War and Dehumanisation


The state of war, at face value, is a traumatic and violent affair. Despite altered moral, political, and legal contexts it occurs in, medals won or enemies killed, territory annexed or freedom achieved, the harm caused to the body and psyche of the victims and the victors is undeniable. Nonetheless, napalm and rifles are an everyday affair for few states of the world. Moral obligations, generally, do not seem to deter such atrocities, and did not in the past - as seen by the horrors of World War II or the Indo-Pak Partition of 1947. Ethicists either claim to be realists or pacifists, as it remains hard to completely dismiss or justify war. Hence, keeping that aside, the analysis of its aetiology would be more fruitful. Grayling opines that wars or the tendency to go to war is one inherent to human nature - rather it is that of human organisations. Cultural, political, and social factors are also cited as relevant factors that result in the state of war. But what truly causes a party to be callous enough to think the lives of another one to be dispensable? War, alongside the aforementioned reasons, is motivated by dehumanisation.


Dehumanisation is the tendency to view another human as something sub-human or inanimate. As per Mikola, it is “treating others in such a way as to erode, obstruct, or extinguish some of their distinctively human attributes.” As personhood is denied and regelated to something sub-human and sometimes even inhuman, violence, death and destruction are justified against something which is not even human. Racism, anti-semitism, eugenics, and war are usually motivated by such sentiments, which have tangible effects such as slavery, colonialism, and the holocaust.


Contemporarily, political caricatures are enjoyable and satirical, a creative attempt of making a statement. This dates back to the World War II, which can testify to the power of cartoons to spread propaganda. From superheroes to combat evil Germans (Captain America) to line drawings that mock the USSR, vintage collections as such point to the collective influence of art. However, one notices a pattern of dehumanisation in many of these cartoons. Particularly, Dr. Seuss’s cartoons depict the enemy as an animal i.e. subhuman. Such human organisation, which vocalises dehumanisation and motivates war, is a form of psychological essentialism.


Psycho-essentialism is a pre-theoretical disposition to conceive the world to be constituted and divided in natural kinds, where each is characterised by a unique essence - in Gelman’s words “a deep, non-obvious or unobservable property (or small set of properties) possessed by only and all

members of the kind”. Simple and unalterable, they are inherited by the descendants, providing

grounds for making inductive inferences about members of natural kinds, while drawing sharp

boundaries between the kinds. Such essentialism seeps into the observation of cultural or ethnic differences. And this leads to an “othering”, where the self is human but the other is not. While,

seeing nationalities or communities as a different natural kind as the other, seems admissible in scientific classification and such, the psychological tendency to look down about the other, just due to differences, is unacceptable.


What is dangerous about this tendency is that while it motivates war, war motivates dehumanisation further, resulting in a tightening spiral. For instance mass rapes of innocent civilians, such as the Nanjing Massacre, or shooting peaceful protestors, such as the Jalliawalabagh incident, demonstrate how in the midst of war, control, and exploitation, the tendency that motivates it is perpetuated more. Just as there is intergenerational trauma passed down, intergenerational dehumanisation props up due to cultural and social conditional.


While such attitudes of sub-human consideration might not be that explicit, dehumanisation can occur in a subtler form, where the dehumanised’s humanity is acknowledge but s/he is viewed as a monstrosity, undeserving for any moral respect. Where literal denial of their humanity is absent, their moral significance is denied. And war further perpetuates this idea of the other party undeserving of any ethical kindness. However, even without a war, such attitude persists as seen by racial slurs or sweatshop working conditions. And with such leaps in the domain of human rights and social justice, it is a must to eradicate such polar essentialist thinking that results in a dehumanising attitude, which may result in another war.

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