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Dehumanizing the Other

December 15, 2010

This past Sunday night on CNN Anderson Cooper hosted the new documentary “Taliban”, which

explores filmmaker Paul Refsdal’s embed[ing] with the Taliban and reveals the Taliban at war and at rest, preparing weapons and coordinating ambushes, praying, playing, even at home with their families.

Throughout the show, Mr. Cooper asked many questions, but there was one in particular that stood out to me.  At one point, Mr. Cooper asks Mr. Refsdal a question along the lines of, “Were you worried at all in making this documentary that people might feel like you are trying to humanize the enemy?”.  My jaw dropped.  I couldn’t believe he asked that question.  Humanize the enemy? That is an interesting choice of words and framing. First, to humanize something would indicate that previously the object was not human.  Secondly, there are any number of words that could have been used instead of ‘enemy’.  The word ‘enemy’ evokes many strong emotions.  As soon as someone is labeled an enemy, the walls and barriers go up, they are looked at differently, they are judged, and they are looked at as less than those doing the labeling. I hate to burst the bubble of Mr. Cooper and most of the Western world, but the Taliban are in fact human, even if you choose to see them as less than that.

Let me be very clear. I do not condone the actions of the Taliban nor do I believe that those targeted by the Taliban are deserving of that.  Having said that the question remains, why do we feel the need to dehumanize our enemies in the first place?  We choose to dehumanize others because it allows us to then dismiss them and their thoughts without any need to try and understand them.

Dehumanizing the other comes at a very high price, which sadly, and maybe ironically, is usually your own humanity.  This is because when you dehumanize the other it is easier to justify actions that otherwise would be considered wrong or immoral. Torture, rape, genocide, ethnic cleansing: these are all acts that become justifiable when you begin to see those different from you as something less than human.

Our choice of words is very important.  Language can hinder and language can help.  Language becomes a hindrance when it is only used to polarize, to denigrate the Other, or to dismiss the Other’s claims.  Language is helpful when it is used to promote and facilitate communication between different parties.  Our language influences our thoughts and the way we interact with others. Thus we must be aware of the language we choose to use and how those words will affect how we and others view and think about those different from us.  We must also remember that the labels we are using on others, they are also using on us.

Finally, viewing anyone as less than human is a dangerous road to go down.  History is a good indicator of that.  Events like the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, and suicide bombings show what happens when you start to view those different from you and less than human and deserving of their fate.  We must be better than that.  We must be different.  We must choose the more difficult path of trying to create bridges between us and others instead of the current path, the easy path, which seeks to put as much distance between us and them as possible.  How is that working out for us?

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