September 6th, 2015

Dehumanization Through Objectification

Perhaps society’s greatest failure is in denying the humanity of the individual. Throughout history, entire races, genders, cultures, religious groups, professions, and other classes and combinations have been collectively consolidated into generalized groups and pejoratively painted with broad brushes.

Rather than seeing another individual as a person like them—another child of God with talents, trials, qualities, and curiosities—far too many people dehumanize others, objectifying them for their pleasure or scorn. It therefore becomes easy to take advantage of another, after first deeming them of subhuman value—for if the person had human value, we might treat them as we ourselves would prefer to be treated by them.

The most striking example is pornography, where a person is reduced to mere body parts—a factory of flesh to be served up for those who wish to satiate their sexual gratification. Now that I’m a father, I find myself pondering what kind of life must lead a person to be photographed or filmed for the express purpose of another’s sexual self-indulgence—a dark and hidden act that takes into account nothing more than the size, shape, or sensuality of the model’s body. What kind of family did this person grow up in? How warped must his or her emotional development be to take pride in such work, and to be known for nothing more than how stimulating he or she is to others? If this person’s parents are unaware or supportive of such a line of work, then thought should still be given to what his or her heavenly parents would think of such behavior.

The degree to which this objectification has skewed the actions of so many can be demonstrated, I think, with a simple question: What father with a predilection towards pornography would want his daughter to be somebody else’s fleeting fetish?

Growing up in southern California, I often observed immigrants laboring in others’ yards—toiling in the hot sun for hours on end, performing tasks that few others would do with such dedication and quality. And yet, they were from a different culture and class; their employers and passersby did not interact with them, with rare exception. They were a means to an end—a cheap way to check off a few chores from the list.

Working now in public policy, I see the same objectification on a grander scale: immigrants are invaders, hell-bent on taking American jobs; Muslims are all terrorists, or terrorist sympathizers and supporters, hoping to kill infidels to earn virgins in the afterlife; children are ignoramuses that need the wisdom and conformity that Common Core and other top-down curriculum mandates provide; voters are usually ignorant individually, but in the aggregate their decisions are worthy of our subservience; soldiers are heroes; police are protectors; politicians are public servants; and on and on.

God does not judge us based on our affiliation with a successful sports team, how muscular we are, or if we’ve earned a military credential or professional recognition. “Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” We are individuals—full of imperfections, interests, competing loyalties, funny stories, and endearing qualities. Our characteristics may categorize us, but they don’t define us.

It is easier to exploit others when we do not think of them as somebody’s child, or sibling, or parent. It’s why innocent bystanders of war’s carnage are blithely dismissed as “collateral damage,” or why we’re comfortable cutting off or raging at fellow drivers on the freeway. It’s also how supposedly progressive (though I might say regressive) “pro-choicers” have become cheerleaders for the mass slaughter of unborn babies and the subsequent harvesting and sale of their body parts.

Imagine if instead of seeing a “porn star” we could see a single mother of two kids with a drug addiction who is on the edge of eviction, or a person who experienced sexual abuse as a young child. Perhaps we’d feel sorry for these people, rather than perpetuating the problem for personal pleasure.

What if instead of seeing immigrants as threats, we pondered the reasons for which they want to abandon their home? Maybe we would have compassion for their circumstances, and be motivated to help them find the better life they seek.

Maybe we would be a kinder driver if we gave the benefit of the doubt to the guy in front of us, who might be rushing to the hospital. It might help us recognize our own hypocrisy, recalling instances where our actions—clearly justified in our own mind—may have led a nearby driver to get upset with us.

Might we reserve our adulation for veterans if we considered the alarmingly prevalent sexual abuse rate within the ranks, and the harm some of them cause to innocent people in their path? Doing so might help us to reconsider what heroism is, and reserve it for praiseworthy instances, rather than anybody wearing a uniform.

There are plenty of examples, of course, but the point is this: you and I are not the sum of our parts—we are more than that. Of course, we know this; we know full well what our positive attributes are, the ambition of our goals, the service we’ve rendered, the trials we have, and the knowledge we’ve gained. Let’s not fall into the trap of failing to see in others what is obvious through introspection: that humanity is intricate and has worth. In short, let’s take the Golden Rule from theory to practice.

11 Responses to “Dehumanization Through Objectification”

  1. Eric C
    September 6, 2015 at 2:57 pm #

    Great analysis and, as usual, bold statements.

    There is certainly going to be a knee-jerk reaction from commenters who—missing the whole point of the article—will rush to the defense of the military and the police, making the usual argument that soldiers and police officers are patently deserving of our respect and adulation.

  2. Phil P
    September 7, 2015 at 8:58 am #

    While I am inclined more toward pacifism that our current foreign policy of world cop. You undermine your Christ like call to charity by insinuating that soldiers are sex abusers. Our soldiers are brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers of some one as well. Shouldnt we reserve condemnation for those soldiers who admittedly engage the enemy because they delight in bloodshed or sexual exploitation.

    Otherwise a well written article worthy of the Ensign magazine, Connor.

  3. Connor
    September 7, 2015 at 9:00 am #

    The point is that there are many soldiers who are sex abusers. We should therefore abstain from considering them all heroes, when some (many?) of them commit vile acts.

  4. Joe Evans
    September 7, 2015 at 3:44 pm #

    A well-written piece that needed to be said. I don’t generally agree with everything you say, but this is one article with which I fully agree. And in your brief summation, who in their right mind could disagree with your promotion of the Golden Rule. If there is one primary thing our society needs more than any other, this is it!

  5. Phil P
    September 7, 2015 at 11:14 pm #

    Connor I just disagreed with the use of the word

    Prevalent: generally or widely accepted, practiced, or favored : widespread

    I served an LDS mission wherein I taught and interacted with many servicemen, I just don’t think it is prevalent or even common.

  6. John Fronk
    September 8, 2015 at 10:15 am #

    I don’t know if I agree or not. Is pornography a problem? Yes. Is illegal immigration a problem? Yes. Are millions of Muslims terrorists? Yes. Do our veterans and law enforcement people deserve our respect? Yes. It would be nice if we could deal with all these people as individuals. Perhaps on some one on one level we can. However, as a society I’m not sure we can deal with these problems on an individual basis. These issues go beyond the individual and must be dealt with by policy and law that deals with an entire group of people or industry. I’m not sure Europe can deal with their current refugee problem by dealing with individuals. They have to decide what to do with a group of thousands as the direct result of Islamic terrorism. They may have to kill one group of people in order to save another group of people. In the end, innocent individuals are going to die. Maybe it’s easier to deal with if you don’t know who they all are.

  7. SaraJ
    September 8, 2015 at 4:15 pm #

    Interesting read. When I comment I try to really think not only about the articles words but also the author’s perspective. So I rechecked the purpose of Libertas Institute and had a wee chuckle. “…the voluntary creation of a moral society by persuasion and example to improve our great state.” I wouldn’t be surprised if this particular line was included in an ISIS manifesto somewhere, their concept of persuasion is a little more forceful than the Libertas Institute’s I would imagine. My point – what is your freedom fighter, is my terrorist. What is your hero, is my oppressor. Easy enough to understand.

    As for porn industry participants, there are actually quite a few porn actor/esses who participate voluntarily and without a damaged past. We, who claim the moral high ground, like to think that those who are active in such sordid endeavours are of the ‘other’, the not like us group, a bit of distance for what we could be.

    Fundamentally, a group can and often does come to a consensus about what is moral or right or correct or set in stone. We group others, while knowing full well a group is made up of individuals. We like order. It is easier for us to make sense of our world. All the wise teachers I know, all talk about seeing the individual’s worth, walking in their shoes. They, and I hope I do too, know that we are singular and of value to our Heavenly Father, he knows us individually. But I suspect he also has mega multi-tasking ability so he is able to know us individually. I’d like to but hey I’m so busy you have to catch my attention by being unique in your group.

  8. Iimx
    September 25, 2015 at 1:48 pm #

    If you do not see anyone as a complete person, isn’t that a form of objectification? Potentially, even the LDS view of a person could be objectifying. This is as far as wishing them to conform to some ideal(s). It could potentially result in very, very real harm.

  9. Clumpy
    September 28, 2015 at 9:36 am #

    I think the issue is further complicated when in point of fact, many people are means to ends, at least in the context in which we deal with them. With the sheer number of people we see in passing every day and the realities of economic transaction, that’s unavoidable.

    For example, I try to say “hi” to the person who rings up my purchases at the gas station, but I’m not offended when she doesn’t respond because I know it would probably be exhausting for her to have to “humanize” every person at the counter or vice versa. When I’m paying to watch a comedian or an actor work, I’m taking little into account but their skill at humanizing a character or performing an act—that doesn’t mean that I don’t view them as a person or respect their dignity in the abstract, but that’s not the relationship the viewer has with that person (and I’m sure that any celebrity can attest that some people appreciate them more as human beings and others more as the mechanism through which they’ve had memorable experiences).

    At some point, it’s a matter of conscience–when are you crossing the line into dehumanization, into exploitation, into objectification (sexual or otherwise)? Pornography is generally seen as particularly dehumanizing not because other forms of interaction with people and consumption of their work aren’t also objectifying, or because we don’t consume people’s labor for our own gratification across the board, but because of the particularly undignified nature of it. Because of the idea that people are being diminished and compromised in a more real sense by participating in it than in selling their bodies for manual labor or even a more boilerplate fashion shoot. That’s obviously subjective, but it’s a view I happen to agree with, even if (as Connor covers pretty thoroughly) it’s not the beginning and the end of the issue of degrading dehumanization.

  10. Iimx
    September 28, 2015 at 11:14 am #

    Clumpy,
    I am not sure I understand everthing, but even idealized states could be subjected to dehumanization. If one isn’t careful even LDS and christians could do something like this by seeing people as ‘other’. Like non-LDS. I asked something about that to an LDS, about if they had any concern about changing culture when they find a convert. I was just shocked at the answer, that they only changed what needed to be changed. But, potentially the culture will be changed more than what they realize. Christians can do the same thing. I personally want people to have whatever culture they have. I want a Buddhist to remain Buddhist for example. I want someone Japanese to drink matcha.

  11. Clumpy
    September 29, 2015 at 9:14 am #

    Iimx,

    I absolutely agree, and I think that any “peculiar people” who in many subtle ways kind of discourages fellowship outside of the fold, and who sees the outside world as a frightening, wicked place, is particularly prone to “otherization,” not to mention really really boring and unproductive cultural homogeneity. You end up with a society which often discourages itself from addressing social problems which are seen as secular rather than moral but which still hurt people, service which usually demonstrates intra-group unity but is often feel-good and insubstantial, and the proliferation of awful views about other groups which were once supported by doctrine but are now disavowed.

    I still think that your average Mormon probably does more than your average person to work within their community (and studies have shown that even controlling for religious service and tithing, religious folks donate and serve more than non-religious folks), but in a “good, better, best” tradition of trying to do the best you can with what you have, and to engage in real fellowship with others as human beings rather than as the pretext for religious conversion, more self-examination and willingness to improve and break down walls is always a good thing. One of the ways in which I think that great improvement can be made is to avoid discouraging people who are on board with principles of doctrine and conduct, but who don’t conform to some cultural expectations. It’s easy to feel discouraged from following an interest or expressing a view or really self-actualizing, or to enforce your preferred lifestyle (in terms of careers, interests, family planning, social consciousness or the lack thereof) without even knowing that you’re doing it.

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