The Dehumanization & Diminishment That Kills

Photo by Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/Zuma

I can be in a friendly, upbeat mood and have it dashed by the most efficient automated phone system. You know the ones that dehumanize and diminish the caller. They offer multiple options but none apply to the reason for your call. To throw insult to intelligence, the voice mail system reminds you in a cheerful, recorded voice how important you are to them. Yep, I always put my best friends in a holding pattern when they call.

By the time I talk to a human being, I’m agitated, tense, and annoyed.

I wonder if in all our talk about why we’ve had shootings in movie theaters, schools, and even our sacred religious sites that we’re missing the core problem. What if our dehumanizing culture is the underlying reason for the violence?

Voice mail systems are one way in which we are dehumanized. Speed trap and red light cameras allow us no grace for an error.  If our speed creeps up even if only for a few minutes in the wrong place we are penalized. What human being has never made a driving mistake?

Absolutism is another way in which we dehumanize one another. Anytime we use or imply words like all, always, or never we can dehumanize. This happens in our polarized political system when we say things such as, “All abortions are immoral and should be banned,” “Republicans are insensitive and racist,” or “Muslims are terrorists.” These are all false statements because of absolutism. They and others diminish another’s humanity.

On a personal level we practice absolutism when we group people together, rather than getting to know them. I remember bristling as a child when my sister or mother accusingly lumped my brother and I together as “the boys.” The implication was that we were the same, lacking individual free choice.

Yes, my brother and I had similarities but we were not “the boys,” we were David and Tim. People who are atheist or of a particular religious group, also share commonalities within their designation. The problem is that once we pack someone up inside the African American box, the old white guy box, or the Christian box, we too often stop listening and learning about one another. We use it as a way to exclude others from the human family.

As individuals we also diminish another’s humanity when we ignore the grocery checker. Continuing to talk to our partner in shopping or to talk on the phone without acknowledging and including the human being scanning our food dehumanizes. When we see only “an old lady” or a “young thug” on the street, we diminish.

Our culture is filled with many dehumanizing experiences that we cannot personally change. I’ll have to deal with voice mail hell for the foreseeable future. When I do finally talk to a human being on the telephone, however, I can use every ounce of my humanity to be civil. Whether the person on the other end of the line is in South Dakota, my own small town, or India, she is a human being.

Still, I wonder if our culture of dehumanization and diminishment makes it easier for those who have less emotional stability or are mentally ill, to learn to see others as non-human. Once we see someone as less than human, killing them becomes easier.

What if we could solve our violence problem by dismantling the dehumanizing elements in our world? What if we learned to care about every single individual in our culture? What if we saw the divinity — the Imago Dei — in every one?

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