Dehumanization and the Homeless

Self examination on the Redline

I was waiting at a Redline stop on the north side of Chicago for a train to the Loop. The train arrives, I notice a car with seat openings at one end, I get on and quickly understand why. I see a “homeless person” sleeping across several seats, a common sight on the CTA. What stood out this time was the very strong scent of human feces. The odor on CTA trains is usually urine tinted. I sit down across from him, thinking I can tolerate this, but cannot. I got off at the next stop and moved to the next car for a more tolerable smell. As I tend to do, I self-examined.

I was not happy about having to move, and my thoughts reflected this.

“A CTA rider should not have to tolerate stuff like this.”

“The CTA is a joke. It smells, it is slow, it is filthy, and it is dangerous.”

“Why does the city allow the homeless to do this? There must be better options.”

“The person running the CTA must be incompetent.”

“We have to have a new mayor. (Chicago Mayor Lori) Lightfoot is so far over her head.” (Note: she just lost her reelection bid.)

Photo credits: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago

In my more thoughtful moments, I have been thinking about dehumanization lately. Did I dehumanize this person on the train? Did I deny his human qualities?

Dehumanization is not a new concept. Traditionally, it has helped us to understand various phenomena, such as the causes of genocide and the disparagement of immigrants. Donald Trump was guilty of it a few times with his most famous instance being his reference to former White House Staffer, Omarosa Manigault-Newman, as a “dog.”

That was blatant dehumanization. I suspect we make people seem less human quite easily, and that we often engage in making people or groups look less sentient than other people. I had a negative reaction to the person sleeping in the car, and there is ample evidence that negativity is associated with our fondness for lessening the value of people.

When we engage in othering, when we label, when we shift blame away from ourselves, we risk creating environments where people are seen as less than human. Instead of just moving to avoid an unpleasant smell (there is nothing wrong with olfaction, I am human after all), I thought of and classified this person as “homeless.” This is a complex human being and I reduced him to a single characteristic and assigned him a social label. Categorizing distorts our perceptions and we open the door for unjustifiable negative, exclusionary attitudes. We all have narratives about the homeless and, for most people, the story is not positive. “The Homeless” are a “problem.”  I was sitting there thinking: “Geez, when is the city going to do something about this problem?”

But dehumanization is not an all-or-nothing construct. I think of myself as sensitive to the plight of the homeless. This is a human being who shares the same qualities of agency, purpose, and passion that I do. Humans are complex and multidimensional, and I suspect on some dimensions we dehumanize, while on others we do not.

I went looking for some intellectual guidance. I found it in the work of Nour Kteily, a psychologist who is Professor of Management and Operations at Northwestern University. He started studying dehumanization to better understand genocide, but now focuses on its manifestations in everyday life.

He thinks of dehumanization as a vertical spectrum in which we compare a human against an ideal standard.

“Our perspective on dehumanization accepts that humanity has multitudes and that we can strip away some dimensions of a target’s humanity while recognizing others. That is, we sometimes dehumanize by overlooking or downplaying others’ mental states or capacities, as we do when we fail to consider refugees’ experience of complex secondary emotions like sorrow or assume that welfare recipients lack rationality and self-control. Other times, we dehumanize by attributing sophisticated mental states like deviousness but denying other aspects central to full humanity like morality. Rather than focusing on a specific dimension, we propose a broader perspective that considers whether, taken together, the perceiver’s attitudes and behavior reflect a view that the target falls meaningfully short of an ‘ideal human’ standard.” (Kteily and Landry, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, March 2022)

Take a homeless person; we can downplay some of their attributes while assigning high-level aspirational expectations. We may overlook their current mental state and blame them for not taking control of their lives, while simultaneously feeling they deserve respect, care and empathy. One set of vectors pushes them away from the ideal, while another pushes them towards it. For Kteily, distance from the ideal is determined by the net sum of forces.

We think hierarchically. Those that fall short of the ideal are viewed as having less value, which, according to Kteily, makes “them more subject to being ignored, mistreated, or actively harmed.” We do this in all kinds of contexts.

The question is, did I dehumanize this person traveling with me on the Redline train? The mere fact that my immediate response to the odor was, “oh no, a homeless person,” opened the door to thoughts that lowered this man’s hierarchical status. So, the answer is yes.

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