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De-Humanizing and Personhood: The Best and the Worst

Updated: Jul 28

The dehumanizing of entities, whether organic, robotic or otherwise, is both the best and worst ways to justify heinous acts such mass shootings, murders and genocides.

What is the similarity between Stormtroopers from Star Wars, the original Nazis, demon-kind and robots? The prime similarity is that we dehumanize them to the point that we rarely feel any kind of remorse when they die in a piece of fiction... and in real life.

The Holocaust occurred because the Jews were dehumanized by a twisted version of Darwin's theory; The notion that there are beings that are more "human" than others, or at least, more superior, as humans. The Jews and other minorities were seen and accepted as lesser beings, and thus it was "justified" to shame, isolate and eventually, kill millions of them.

It is the same form of reducing beings to a far lesser degree than yourself when the bad guy dies in a movie, or when you kill hordes of demons in DOOM or robots in Sonic the Hedgehog.

Had these beings' existent in the real world, they would be persecuted minorities, as they are the "enemy" you're "supposed" to "kill" or watch being killed, as a form of entertainment.

There seems to be a sort of hypocrisy when it comes to entities belonging to the same faction, being killed in fiction. In the game, "Shadow the Hedgehog", there is a level, or area, where you massacre robots on your way to defeat the one leading them, a human scientist.

One of the controversies this game received in reception, was about the protagonist killing the scientist after you defeat him. It is a controversy because in that franchise you never get to kill him.

However, it is hypocritical to claim that killing a human being as preposterous, when the robots in that franchise are also capable of emotion, and thus -- capable of feeling pain upon their destruction.

This is the "best" part of dehumanizing entities -- the fact that it allows us to overlook the suffering of others, as they are beneath us, if they are even "deserving" of being referred to anything but the pronoun of "it", as if they are mere objects, incapable of experience.

Do robots feel emotion? In some media, they do, and they indeed do in that franchise I was referring to, two paragraphs earlier. Sure, they are the enemy, and many of them are silent and voiceless, but it doesn't mean that, in theory, they cannot feel pain in these fictional universes.

I am unaware of Nazi propaganda, but if it was effective enough to justify sending human beings to gas chambers, and actually accomplishing it, then dehumanizing is indeed an effective method of ignoring one's personhood.

What is personhood? It is a very grey area, especially in the topic of pregnancy, but when it comes to humans, almost all of us would agree that we are people, or persons, and not something far inferior. This form of identification makes us distinctive than other things and entities surrounding our world, from inanimate objects to bugs and germs.

Thus, when a human dies horribly, we might feel sorry for them, especially if we happen to know them. Stepping on an ant on your morning walk, on the other hand, would not necessarily trigger such heavy reaction, because ants are generally viewed as lesser than humans, even if they are biological beings, far bigger than germs.

Stepping on an ant in real life is almost the same as killing a faceless character in a form fiction or watch them being killed. That is because for many, both of these examples lack the component of personhood.

I recall a certain game where I could shoot a character who is immortal but could still feel pain. Apparently, it was a prototype for the enemies that were used for the game, a test dummy. When you were introduced to him, the developers of the game tell you something like "Shoot him all you want, he's evil".

The concept of evil can also reduce one's personhood in our eyes, and thus, their suffering would be more accepted by us, as if they deserve it. I don't know, sometimes they deserve it. Perhaps Hitler deserved to die, perhaps Eichmann, his henchman, deserved to be executed by my homeland. When advocating himself, Eichmann said he was just "following orders".

So, the next time you see someone in pain, or getting killed, in real life or in fiction, consider evaluating their personhood, even if they are not humans. A silent entity can still feel, and lack of behaviour doesn't indicate lack of consciousness.

That's why behaviourism, the belief that external expression is an indication of mentality, is not always true, if at all. When my grandmother was utterly paralyzed after she collapsed in 2011, she was still alive, until her death the following year.

Don't you tell me she didn't feel anything just because she couldn't even move her face. She wasn't a "plant", a "vegetable"; she was still a person. Our faces are merely masks we can move; a medium, not the core of our consciousness.

Now excuse me while I kill faceless enemies in the digital world again and again, like harvesting crops in a farm. It is an acceptable form of entertainment in our world; one my deceased grandma was never fond of. I at least hope that these specific algorithms will never get to actually experience the pain of being killed.

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Tomasio A. Rubinshtein, Philosocom's Founder & Writer

I am a philosopher from Israel, author of several books in 2 languages, and Quora's Top Writer of the year 2018. I'm also a semi-hermit who has decided to dedicate his life to writing and sharing my articles across the globe. Several podcasts on me, as well as a radio interview, have been made since my career as a writer. More information about me can be found here.

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