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The Dehumanization Epidemic

Matthew Cuddeback, LCSW

There is an issue that we all experience and many of us unfortunately perpetuate. We do this sometimes to cope, sometimes we do it out of necessity and sometimes its done with intent to harm, whatever the case it often starts unintentionally. I am talking about how we can sometimes dehumanize others, to turn them into something less than human, something that feels easier to constructively criticize and sometimes attack. When we do this, it doesn’t usually feel very good, we may feel vindicated, but usually that’s followed by a bad aftertaste. We need to understand why we dehumanize others to combat it in ourselves. For our society as a whole, we can start to address it by making the changes within ourselves and watch it spread to others.

When we need to let a client know some bad news, or let an employee know they are being reprimanded, we will often shrink the image of what they are to something smaller, something easily digestible so that we feel better about having to tell them something they won’t like. Often times this takes the form of only focusing on that employee’s frequent tardiness, which may or may not be fair. But it is far easier to write that employee up when you are only thinking about how frequently they break the rules. It is much harder when you think about how they just told you last week that their a family member passed away and that they have been struggling to cope, or how they took on extra work and did a great job. Still, this person has been late to work more days than not over the last 3 months. When you are frustrated with your cell phone service and you go into the store to ask them to fix it and they do not address it in a way that you are happy with you let your frustration out on that person. They become the phone company to you and no longer someone who is trying their best at their job and wish they could help but are unable to, no, they are the phone company and that means they deserve to be scolded or yelled at. Another common area we dehumanize people is when we are driving and someone does something we don’t like, they are not a person, they are the car that cut us off.

Anonymity can allow these characteristics to grow rapidly. When that person didn’t let you in on Lake Shore Drive, it is not a human being who has flaws, who maybe didn’t see you or maybe didn’t let you in because somebody didn’t let them in earlier in the day, or maybe they’re just rude. But, instead of seeing all these possibility’s we just see the Prius who screwed us over. This in it’s most dangerous form leads to confrontation and violence. Internet forums and social media are rife with anger and people who feel protected by their anonymity which allows them to dehumanize others. This person who has a life and a job and interests can easily engage in hateful rhetoric directed at another whole human who has a life and a job and interests because they don’t see them as a whole person but rather a symbol of the comment they made.

The examples above are on one end of the spectrum, they show how it can be useful but can also be problematic. Unfortunately, this feelings can devolve and become more serious and problematic which we can see played out in politics and social issues. We do all this because it’s easier, it’s more comfortable. But it can become even more problematic, we start to universalize these incidents to more and more situations until we easily decide someone is less than human. This is leading us to not connect as much and view people as “others” and different, and makes us less willing to work together and help each other.

There are ways to combat this dehumanization. One way is to look at each individual as a whole person. See them as whole and treat them as whole and suddenly when we go into T-Mobile to let them know there is an issue with our phone and we calmly and respectfully inform them of the issue we are having, they treat you with more respect, they treat the next customer with more respect, and we often feel better than we would had we let our tempers flair. The next time you see someone yelling at a cashier perhaps try to help deescalate the situation, or if that doesn’t feel safe offer support after the incident. When that Prius cuts in front of you, let them, you will feel better knowing it didn’t provoke you to shout and cut them off later. Enjoy your drive, turn up your music, and acknowledge that their driving has nothing at all to do with you.

Focus on the ways you could react differently, less aggressively, and be mindful of the effects your actions have on others, try to see them as a whole person who is just doing the best they can, like you. This kindness spreads and can change one person’s day, scaling these actions up, they can help combat societal ills as well.

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