Dehumanization

Dehumanization is a technique which intentionally depicts a human being as anything other than a human. Representation of an individual or groups of similar individuals with animal or bestial characteristics turns a dignified human being or members of a race, into an “other.” Representation as inanimate objects (see Magnetic Blaine) also dehumanizes and converts a person into a material item or gadget, and therefore easily discarded or diminished. When humans are classified and conceptualized as lesser “others,” superior humans feel entitled to rule, dominate, judge and punish “others” without guilt.

Group of Vultures waiting for the storm to blow over - let us prey,"13-September-1871 by Thomas Nast for Harper's Weekly. Source: Library of Congress
Group of Vultures waiting for the storm to blow over – let us prey,”13-September-1871 by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. Source: Library of Congress

For example, Nast depicted Tweed as a vulture, an unattractive and corpulent version of the predator. He reduced Catholic bishops to a swarm of crocodiles in “American Rivers Ganges.”  Taking cues from English artists he admired, Nast and other cartoonists frequently depicted Irish Americans as apes.

George Frederick Keller would depict the Chinese on the West Coast as invading forces of locusts or hordes of pigs. They were also depicted as cephalopods  or octopuses.

Satire cartoon of Chinese laborer working abnormally fast
“What Shall We Do With Our Boys” – 3 March, 1882 by George Frederick Keller for The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp

“Octopuses had long been the icons of the top-down authoritarian power in Europe. In industrializing America,however, a revolutionary nation that imagined itself free of corruption of Europe also became entangled in monopolies controlling previously unimagined wealth and power” (Tchen/Yates 4-5). See “What Shall We Do With Our Boys” to see a Chinese worker drawn as an octopus, monopolizing labor.

Euro-Americans with a belief in their Manifest Destiny celebrated visual depictions and iconography of “epic confrontations” of the brave against “inferior hordes” and can be seen in many French and English paintings of the American West (Tchen/Yeats, 163-164). The archetype of the “lone hero” such as Custer and his last stand, or Crockett at the Alamo, appealed to American patrons of the arts whether it be the high art of oil painting or the low art of cartoons. Battling against the Chinese hordes fit nicely into this new American archetypal way of perceiving “others.”

Dehumanization may assign unpleasant behavioral traits onto a race or ethnic group, e.g., Chinese as rat eaters.  With the arrival of Darwin’s evolutionary theories, many Anglo-centric populations in Europe and America were willing to incorporate the theories as justification to define African Americans or Irish Americans, and later the Chinese,  as sub-strata human beings, or as occupiers of a lower rung on the evolutionary ladder. Dehumanization also occurs through language to define and reduce individuals in simplistic derogatory terms e.g., “gooks,” “mics,” “spics,” “kikes,” “niggers,” “chinks.” Therefore, through word and or image dehumanizing an individual or group of people reinforces the mindset of the oppressor a justification for their prejudice.

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