What Is Dehumanization?

Dehumanization has been one of the first causes of war conflicts on the planet. Let's see what it consists of.
What Is Dehumanization?

Written by Editorial Team

Last update: 07 March, 2023

Dehumanization is a process through which human beings lose the characteristics that define them as human beings and the rights associated with the human condition. It’s a phenomenon that occurs in a variety of contexts and scenarios, and is quite common in social groups which have an oppressive power dynamic.

In this sense, some notorious examples of dehumanization would be the humiliating treatment of others, labor exploitation, submission to non-democratic regimes, among others.

Characteristics of dehumanization

To better understand what this phenomenon is all about, here’s a summary of the characteristics that define it:

  • Dehumanization consists of stripping away innate elements and characteristics of human beings. These characteristics are usually replaced by other relatively inferior qualities, such as those of animals or machines.
  • The victim of dehumanization may be forced to give up his or her human condition or experience it indirectly. In the latter case, the person is usually not fully aware of it.
  • In extreme cases, integrity and dignity can be destroyed.
  • Technological progress and the information society have helped to perpetuate this process.
  • The notion of dehumanization has been used to explain human evil.

Types of dehumanization

Depending on how this process is carried out, two types of dehumanization have been differentiated. We analyze them.

1. Animalization

This occurs when people are perceived and treated as if they were animals, replacing the qualities of human beings with those of animals. Some of them are vulgarity, immorality, and irrationality.

This practice is usually evidenced in labor exploitation, in the mistreatment of minority groups, in prison torture, and when women are conceived as sexual objects.

Dehumanization in a prison.
In some prisons there is a dehumanization that reduces people to the condition of animals.

2. Mechanization

This is a more recent phenomenon than the previous one and consists of perceiving the human being as a robot or a machine. In this case, some of the qualities attributed to the mechanized individual are coldness, rigidity, and passivity.

This type of dehumanization arose after the Industrial Revolution, which brought inhuman and exploitative treatment of workers. Although nowadays this mistreatment isn’t so common in most societies, it’s also true that mechanization has been driven by technological advances.

People are sometimes not considered as being individual human beings, with the capacity to feel and think, but rather a number or just another cog in the wheel.

Actions that lead to dehumanization

In general, dehumanization is a process that is established in phases, through successive actions that go from the subtle to more atrocious expressions. Thus, there are 5 steps that summarize its application.

1. Establishment of fear

The first step of dehumanization is usually the establishment of fear in the victims, so that the person fears for their life and that of their loved ones. It will then be easier to oppress them and have control over them.

2. Unofficial exclusion

After fear has been established, an unofficial exclusion takes place, which consists of excluding victims from certain sectors of society. For example, the Nazis excluded Jews from professions in public office.

3. Justification of fear and exclusion

After this unofficial exclusion, the power group uses the media and documented research to provide evidence to justify the reason for exclusion. The evidence is often manipulated or distorted and the most commonly used argument tends to be for “the good of society.”

4. Total exclusion

In this step, the rest of the population is incited to realize that the marginalized group is the cause of social problems. Therefore, they should be excluded from civil society and stripped of their rights as individuals.

5. Extermination

This last step represents the most extreme manifestation of dehumanization. Here the victims are forcibly expelled from society to be treated as nonhuman, or even exterminated.

For example, Jews were sent to concentration camps under Nazism, whereas today, the marginalized may be sent to ghettos or prisons.

Poor and vulnerable groups are often progressively separated from the rest of society so that they lose their rights.

Consequences and effects of dehumanization

As history has made us aware, dehumanization has only catastrophic effects on interpersonal and intergroup relations:

  • This phenomenon often causes and justifies the most heinous actions of human beings, such as rape, homicide, labor exploitation, physical aggression, extortion and torture.
  • Mistreatment of victims affects them profoundly, and, in the worst cases, can even lead to suicide.
  • Dehumanization also affects society in general, and most wars have been based on this premise. In this sense, it is one of the first causes of war conflicts in humanity.

Knowing and understanding the phenomenon of dehumanization will allow us to reduce its incidence and its negative effects. The more we are aware of our worth and our rights as human beings, the easier it will be to avoid this reality.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.