Sunday, October 04, 2009

What it means to be a person

So I've been reading a book I got from the library recently that reminded me of one of my favorite books.

In We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, the author explains the genocide in Rwanda through interviews with survivors. One thing that really struck me about it was how the Hutu perpetrators were apparently able to convince themselves that the Tutsis weren't people. (Not really.)

And that just really bothers me. REALLY!

Dehumanizing the Vulnerable is about the way privileged groups use language to change the way others think of "undesirable" groups. There's a chapter for each of several metaphors. In We Wish the Tutsis are repeatedly referred to as "cockroaches," which would probably go into the chapter on people as vermin. If vermin isn't a good fit, you can go with disease, garbage, property, or any of a number of other possibilities.

How delightful.

It bothers me in stories, too. I get really uncomfortable with action movies where the protags mow down scores of nameless thugs. World of Warcraft has been really inconsistent; I just completed a quest where my character had to atone for killing a group of NPCs out of revenge (on a previous quest). However, earlier on, my character captured a spy who was scheduled to be executed, mouthed off to one of the officers, and the officer just flat-out killed him!

And I was thinking about it last week as we began Macbeth; it seems to me that the very first scene is pretty much to show you that the witches are eeeevil: they have demon familiars, after all. And my students have been really quick to condemn Lady Macbeth.

How - HOW - do people convince themselves that other people aren't people? I seriously don't get it. I'm not even sure why it bothers me SO MUCH.

At a foundational level, a person's worth doesn't come from race or class or social standing or ability or even behavior, but simply from being human. (There's more to it than that - I take my car to the mechanic to be fixed, not to the hairdresser!) My students think it's weird, but they don't really get in my face about it.

Images thanks to


Mrs. Chili said...

We've been talking about this a fair bit in my high school classes, where we're reading The Book Thief and The Sunflower, respectively.

I think the only way that people - rational, thinking, normal people - can treat others badly is to convince themselves that the other is not really a person. The us / them dichotomy has to be VERY clear for most people to be able to turn on their neighbors, and history has shown us, again and again, that a great many people are willing to see those neighbors as less than themselves.

Joep said...

Oh yes, it is a universal trait in mankind to relegate humans outside the personal circle to a different species.

Clix said...

Hm. I'd love to see what evolutionary psychology has to say on the matter.

Post a Comment