City: Boston, Massachusetts
Country: United States
Race, Ethnicity and Politics
We are a supremely social species whose ecological success rests largely on our capacity for large-scale cooperation. This high degree of sociality is only possible against a background of immensely powerful inhibitions against performing acts of lethal violence against conspecifics. There are circumstances, however, in which acts of lethal violence are individually or collectively advantageous and attractive. To perform such acts, we must override our inhibitions. This essay argues that this tension causes us to be ambivalent about killing other human beings and that our being so is manifested in the widespread belief, found across cultures and historical epochs, that taking human life contaminates the killer and may pose a threat to the entire community, unless rituals of purification are performed to counteract it. Examples from the Hebrew Bible, the Greco-Roman world, medieval Europe, Africa, and Native America are examined to substantiate this claim. Premodern beliefs, moreover, about the consequences of killing are echoed in the symptoms of “moral injury” described by contemporary psychiatrists treating combat veterans, which suggests that, in defying or disabling our inhibitions against performing acts of lethal violence, we ultimately do violence to ourselves.
Representing members of racial minorities as apes or monkeys is a special case of dehumanization and cannot be properly understood outside of a general theory of dehumanization. We argue that to fully understand any particular case of dehumanization it is mandatory to consider the intersection of its psychological, cultural, and political determinants: the psychological component explains the distinctive form of dehumanizing thinking, the cultural component explains the significance of the choice of animal with which members of the dehumanized population are equated, and the political component explains the ideological function of particular cases of dehumanization. We apply this analysis to the special case of the simianization of people of African descent.