Who Can We Not Humanize?

Over a career of more than 30 years, I have taught some literature that has confronted students from late elementary grades straight through high school with the reality that human beings can do brutal things to each other.  In works of literary nonfiction, as well as in fictionalized depictions of abuse and atrocities that we know to transpire in real life, students have critical opportunities to recognize, identify, investigate the insidious elements of the human psyche and their manifestations in actions toward others.

As my students have examined the concept of dehumanization in various forms and on a spectrum of scales–from domestic violence to genocide–the vast majority of them easily grasp the harm it does to victims.  They even express their belief that racism, sexism, homophobia, targeting of particular religions and speakers of particular languages, and even cliquism and political ostracism are phenomena that victimize individuals and groups by diminishing their humanity.  Ironically, this awareness does not entirely inoculate them from the shared human impulses that give rise to these phenomena.

Some of the same students who offer inspiring insights on these points in class discussions and in literary essays remain susceptible to a youth culture whose impulses are familiar to my generation but whose pressures and toxic manifestations exceed what we could ever have imagined a few decades ago.

Regrettably, a forty-five minute English class five days a week has a limited reach into the lives of students these days.  Instruction in social and emotional learning and reinforcement from history classes can extend that reach somewhat.  Even then, our reach exceeds our grasp in capturing our students’ attention and imaginations in a sustained and transformative manner.

A few sensitive and perceptive students have raised some provocative questions in my class.  Some have asked how civic and humanitarian ignorance has dehumanized our society, leaving us complicit to environmental devastation, social injustice, governmental misdirection, and various other ills that plague our world.

A tiny handful have even asked whether it is possible to find humanity in people who perpetrate atrocities: abusers, cartel leaders, war criminals, authoritarian dictators, and engineers of genocide.

Posing a such questions requires courage.  We could so easily be mistaken for trying to excuse people who commit such inhuman acts.  But at the same time, do we by labeling them monsters participate in another kind of dehumanization, justified though it may be?  Might we risk overlooking explanations that originate in dark elements and mechanisms that reside to some degree within all of us?  Could we in our understandable outrage unwittingly ignore human realities that would simply continue to harm susceptible people from within and transform them into continuous waves of agents to bring abuses and horrors into the world?

Without excusing or rationalizing evil in the world, can we meaningfully seek its explanations in the human realities affecting the individuals who carry it out?

Or should we even bother?

Photo credit: Walks Inside Rome

I am participating in the Two Writing Teachers March 2023 Slice of Life Challenge.

9 thoughts on “Who Can We Not Humanize?

  1. This is a very provocative piece. We just finished ‘Night’ in our ELA class. Our students can parrot back information about dehumanization, but then they turn around and bully each other to the point of suicide. 45 minutes is not enough, but we can’t stop the fight.

    1. You clearly see what I am seeing. And I agree: we have to continue to exert a positive influence in order to counteract all of the negative ones, however feebly.

  2. People who carry our such brutal acts must be of a different mindset. Even if their problems are identified can they be helped? Is that trait inherent in them or do they learn it ? So many questions that wr ask ourselves. Thank you for this post.

    1. Thank you for relating and offering a comment. If we cannot find a solution for brutality as it is happening, perhaps we can prevent later inhumanity through what we learn now. But within a century of the Holocaust, we can see the fascist mystique at work in several places around the world. I would simply conclude we must do anything we can to humanize ourselves and promote it in all.

  3. You pose some thoughtful questions…I do believe that the time in our classes, engaging with the hard conversations in safe spaces, will continue to move our collective humanity forward. The current battle that I am waging is to remember to hear the quieter voices; often it is the loudest voice that is defining the moment and we forget that that voice may, in fact, be singular.

    1. Excellent point–I think often about that. I also wonder how many students have meaningful insights that they never reveal, for any number of reasons.

  4. What if schools functioned as places where young people could practice community life? Older students teaching younger students. Student run governmental systems. Banking systems where “money” could be earned and spent to improve situations throughout the school as deemed necessary by environmental groups. Like, before we succumb to your final thought maybe it is time to blow it all up and restart!

    1. There is a right way to do things. I regret that our current paradigm is monolithic and so poorly adaptive to the true needs of our students. I have always had a dream of a school that gave all participants a sense of meaning. Who would want snow days when they would miss out on something fulfilling?

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