust : the evolutionary landscape of religion or something very heavy like Harvey Whitehouse’s Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity, or any other serious anthropological or psychological study.

Picking up a rant against the stupidity of religious beliefs may help us feel smugly superior to lesser mortals and maybe that’s what some us would prefer to making an effort to understand our fellow creatures.

Scene 5 — dehumanizing both Jews and Arabs

And then there’s the Jews and the Arabs, or the Israelis and the Palestinians. Which reminds me of one more story, one from around ten years ago, and again at the same campus where I read the newspaper reports of dark skinned Muslim refugees throwing their children overboard.

A guest speaker, an academic who as a member of the International Solidarity Movement spent some months living and working with Palestinians in the West Bank, told us of his experiences there. His talk was chock full of photographs of ordinary people, hosts, field workers, children, elderly, both men and women, their homes, their fields, how they lived everyday. Stories included the way our speaker had to get used to sporadic gunfire from Israeli soldiers; Palestinians had learned to live with it, knowing it was designed to intimidate and nothing more as they were working in their agricultural areas. The experiences of checkpoints were also told to us, along with incidents of defiance in the face of imposed difficulties in getting their produce to a market and so forth. And what the Palestinians he was living and working with had to say about Hamas. (They hated Hamas and considered the outfit at that time as interested only in recruiting their children to become expendable suicide weapons.) The slides and accounts of the experiences of everyday Palestinians under occupation was moving. It was filled with human interest and everybody came away feeling they had a far better understanding of the people behind so many negative news stories.

An Israeli student, one who had served in the Israeli Defence Force, was present and demanded a right of reply, so a public talk was also arranged for him. But he imposed conditions. It could not be held in the public theatre but in a second floor class room. Security guards were to be at the only entrance door and one or two others were to be standing in the room itself. People had to sign their names as they entered, and give their names if they chose to ask a question at the end of the talk. He also had a slide presentation. It consisted of a map colorfully displaying how much territory Arabs occupied and how small Israel was by comparison, and how narrow was their most vulnerable point. He then spoke of wars of aggression routinely waged against Israel in successive attempts to wipe them all off the map. The message was one of fear, panic, the irrational bloodlust of Palestinians and the victimhood, the heroism, the virtuousness of Israel.

I thought the contrast between the two talks was instructive. The Israeli could not bear to hear of the humanity of the Palestinians, their everyday lives and human coping mechanisms. He had to turn an audiences attention away from the humanity of the Palestinians and to direct it towards frightening demons, masses of Arabs with one hate-filled soul.

Ironically the same fear that dehumanizes the other also has a propensity to dehumanize the Israelis. The slightest suggestion of half a criticism of any historical or contemporary action by Israelis can evoke in some people livid responses as if no criticism of Israel can possibly be honest or motivated by anything other than antisemitism. Not even Israelis are thought of as human like the rest of us, certainly not like the Palestinians!, but are fundamentally of a different class of being. They are fundamentally good; any “mistakes” made are always well-intentioned or “understandable given the circumstances”. It is as if we are talking about two non-human species: one essentially demonic, the other essentially angelic.

Scene 6 —

And then we come to Muslims, and terrorism. But I think to continue would only be repeating all of the above.


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

13 thoughts on “So you’re not a bigot? Why, then, dehumanize the other?”

  1. Scene 6 doesn’t match your first 5 scenes at all. And for a counterpoint on scene 5 I will just link to this video (yes, it’s anecdotal, but then, your whole post is anecdotal).

    [Anti-Muslim hate video deleted]

    1. In the interests of balance would you like to locate and post a video of a series of Israelis calling Arabs cockroaches, vermin, etc etc etc? I think that would be true balance, yes? And the two videos would then be counterpoints of each other. But do you know why I don’t post videos or web pages of Jewish quotations like that? People say I’m out to denegrate Jews or Israelis, but the fact that I don’t post shit like that should give them pause.

      Now do explain to me how your video is in fact a point by point balance to what I posted or request its removal with an apology that it is not appropriate material for this blog.

      Alternatively you may select another video or webpage of Muslims expressing peace and condemnation of hatred.

      1. If I could actually find a video of everyday Jews/Israelis spewing hate I’d post the link. It’s fairly easy to find rabbis doing so, though nowhere near as easy as finding mullahs doing so. Does this mean everyday Jews/Israelis don’t do it? Of course not, but, there are 100s of videos of Muslims spewing hatred, and almost none of Jews, and once again when the hate is spewed I do not blame the individuals (in either case) I blame the religions that teach them this hate.

        BTW, it’s not a hate video, it’s a video of hate. Take it down if you wish.

        I think I’m going to unsub now (and I will avoid the door hitting my posterior on the way out, so don’t worry), your posts on this topic are getting more and more ridiculous, and are egging me to respond with far worse videos than the one I posted. (Not worse against Muslims, but worse in showing what they do and teach). I think this would just escalate the discussion, so I will retreat instead.

        Peace (let’s hope).

        1. So one whose arguments have hitherto been premised on Muslims not acting according to human nature claims he/she cannot find comparable anti-semitic videos. Though I suspect given the way pastasauceror has complained about not having the time to read anything contrary to his/her views about Muslims or terrorism and the obvious abundance of anti-semitic sites on the web I suspect he/she really “did not have the time” to try.

          For anyone wondering, yes, I have seen videos of interviews with Israelis expressing similar racist views towards Africans as well as Arabs; and yes, I have seen videos of interviews of Israeli West Bank settlers expressing racist hatred towards their Palestinian neighbours and declaring that they should all be expelled or massacred. If you can’t find those on the web you are either scarcely trying or rather, hopefully, not interested.

        2. If I could actually find a video of everyday Jews/Israelis spewing hate I’d post the link.

          A perfect illustration of the point I made in my post. Unimaginable that everyday Jews would spew hate but oh so easy to see Arabs or Muslims doing so. Everyday Jews/Israelis cannot be compared with everyday Arabs/Muslims. Yep, that was my point exactly, pastasorcerer. In your eyes neither is truly human. One is angelic the other demonic. Right.

  2. “I don’t think it is helpful to treat religious believers as stupid and gullible.”

    In general, it’s usually not a good idea to treat the stupid and gullible as stupid and gullible.

    I live in a quite religious society. In my experience, people claiming to be religious fall in one of two groups, those who do the bare minimum about religious duties, and those who take religious stuff more seriously. The latter have serious problems performing the simplest intellectual tasks, every single one I met.

    Of course you’d be right being sceptical about what I say, it’s anecdotal evidence and you may call it subjective.
    But there was also a clever poll, they weren’t asked if they’re religious or not but were presented with ten life factors, religion being one of them, and were asked to sort them in order of importance.
    It showed strong negative correlation between holding religion important and wealth/education – the best real life IQ tests we got.

    Of course the question remains: which causes which, but it seems religiosity and stupidity are closely related.

      1. Maybe, but none of that stands contrary to statistical correlation.
        Statistically, the strongly religious are less capable, that’s a fact. As to individuals, who knows what they would be capable of, if not for their superstitions? Newton arguably could have contributed much more if he didn’t waste so much time on nonsense bible math and occult.

  3. You’re somewhat of a maddening guy to read, Neal. On the one hand, your desire to delve into historical sources and ascertain the truth of various mythos which have so impacted our societies is commendable, both in its intellectualism and its goal of bringing truth into alignment with received history. But posts like this reveal that you yourself are a type which is bound to fail in your goal, a Northern European Protestant, (WEIRD is the acronym – White/Western Educated Individualized Rich Democratic). Said types share a fairly uniform view of the world that contrasts with many other peoples’ views, and most of these other peoples either do not care about your goal or vehemently oppose it for various reasons. Unlike the majority of the varying populations on earth – and there are many populations here, differing in thousands of measurable ways – your type possesses an inability to view difference among clearly differing populations, and thus a corresponding inability to recognize that your mantra is only relevant to a few. To say something as silly as “I know how parents behave,” could only come from this type. African-American parents openly state that European-American parents do things they would never do (e.g. fail to spank – here is Indian-Canadian comic Russell Peters discussing the concept https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZwx1LgJJTs), many Asian-American parents of different ethnicity, religion, point of origin, etc… warn their children to not act as lazy or decadent as their European-American classmates, etc…Will you allow that other groups do not believe in a uniformity of parental attitudes or actions? If not, why? If so, then they are different than you, and if they are different, is their view wrong or right in your eyes?

    With each passing decade, your type is being selected for replacement and extinction. I hope your admirable exegesis will have relevance for those others that remain, but I doubt it.

    1. When I said that I know how parents behave I trusted the context was sufficient to alert readers to understand I was most definitely NOT suggesting I know how parents teach their kids to eat their greens etc etc etc etc

      I trusted the context made it clear I was addressing not only a human universal (yes, I believe there really are human universals) but even a mammalian universal — i.e. an innate desire to protect our young offspring, even very often to the point of self-sacrifice.

      (Yes, yes, I know, we do know that there are individual exception stories, but that’s the point — they are the exceptions that require their own explanation.)

      I trust most readers will not consider it a silly statement to say that generally, even universally, “parents try to protect their children and give them a decent life”.

      To suggest such a statement only applies to White Educated Rich Democratic persons would be, I think, outrageously offensive. I even think it would be insulting to mammals and many other types of animals. It would certainly be contrary to all the parents I have observed in the non-Northern European Protestant places I have visited or lived in for varying times (Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Japan, China, Cambodia, S.Korea, Turkey, Singapore, Brunei, Czech Republic).

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading