In a November 2017 New Yorker essay reviewing books that examine cruelty and evil in their historical contexts, Paul Bloom questions the common assumption that dehumanization is the underlying dynamic when violence, aggression, and exclusion come into play:
The thesis that viewing others as objects or animals enables our very worst conduct would seem to explain a great deal. Yet there’s reason to think that it’s almost the opposite of the truth.
After combing through recent works that examine a wide variety of extraordinary and sadly ordinary events, including genocide, slavery, sexual assault, social exclusion, and others, he concludes:
As the scholar of warfare Johannes Lang has observed of the Nazi death camps, “What might look like the dehumanization of the other is instead a way to exert power over another human.”
The limitations of the dehumanization thesis are hardly good news. There has always been something optimistic about the idea that our worst acts of inhumanity are based on confusion. It suggests that we could make the world better simply by having a clearer grasp of reality—by deactivating those brain implants, or their ideological equivalent. The truth may be harder to accept: that our best and our worst tendencies arise precisely from seeing others as human.
Cruelty at work
Yes, I’ve used the term dehumanization (or variations of it) to describe various instances of work abuse, including bullying, mobbing, sexual harassment, and other forms of mistreatment.
But Paul Bloom’s conclusions make more sense to me, including when applying them to the workplace. At the core, work abuse is about exercising power and control over other persons, which may involve marginalizing them (maybe considerably), but still regarding them as human. For example, we now understand that sexual harassment is very much about power and control. Those who have been bullied or mobbed at work comprehend this reality all too well. (For those who want to ponder this subject further, Bloom’s full review essay is worth your time and attention.)
These varying forms of work abuse constitute denials of human dignity, marked by the fear, humiliation, and embarrassment that often accompany them. Cruelties at work are deeply human acts, with profoundly human impacts.