Culture Magazine

Paul Bloom on Cruelty and Violence

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
In The New Yorker:
Manne’s analysis can be seen as an exploration of an observation made by Margaret Atwood—that men are afraid that women will laugh at them, and women are afraid that men will kill them. For Manne, such violent episodes are merely an extreme manifestation of everyday misogyny, and she extends her analysis to catcalling, attitudes toward abortion, and the predations of Donald Trump.
Nor are the mechanisms she identifies confined to misogyny. The aggressions licensed by moral entitlement, the veneer of bad faith: those things are evident in a wide range of phenomena, from slaveholders’ religion-tinctured justifications to the Nazi bureaucrats’ squeamishness about naming the activity they were organizing, neither of which would have been necessary if the oppressors were really convinced that their victims were beasts.
If the worst acts of cruelty aren’t propelled by dehumanization, not all dehumanization is accompanied by cruelty. Manne points out that there’s nothing wrong with a surgeon viewing her patients as mere bodies when they’re on the operating table; in fact, it’s important for doctors not to have certain natural reactions—anger, moral disgust, sexual desire—when examining patients. The philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum has given the example of using your sleeping partner’s stomach as a pillow when lying in bed, and goes on to explore the more fraught case of objectification during sexual intercourse, suggesting that there’s nothing inherently wrong about this so long as it is consensual and restricted to the bedroom.
As a philosopher, Manne grounds her arguments in more technical literature, and at one point she emphasizes the connection between her position and the Oxford philosopher P. F. Strawson’s theory of “reactive attitudes.” Strawson argued that, when we’re dealing with another person as a person, we can’t help experiencing such attitudes as admiration and gratitude, resentment and blame. You generally don’t feel this way toward rocks or rodents. Acknowledging the humanity of another, then, has its risks, and these are neatly summarized by Manne, who notes that seeing someone as a person makes it possible for that person to be a true friend or beloved spouse, but it also makes it possible for people to be “an intelligible rival, enemy, usurper, insubordinate, betrayer, etc.”
It's not simply dehumanization:
Certainly, Pitzer’s description of various concentration camps contains so many examples of cruelty and degradation that it’s impossible to see them as a mere failure to acknowledge the humanity of their victims. As the scholar of warfare Johannes Lang has observed of the Nazi death camps, “What might look like the dehumanization of the other is instead a way to exert power over another human.”
The limitations of the dehumanization thesis are hardly good news. There has always been something optimistic about the idea that our worst acts of inhumanity are based on confusion. It suggests that we could make the world better simply by having a clearer grasp of reality—by deactivating those brain implants, or their ideological equivalent. The truth may be harder to accept: that our best and our worst tendencies arise precisely from seeing others as human.

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