Photo Credit: Zoltán Krizbai (OSA)
The following is the first in a series of interviews exploring the connection between Relativism and Racism. Many philosophers disagree about this connection. Some argue that relativism is a prerequisite for open and multicultural societies as it enables their members to live on equal terms. Others argue that relativism gives rise to a problematic "anything goes" form of tolerance that is responsible for the flourishing of irrational and racist views. Moreover, these critics of relativism often claim that a universal concept of humanity and absolute values are necessary tools to resist racist ideologies. Some even argue that racism is itself a radical form of anthropological relativism, and use this as a basis from which to criticize relativistic views in general. This interview series will discuss the connection between relativism and racism from both a systematic and a historical point of view. We will take a closer look at our concepts of human nature and racist mechanisms such as dehumanization, and discuss why philosophers tend to demonize relativism.
Maria Kronfeldner was interviewed by Johannes Steizinger.
I am very happy to welcome Maria Kronfeldner for the first interview in our interview series on relativism and racism. Maria Kronfeldner is Associate Professor at CEU Budapest. She works in the Philosophy of the Life Sciences and the Philosophy of the Social Sciences and has published widely in this area. She currently works on a book with the working title: What’s Left of Human Nature: A Post-essentialist, Pluralist and Interactive Account of a Contested Concept. She organized an interdisciplinary and international conference on “Dehumanization: New Approaches to the Politics of Human Nature” in April 2016 and a smaller philosophical Workshop on dehumanization in January 2017. Today, we want to talk about the phenomenon of dehumanization, the concept of human nature and the significance of contexts for both.
JS: Dehumanization is studied especially in social psychology. There is a growing number of studies that examine the different forms of dehumanization and its psychological impact. However, dehumanization is not an established philosophical term. Thus, I want to ask you: what is dehumanization and why should philosophers engage with it?
MK: In social psychology, dehumanization means something quite narrow, even though psychologists distinguish – as you mentioned – a couple of forms. The term also has a history in social psychology: it was introduced as a technical term in the study of extreme violence in the 1970s. Scholars claimed that in acts of extreme violence such as mass murder, the killing of other humans presupposes their dehumanization. Otherwise such atrocities would not be possible. Over time, the term acquired a less narrow meaning. Current psychologists assume that quite generally we perceive the Other in social interactions according to a concept of humanness, as part of which individuals are taken to be more or less human. If current social psychologists use the term dehumanization, they study such processes of social cognition as the basis of discrimination and similar social phenomena.
The usage in philosophy is different and quite problematic: in philosophy the word is mostly used for whatever an author regards as negative. The attribute “dehumanizing” then simply stresses the negativity of something. Take, for instance, discussions about rape: we all agree that rape is something negative. Philosophers that want to highlight the negativity of rape, often claim that rape involves the dehumanization of its victim. It is hard to find anything else than this very broad usage in philosophy since dehumanization does not have a precise meaning in philosophy.
JS: Do you think that any definition of humanness implies a certain kind of dehumanization?
MK: I think that dehumanization is something very abstract. It facilitates the creation of distance. If something comes too close to you – in multiple senses –, then you can use dehumanization to create a psychological distance. This is the general and abstract aspect of it. The concrete content of dehumanization, however, varies a lot. I cannot think of a definition of humanness, a concept of the human that does not allow for dehumanization. And I cannot think of a concept of being human that is exclusively or in a special sense dehumanizing. All properties that can be taken to define what is human (such as rationality or morality) can also be used to dehumanize others.
JS: On the one hand we seem to have a very broad and abstract concept of dehumanization. On the other hand, the dehumanization of others mostly takes place in rather concrete forms, such as in images of animal or monster comparisons. People call or depict, for instance, Donald Trump as a monster. Is this a form of dehumanization?
MK: Comparisons with monsters, machines or animals can be used in a very specific metaphorical way that is not necessarily connected with dehumanization (i.e., believing that the depicted is in fact less human or treating the depicted as such). You can mean such comparisons satirically. Take, for instance, the images used in the magazine Charlie Hebdo, or in other satirical magazines. They use animal comparisons as part of an art form and want to communicate a certain message with it, which can but does not have to be dehumanizing. One needs a theory of the art of machine or animal comparisons to explain these usages.
But you also have other contexts in which it is harder to decide whether the case is a case of dehumanization and thus whether the respective image is ethically or politically legitimate. Take, for instance, advertisement, which often portrays women as sex objects. This objectification is a clear case of dehumanization. One cannot say that these sexist images are used in a metaphorical way. It is literally meant to be sexist.
Generally speaking, the use of seemingly dehumanizing images is a continuum and there are border line cases, which are hard to classify. You need a theory that gives you criteria to distinguish between the literal and the metaphorical use of an image.
JS: Where would you place the dehumanization of refugees in this continuum? Last year, there were articles in newspapers that depicted refugees as cockroaches or rats. Is this dehumanization? Is it problematic? And more generally, what distinguishes the metaphorical use of an image from the literal use?
MK: It is the form, function and the context that is crucial. If there is clearly a satirical context and the comparison has an artistic form and function, then the use, for instance, of an animal comparison might well be legitimate, i.e., not morally wrong. Those portrayals of refugees are, however, often used in a form and in a context in which people (hopefully at least) assume that the newspaper is telling them literally about matters of facts, i.e., that the function is literal reporting. You certainly also have sections in normal newspapers in which satirical usage is indicated, but often the dehumanization of refugees is part of the descriptive part of a newspaper. There it has no place and it is problematic. Thus, the context is decisive and it all depends on the concrete case.
JS: Your argument is interesting from the perspective of relativism: you seem to argue for a strict context-dependency of cases of dehumanization.
MK: Yes. It is the same as in the case of hate speech. A sentence in and of itself is not hate speech. It depends on the political context and I would add: the context of the media in which it is used. We have to understand the context of an utterance and then we can start to define whether an individual case is inciting hatred or is dehumanizing.
This all stems from a further complication in the background of understanding dehumanization: it is not clear that all cases of literal dehumanization are negative. Traditionally, dehumanization means, as indicated, something very negative, but one has to be careful with this claim. Moreover, we often assume that dehumanization is only used by the powerful against the oppressed. But dehumanization can also be a way of speaking back, a strategy of the oppressed. If you are dehumanized by someone else, you can use dehumanization in turn – in order to create distance to the offender. Here, dehumanization helps you against discrimination and thus is something positive. Dehumanization can be a strategy to answer dehumanization. There is a good example for this positive use of dehumanization that I use in my work: A black person tells us about her life in a segregated environment; she explains that when black people go to town, they try not to meet white people, in order to prevent hurtful interactions. For them, white people are ‘like the weather’, a mere object in the background of social interaction, an object to be ignored as much as possible. The identification of white people with the weather is a case of dehumanization as the sexist objectification of women in advertisement is a case of dehumanization. The person-as-weather is treated as an object and the black person creates distance with this. I think this is a legitimate psychological strategy. The problem is: how do you distinguish this strategy from the strategy of soldiers who dehumanize their enemy in order to be able to kill them. They seem to use the same strategy: soldiers regard their ‘targets’ as objects rather than as humans and thus create distance to them, in order to be able to harm or kill them. Thus, we have two examples of the same strategy: the dehumanization of white people by their victims and the dehumanization of victims by soldiers. Because of the different context and the different aims of dehumanization, I would evaluate the first case positively and the second case negatively.
JS: What about the concept of humanity? Do you think that there is something like human nature, i.e., universal features of humanity or a common core that connects all humans?
MK: You ask a descriptive question that only an empirical study can answer. But in any case, I would not use the term “universal” because it is often understood in a literal sense. “Universal” in a literal sense signifies properties which are shared by all humans and sometimes even by only humans. Such a claim goes clearly too far. I use the term “typical” instead of “universal”. If you ask for typical properties of humans, my answer is: there are plenty of them and empirically working scientists will tell you which. They can give you a quite long list of descriptive properties that characterize how humans are. However, the problem is most of these properties that are typical for us are not important. This is a paradox of thinking about human nature in such a descriptive sense. It is an important issue in particular if you extend the discussion to ethics and morality. The need for food is a typical property of humans. But if we discuss poverty, global justice or human rights, the need for food is not the point. When refugees come to us, the issue is not whether or not we give them food. It is rather about whether or not we give them food that is not disgusting. And what is disgusting is not typical: for some people certain kinds of meats are disgusting, for others it is other kinds of meat, or even meat in general that is disgusting. So, in reply to the paradox we abstract away from the differences in the need for food and create a new universal property: that people want non-disgusting food. But that abstract property, in order to be applicable to concrete situations, needs to be contextualized in practice since what is disgusting is not universal but relative to certain traditions of cooking etc. Thus, these local traditions are as morally important as the seeming ‘universal’. Thus, from a moral point of view it is not enough to know the typical trait, e.g., that humans need food. You have to upgrade this knowledge so that it becomes important: people want non-disgusting food and what that is depends on the context. The paradox is: if you concretize the typical trait, it is not typical anymore and if you keep it typical it is not what people care about. But, as indicated, there is a practical solution to that theoretical problem. Thus, let us assume that this problem can be practically solved.
Then another problem comes to the fore: there are too many properties that are typical for humans. It is also context-dependent which of these properties we regard as really important. It is a choice. For most typical properties we do not care. We possess, for instance, an opposable thumb. This property might be interesting for an anatomist. However, the opposable thumb was never (to the best of my knowledge) an issue in political or ethical debates. In the ethical or political context, other properties, such as rationality or morality, are regarded as essential for being human. There are then a lot of subsets of properties that can define human nature. Which subset one regards as significant depends on the context in which one uses the concept of human nature. There might be thousands of aspects of the respective context that determine which of the properties one regards as significant, for instance, the aims of ones theory, ones political views or ones social position, etc. I do not think that there is an objective, context-independent way to establish that certain typical properties of human life are more important, more at the core of what it means to be human than others.
JS: But could I not make the same argument on the descriptive level? I could, e.g., argue that there is something typical about humans, but this is only an abstract claim and it leaves plenty of room for concrete realizations of the typical feature.
MK: Yes, but then the first problem returns. The sentence “All people need food” is, as indicated, an abstraction from the concrete needs of individuals. No one wants food simpliciter. Everyone wants non-disgusting food that he or she can digest. Basically, all generalizations about living entities are abstractions from the pattern of similarities and differences that exist in the world.
JS: Do you think that we should always look at the evaluative level? Should we never talk descriptively about human nature?
MK: I think that the term ‘human nature’ should only be used in a descriptive sense. And we need the descriptive level in order to find an anchor in the world, an anchor for the normative reflections. But we should keep the normative questions (i.e., the normative choices about what is important) apart from the descriptive level. This is not completely possible, but we should try.
JS: What should the philosopher work on: abstract truths or the truths we care for?
MK: Both, but philosophers can’t make the normative choices. The descriptive accounts rely on the world that is out there. The normative level is dependent on the society we live in. It is not our right as philosophers to decide what is important or what is good since I do not think that one can objectively decide what is good. I am not a moral realist.
JS: Isn’t that a bad situation for the philosopher: either she speaks about something that is not important, or she does not have a say?
MK: Yes. But we should embrace humility in philosophy. We are servants; we speak for the people. I do not think that this is a loss; it’s an honour.