Thursday, September 10, 2020

Believing in Monsters: David Livingstone Smith on the Subhuman

The Nazis called Jews rats and lice.  White plantation owners called their Black slaves soulless animals.  Pundits in Myanmar call Rohingya Muslims beasts, dogs, and maggots.  Dehumanizing talk abounds in racist rhetoric worldwide.

What do people believe, typically, when they speak this way?

The easiest answers are wrong.  Literal interpretation is out: Nazis didn't believe that Jews literally fit biologically into the taxonomy of rodents.  For one thing, they treated rodents better.  For another, even the most racist Nazi taxonomy acknowledged Jews as some sort of lesser near-relative of the privileged race.  But neither is such talk just ordinary metaphor: It typically isn't merely a colorful way of saying Jews are dirty and bad and should be gotten rid of.  Beneath the talk is something more ontological -- a picture of the racialized group as fundamentally lesser.

David Livingstone Smith offers a fascinating account in his recent book On InhumanityI like his account so much that I wish its central idea didn't conflict with pretty much everything that I've written about the nature of belief over the past 25 years.

Smith on Conflicting Beliefs and Seeing People as Monsters

According to Smith, the typical advocate of dehumanizing rhetoric has two contradictory beliefs.  They believe that the target group is fully human and simultaneously they believe that the target group is fully subhuman.

What is it to be human?  It is not, Smith argues, just to be a member of a scientifically defined species.  The "human" can be conceptualized more broadly than that (maybe including other members of the genus Homo) or more narrowly.  It is, Smith argues, a folk concept, combining politics with essentialist folk biology.  Other "humans" are those who share the ineradicable, fundamental essence of being "our kind" (p. 113).

To the Nazi, the Jew is literally subhuman in this sense.  The Jew lacks the fundamental essence that Nazi racial theorists believed they shared with others of their kind.  This is a theoretical belief, believed with the same passion and conviction as other politically charged theoretical beliefs.

At the same time, emotionally, perceptually, and pre-theoretically, Smith argues, the Nazi can't help but think of Jews as humans like them.  Moreover, their language shows it: In the next sentence, a Nazi might call Jews terrible people or a lesser type of human and might hold them morally responsible for their actions as though they are ordinary members of the moral community.  On Smith's view, Nazis also believe, in a less theoretical way, that Jews are human.

Suppose you're a Nazi looking at a Jew.  On the outside, the Jew looks human.  But on the inside, according to your theory, the Jew isn't really a human.  Let's assume that you also believe that Jews are malevolent and opposed to you.  Compare our conception of werewolves, vampires, and zombies.  Threateningly close to being human.  Malevolently defying the boundary between "us" and "them".  To the Nazified mind, Smith argues, the Jew is experienced as a monster no less than a werewolf is a monster -- a creature infiltrating our society, tricking the unwary, beneath the surface corrupt, and "metaphysically threatening" because it provokes contradictory beliefs in its humanity and nonhumanity.  Like a werewolf, vampire, or zombie, there might also be superficial differences on the outside that reinforce the creepy almost-humanness of the creature (compare the uncanny valley in robotics).

So far, that's Smith.  I hope I've been fair.  I find it an extremely interesting account.

On My View of Belief, Baldly Contradictory Beliefs Are Impossible

Here's my sticking point: What is it to believe something?  On my view, you don't really believe something unless you "walk the walk".  To believe some proposition P is to be disposed in general to act and react as if P is true.  Having a belief, on my view, is like having a personality trait: It's a pattern in your cognitive life or a matter of typically having a certain sort of posture toward the world.

What is it to believe, for example, that Black people and White people are equally moral and equally intelligent?  It is to generally be disposed to act and react to the world as if that is so.  It is partly to feel sincere when you say it is so.  But it's also not to be biased against Black applicants when hiring for a job that requires intelligence and not to expect the White person in a mixed-race group to be kinder and more trustworthy.  Unless this is your dispositional profile in general, you don't really and fully believe in the intellectual and moral equality of the races -- at best you are in what I call an "in-between" state, neither quite accurately describable as believing, nor quite accurately describable as failing to believe.

On this approach to belief, contradictory belief is impossible.  You cannot be simultaneously disposed in general to act as if P is the case and in general to act as if not-P is the case.  This makes as little sense as being simultaneously an extreme extravert and an extreme introvert.  The dispositions constitutive of the one (e.g., enjoying meeting new people at raucous parties) are exactly the opposite of the dispositions constitutive of the other (e.g., not enjoying meeting new people at raucous parties).  Of course, you can be extremely extraverted in some respects, or in some contexts, and extremely introverted in other respects or contexts.  That makes you a mixed case, not neatly classifiable as either overall.

The same is true, on my view, with racist and egalitarian beliefs.  You cannot simultaneously have an across-the-board egalitarian posture toward the world and an across-the-board racist posture.  You cannot fully believe both that all the races are equal and that your favorite race is superior.  Furthermore, in the same way that few people are fully 100% extravert or fully 100% introvert, few of us are 100% egalitarian in our posture toward the world or 100% bigoted.  We're all somewhere in the middle.

Conflicting Representations Are More Readily Acknowledged Than Contradictory Beliefs

As I was reading On Inhumanity, I was wondering how much Smith's commitment to contradictory beliefs matters.  Maybe Smith and I needn't disagree on substance.  Maybe Smith and I could agree that in some thin sense of believing, the Nazi has baldly contradictory "beliefs".

Here's something nearby that I can agree to: The Nazi has conflicting representations of Jews.  There's a theoretical and ideological representation of Jews as subhuman, and there are conflicting emotional, perceptual, and less-ideological representations of Jews as human.  This conflict of representations could be enough to generate the metaphysical threat and the anti-monster emotional reaction, regardless of what we say about "belief".

Smith is keen to convince people to recognize their own potential to fall into dehumanizing patterns of thought.  Me too.  In this matter, I suspect that my demanding view of belief will serve us better.  That would be one pragmatic reason to resolve the dispute about belief, if it's really just a terminological dispute, in my favor.

Here's my thought: It is, I think, much easier to see one's potential to host conflicting representations, on which one might act in inconsistent ways, than it is to see one's potential to host baldly contradictory beliefs -- especially if one of the two beliefs is one you are currently deeply committed to denying the truth of.

Smith's sympathetic, anti-racist readers might strain to imagine a future in which they fully believe that some disfavored race is literally subhuman.  That might seem like a truly radical change of view -- something only distantly imaginable after thorough indoctrination.  It is much easier, I suspect, to imagine that our minds could slowly fill with dehumanizing representations of another group, especially if we are repeatedly bombarded with such representations.  And maybe then, too, we can imagine our behavior becoming inconsistent -- sometimes driven by one type of representation, sometimes by another.

Full belief, I want to suggest, needn't be at the core of dehumanization, and an account of dehumanization needn't commit on how demanding "belief" is or whether baldly contradictory belief is possible.  Instead, all that's necessary might be confusion and conflict among one's representations or thoughts about a group, regardless of whether those representations rise to full belief.

Suppose then that you world fills you, over and over, with conflicting representations of another group, some humane and egalitarian, others monstrous and terrible.  Once the dehumanizing ones are in, they start to color your thoughts automatically, even without your explicit endorsement.  As they gain a foothold, you begin to wonder if there is some truth in them.  You become confused, wary, uncertain what to believe or how to act.  Your group enters in conflict with the group.  You feel endangered -- maybe by famine or war.  Resisting evil is difficult when you're confused: Passive obedience is the more common reaction to doubt and conflicting thoughts.

Beneath your confusion, doubt, and fear lie two conflicting potentials.  If the situation turns one way -- a neighbor who did you some kindness knocks on your door asking for a night of shelter -- maybe you start down the path toward great humanity and courage.  If the situation turns another way, you might find yourself passive in the face of great evil, unsure what to make of it.  Maybe even, if the threat seems terrible enough and the situation pulls you along, drawing the worst from you, you might find yourself a perpetrator.  Acting on a dehumanizing ideology does not require fully believing that ideology.


On September 29, I'll be chatting (remotely) with David Livingstone Smith at Warwick's bookstore in San Diego.  I think the public is welcome.  I'll share a link when one is available.


  1. Though your little debate is intricate, prima facie though the Nazis may have regarded my extended family the Jews of Europe as sub human, why bother exterminating rats? The very fact that the Nazis bothered thinking of us as worthy of social action is a testimony to our mattering to them in a way that animals do not.
    That is the paradox, and it is built into the very nature of the Nazi project.
    I think David Livingstone Smith is taking a psychodynamic kind of view which posits warring selves and split motives and beliefs. The crux goes even deeper than that, it is built into the definition of the Nazi project or collective action: we are inhuman, but we are human enough to waste considerable resources in destroying

  2. Eric,
    I think your conception of belief and Smith's can be reconciled. The answer is context. We can be predisposed to certain things under certain contexts, and be predisposed to something else, even the opposite, in other contexts.

    When I was a boy, I remember simultaneously accepting both the scientific history of the universe and the Biblical creationist one. How could I accept both? Simple. They never came up in the same context. When watching a science show (or a science fiction one), I was predisposed to accept the scientific account. When reading or watching anything Bible related, I accepted the creationist account.

    Of course, eventually these two conceptions collided. (I'm no longer religious in any sense.) But looking back, I find it remarkable how long they continued.

    So I think people can have contradictory beliefs, even in your sense of belief, as long as they activate in different contexts. It seems like only if you hold your view to be context insensitive is there a problem.

  3. With respect, I think you need to reconsider the idea that contradictory beliefs can't coexist in the same person. Maybe contradictory Truths can't coexist in the same logic, but humans are not systems of logic. They are collections of organs, of thoughts of beliefs,...vessels for social, biological and psychological patterns.

    biological contradictions exist, and often result in disease

    psychological contradictions exist and often result in tension, anxiety, psychopathology, and even disease. When they come to the surface they may get worked out, they may not.

    Beliefs in humans are psychological phenomena (not logical propositions) with all the non-logical messiness that entails.

  4. Thanks for the comments, folks!

    Howie: It wouldn't be surprising if Smith was deeply psychodynamically influenced, since much of his early work was on Freud. Split motives and contradictions make sense to me. I balk at contradictory "belief", though, for theoretical reasons related to my general walk-the-walk view, which is motivated by a wide range of cases and is, I think, the best way to handle cases of conflict, in-betweenness, and representational contradiction, from developmental psychology to partial forgetting to self-deception.

    SelfAware: That's an appealing approach. Two problems I see are: (1.) It doesn't address what you believe in general, when neither context is operative (e.g., suppose the person is sleeping, or may be sleeping for all I know -- what do I say about what she believes?). (2.) Sometimes the context calls forth contradictory representations or dispositions in the same moment, e.g., a humane reaction to the individual as a person and a theoretical dehumanizing representation simultaneously. Thus, the context-dependent, back-and-forth account won't quite work, I think.

    Jonschull: I don't deny contradictions in psychological phenomena or human irrationality. Not at all! The walk-the-walk view of belief is in fact motivated by the desire to be able to talk about such things sensibly. Compare again personality traits: Of course many of us are sometimes introverted and sometimes extraverted in our dispositions. The way to model that is not, on my view, to posit two conflicting personality traits both of which we fully have. Rather, it's to say that, especially for those of us near the middle, it's a mixed-up, in-betweenish case of conflicting dispositions and aims, so that the neither the simple label "introvert" or "extravert" quite works.

  5. I worry a little that there are two different sorts of 'contradictory' representations being run together here. The 'biased egalitarian' familiar from implicit bias debates is someone who sometimes acts like they believe one thing, sometimes the other, depending perhaps on context or perhaps on what sort of measures we use to probe them; they're in-between in some sense. But the person who 'dehumanises' their target seems quite different: it seems like the way they feel and act is specifically explained *only* by the conjunction of the two representations. Neither representation by itself would produce the all-consuming hatred, revulsion, and fear that they exhibit. Far from slipping into one consistent representation or another as context shifts, they seem to make a point of combining both at once.

    (I haven't read the Smith book, but that's at least what the theory sounds like: the horror of werewolves and zombies doesn't consist in our forgetfully slipping between seeing them as people and seeing them as wolves/corpses, it consists in us specifically combining the two representations. Their tension is the source of the emotion.)

  6. It's really great to have some substantive philosophical engagement with my work on dehumanization. Thanks for this.

    Regarding belief, I'm not sure what to say. I don't have any developed theory of belief. I use "believes that x is subhuman" interchangeably with "thinks that x is subhuman," "mentally represents x as subhuman," and "conceives of x as subhuman." In fact, I prefer the last of these. Because On Inhumanity is written with a very broad audience in mind, I probably used the term "belief" more often because it is the most reader-friendly.

    I don't know if I agree with your theory of belief or not (although I am usually skeptical when a philosopher claims that something is "impossible"). What is important in my account is that dehumanization is a deeply incoherent state of mind involving sharply conflicting mental representations of the same entities, and that this has distinctive and highly disturbing psychological effects. My next book on dehumanization, which will be published by Harvard next year, is somewhat more academically oriented, and goes into both the psychological and political dynamics of dehumanization in greater depth.

    All that being said, it is probably important to work towards a clearer and more precise understanding of the interplay of psychological forces at work in the dehumanizing mindset. My current suspicion (inspired by a passage from Freud) is that the conflicting representations of the dehumanized other are lodged in separate representational systems, and cannot come into contact with one another.

  7. I'll take a try at "substantive philosophical engagement"...

    That philosophy psychologists could remember and re-turn to philosophy ontology...searches for being and things...

    For more whole understandings of what our beliefs and reasons are-as functions of life, instead of as functions of humanity....

  8. Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

    Luke: Yes, that seems plausible. There are, I think, many different ways of being "in between".

    David: I'm looking forward to seeing your next book!

    On impossibility: It's not a psychological limitation I'm positing as much as something that follows logically from the definition of "belief" that I think works best for handling mixed-up, in-betweenish cases of instability and conflict. In a way, the approach I prefer leaves room for conflict that might seem psychologically impossible on other types of approaches. You look at the whole mix and ask "does it match this set of things or this opposite set of things or is it somewhere in between"? Any mix is possible.

    One issue: To say someone "represents" or "conceives of" someone as X -- what does that amount to? It sounds either like they possess some internal thing (a representation stored somewhere) or like you're making a generalization (in relevant situations, the person will think in such-and-such a way). If the latter, then you get a mixed-up case when they sometimes think such-and-such a way and sometimes think in the opposite way and sometimes think in both ways at once. If the former, then you get a mixed-up case when they have contradictory representations stored. What should we say about the person overall? I propose that it depends on whether one or the other representation or pattern of thinking is dominant. If really they mostly view the world and react in terms of X, maybe the not-X stuff is in there a little, but we could probably say that X is what they believe. Vice versa for not-X. For cases where things sometimes go one way, sometimes another, I think that the positing of real "contradictory beliefs" creates needless puzzles and difficulties that can be avoided if you instead posit only "contradictory representations" and resist insisting on a yes-or-no answer to "does the person believe X". But this is long conversation!

    Arnold: That's a bit brief and cryptic for me to really engage with!

  9. Big problems with "dehumanization":