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UND philosophy professor Jack Weinstein joins us to discuss the reasons behind dehumanizing behavior. This serves as a preview of Sunday's "Why, Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life" episode featuring a conversation with David Livingstone Smith, a fellow philosophy professor from the University of New England. Dave Thompson is also with us for our regular weekly discussion on current news topics. And, Matt Olien presents a review of "Priscilla," which unveils a contrasting private side of Elvis Presley through the eyes of the teenage Priscilla Beaulieu.

Why, Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life Preview Transcript

Ashley Thornberg

This is Main Street on Prairie Public. I'm Ashley Thonberg. Coming up in the second half of today's show, our weekly news discussion with Dave Thompson.

But we are going to start today talking about how we interact with people, specifically when we don't see them as people at all, or at least see them as people less deserving than we see ourselves or other groups of people. That is the theme of this month's episode of Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life.

The episode airs this Sunday at 5 o'clock central right here on Prairie Public, and there is also a podcast version available. Joining me now is the host of the show, philosopher Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Always happy to talk with you, Ashley.

Ashley Thornberg

Jack, what does it mean, the word dehumanize?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

I think we can see dehumanization in a lot of the behaviors we have with people around the world or people we're suspicious of.

It's to treat people as if they're human but not human at the same time. It's to sort of know that they're a human being on some abstract level, but not care that they're in pain, not care that they're suffering, to regard them as a threat or danger, to treat them as a monster in some sense that's out to get you. It's a way of talking about a psychological phenomenon where we take another human being and give them less respect by virtue of their humanness than we would someone else.

Ashley Thornberg

Is it always about power and having more power than someone else?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

No, sometimes it's about having less power. Sometimes it's about being afraid of someone who has power over your life, who you think is going to march into your home and kill you, or who is going to be a threat down the road. I think the really important distinction is that it's not necessarily about hate.

When we talk about prejudice, when we talk about racism, when we talk about xenophobia, we tend to use the language of hate. We tend to say, oh, racists hate Black people or antisemites hate Jewish people. And I don't think that that's a very, very helpful way of talking about it because hate is such an ambiguous term.

And because I don't know that these people hate them, I think that they're afraid of them or suspicious of them or, I don't know, are strategizing against them. And the notion of dehumanization is a way of taking it out of the individual person's control and seeing how it fits in the whole system of how people think about, talk about, and interact with people who they don't respect.

Ashley Thornberg

Give us a couple of examples, Jack, of how this manifests on both a macro and a micro level.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

OK, so on a micro level, it's treating someone as if they are evil or dangerous because they're just a member of a group. So we see this in the news where a person, let's say a Black person, is killed by a police officer. And the response is, well, they were Black, so they were up to something.

Or they wouldn't have been killed if they were up to something. And not having any kind of sympathy or not giving anyone the benefit of the doubt even when they're a victim. On the macro level, I think that we see this both with the Israeli and Palestine debate, where everyone is talking about these issues as if they were purely political or purely two-dimensional.

That Israelis are all the same thing and they get what they deserve. Or all Palestinians are the same thing and they get what they deserve. Hamas is going to walk into the United States and destroy everything.

Therefore, we have to get rid of all Muslims. Jews are just genocidal people looking for revenge. And so we're not going to, so we're going to burn down their synagogues.

Those sorts of things are ways in which we dehumanize people because we take away their individuality and we take away their agency and we make them into abstract monsters that are a threat without acknowledging the reality of the situation.

Ashley Thornberg

Who's your guest?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

My guest is a very, very interesting guy named David Livingstone Smith, who has written a whole bunch of books, both for scholars and for general audiences on humanity and on dehumanization.

And what he's tried to do is go step by step through the process to see how all of these elements connect to dehumanization. So when I first started reading the books, I thought it was going to be about politics and I thought it was going to be about just horror story after horror story after horror story and basically respond by saying, OK, you got to be nice to each other. But actually, what he's done is he's looked at history and he's looked at psychology and he's looked at politics and he's tried to isolate the various different aspects of what we need to do in order to dehumanize people.

Now, that sounded a little weird, so let me explain what I mean by that. He is looking at the process of dehumanization so he can expose it and stop it. So he's good.

He talks about the fact that for some people, evil is in the blood and it's inherited from one generation to another. He talks about the fact that for some people, human beings are hierarchies. So one kind of human being is above another kind of human being.

He's talking about ideology, the way that our belief system and our politics interact to oppress other people. And he's talking about this idea of what it means to be a monster, this sense of creepiness that you get when you interact with someone who you dehumanize.

Ashley Thornberg

I thought it was really interesting that he argues that you shouldn't call someone like Hitler a monster. Why?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Because if you call someone like Hitler a monster, then you take away the fact that he's a human being making decisions. Look, if Hitler were born to do what Hitler was supposed to do, then it was all inevitable and we can learn nothing from him. But if Hitler were just a regular person, then it means that the things that Hitler are capable of doing, we may be capable of doing, our neighbors may be capable of doing.

And then we can learn lessons. Then we can see where he went wrong. Then we can take responsibility for the moral future.

There's a lot of discussion in our culture about looking at the past and who's responsible for slavery and who's responsible for oppression. But this discussion of dehumanization is really about looking forward and saying, what do I do that makes other people around me lesser? And if we take someone like Hitler and we just make them completely different from us and distinct from us, then there's no lesson to be learned in our lives from what they've done.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, to kind of add that word back in, creepy, you really get a sense of the realization that like, I could be capable of tremendous badness in this world and not that that's the takeaway. But I wonder why focus on that?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Well, I think it is the takeaway, but not in a sense to condemn people, but in a sense to realize all of the possibilities of the human experience. I could be capable of doing something terrible. If I lost my daughter and I was so angry and I wanted revenge, I think I would be capable of doing really terrible things.

I think most people are capable of doing really terrible things. And so the responsible person says, OK, there is this in me, just there is this in everybody. What can I do to prevent it?

What can I do to look at people in a more human fashion, to not just have empathy, but to recognize that we are in some sense the same thing, that one person isn't beneath or above someone else inherently, but rather we're responsible for our actions and we're responsible for interpreting what we do and what other people do.

Ashley Thornberg

I remember an interview one time with an Ojibwe scholar, Dr. Anton Treuer, and he gave some advice, which was that he lives by the thinking to presume that everyone on earth is superior to him in some way. And this is from his book, An Ojibwe Cultural Toolbox. I'm not getting that title exactly correct, but so much of your conversation centers on culture and culture's role in humanizing and dehumanizing without giving away too much of the episode of why.

Give us a little bit more on the way that we use culture to justify behavior.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Well, I want to say something I think that maybe the guest would say in response to what you just said. I'm uncomfortable with the notion of superiority. I'm uncomfortable with the notion that thinking that someone is superior to me in some way.

Now, I think that many of us have a similar lesson. There's always going to be someone smarter than you. There's always going to be someone more successful than you.

There's always going to be someone more attractive than you. There's always going to be someone who has more power than you. Part of being an adult is recognizing that you're not the best in the room and that no matter how hard you try to be number one, there's always going to be someone who's more X, Y, Z than you.

But if we start to think in terms of people being superior or inferior, if we start to think about people in terms of hierarchies, then it becomes very, very easy to think that the people who are, quote, inferior deserve less, deserve less consideration, deserve less freedom. One of the arguments for slavery was that since the Africans were inferior or some way, they couldn't take care of themselves.

They couldn't be their best. So it was the slaveholders responsibility to make the slaves better.

Ashley Thornberg

Sure, the white man's burden.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Exactly right. That in some sense, the only way to make a slave live a full good life is to enslave them.

And the only way you can slide into that is to access that notion of inferiority and superiority. Now, to go back to your question, I think that those definitions of what people are and who they are comes from culture. So one of the things he gives two paradigm examples in our discussion, he talks about Black Africans and the descendants of slaves and the way that they have been or are treated in America.

And he talks about Jews and how Jews have been treated historically in European culture and the English speaking world as well. And he talked about the fact that historically Jews have been described as pigs and vermin. And that even back in the 15th, 14th century, you had pictures of Jews that of horns and tails and this notion that's even in the gospel, according to John, the Jews are children of Satan who lie.

Now, this culture carries that with them for thousands and thousands of years. And he and this didn't come up in the episode, but in one of the books, he points out that the places that had the largest anti-Semitic attacks in the 14th century also had the largest anti-Semitic attacks during World War Two, that the the I'll call it the cone of anti-Semitism, the heritage, the history, the culture stayed with those locations for hundreds and hundreds of years. And I think we see that in the United States, too, with the legacy of the descendants of slaves.

Americans are obsessed with race. Americans talk about race all the time, joke about race all the time, create commercials of diverse people. And, you know, if you look at every photo from a college brochure, every photo has, you know, seven different people of seven different ethnicities and races.

And we want this definition of pluralism. But this is the legacy of us being focused on race because our culture is built on that. So I'm sure that many of our listeners have experienced this, where you're reading something and they say, John was six foot tall, you know, one hundred and fifty pounds, a really nice guy, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

And then Sam was black, one hundred and fifty pounds, six foot tall, that the default is white. But if a person is black, we have to mention they're black. This is another way that culture carries our obsession with race and the hierarchy that we inherited from our ancestors.

Ashley Thornberg

We're visiting today with a philosopher, Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein. He is a professor at the University of North Dakota and the host of Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life.

The upcoming episode on Why We Dehumanize People is this Sunday at 5pm central. Jack, a lot of the work that you do is on emotions. And I think it's fair to say that a great deal of fear factors into our ability to dehumanize one another.

Could you talk about how sitting with your emotions and the power of making something go from sort of an unconscious reaction to a conscious response could play a role in this discussion?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

So human beings hate feeling vulnerable. I think we understand why vulnerability leads to risk, leads to pain, leads to losing the things that are most important to us. And fear is a response to that.

Fear is a response to this notion that something bad is about to happen. Now, there's political vulnerability and political fear that comes from the enemies on the other side of the river or the people who want to take your stuff or the scary seven-foot-three person, you know, banging down your door. But there's also a fear of talking about our emotions and the fear of revealing ourselves to have, let's say, imperfect thoughts.

And one of the things that I've tried to do with Why Radio and Philosophical Currents is be the one on the air who's willing to take that risk, is be the person who's willing to say, this is what I think, this is what I'm afraid of. This is the risky thoughts that I have so that we can have the conversation without anyone pointing their fingers at anyone else. I want to be the lightning rod so that our community can have difficult conversations.

And part of what a discussion about dehumanization does is recognize that our culture, our history, our families have these biases, these prejudices and these experiences that tend towards us dismissing other people as less than us. And if I can put that on the table and invite guests to talk about it in a disciplined, respectful way, then I think it allows our listeners to share that experience and not feel guilty and not feel afraid that they're going to be judged. One of the one of the best things that anyone ever said to me when I first started out was that my job as a host is to advocate for the audience, that my job is to stand in, not for the guest, but for the people who are listening to the guest to ask the questions and to slow down the conversation when this is necessary.

And I think that this is an instance of exactly what David Livingston Smith wants us to do with dehumanization. He wants us to slow down the process of dehumanization and ask us, "What's going on? What are the assumptions we have to make in order to make someone a monster?

What does this say about ourselves?”

And one of the things that that really comes up towards the end, which I think is really powerful, is that he wants and he doesn't use this term, but I'll use it. He wants us to give ourselves grace.

He wants to say it isn't the case that when you make a monster, you yourself are the monster. Something else is going on and you have to give yourself permission to be flawed so that you can give other people permission to be flawed the moment you start dehumanizing people and making them into monsters. The game is already lost.

So slow down, back up, figure out what you're doing and try to rethink your relationship with other groups and other people.

Ashley Thornberg

Jack, is it oversimplifying to call that a humanizing process?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

I don't think so. I think that that's a really useful way of putting it, because we want to treat people like full human beings. Now, treating people like full human beings also means holding them accountable for their actions, punishing them when they deserve punishment, educating them when they're acting, pardon the term, ignorantly, engaging with them as equals, as colleagues, as neighbors.

But certainly, I think nothing could be more helpful to the world than the Israeli and the Palestinians, the Pakistanis and the Indians, the South Koreans and the North Koreans, the African-Americans and white Americans to get in a room together and to humanize one another. There's a huge peace movement in Israel, and one of the things that they do, which sounds trivial, is they have soccer leagues with mixed Israelis and Palestinians. And when you have soccer leagues and people are playing sports on the same team, then all of a sudden people are the most human.

And so the question, so the process of humanization is, I think, one of the most important things that we can do.

Ashley Thornberg

Jack, at one point, your guest calls philosophy the study of contradiction. What does that mean to you?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

So what he's talking about is the fact that there is this problem, which is that when we dehumanize people, we understand their people on some level, but we regard them as less than people in another way. That's what he was talking about, our treatment of the descendants of Black Africans and of Black and African-Americans, but also of how Europeans have treated and Americans have treated Jews. And so when I talked about that picture earlier of Jews with horns and tails, if a 16th century person looked at a 16th century Jewish person, they would see a human being with two eyes and two arms and two legs, but in their head they would also feel the horns and the tails.

And that's a contradiction that they see them two ways at the same time. And the example he uses to try to explain it is to think about going to a really good wax museum where you have a statue of someone who looks incredibly lifelike and that they look like they're the real person, but you know in your heart that they're not, that that uncanny valley experience, that creepy experience of looking at something that's real and not real at the same time is a sign of dehumanization, of monster making. And that is a contradiction to see someone as one thing and as another thing at the same time. And his point is that human beings don't operate solely on logic.

In fact, we are often irrational. What we are, are psychological creatures. And to be psychological is to exist in contradiction all the time.

And part of his job as a philosopher is to unpack that so that we can have it on paper, articulated in a way that we can understand it and try to cure ourselves of it. And that's not to say that he wants us to stop thinking in contradictions, because I think that's impossible. He just wants us to be aware of it and to see it when it happens.

Ashley Thornberg

Jack, your guest talks about the process of giving yourself grace and examining our own roles in this. And earlier you called yourself a lightning rod for this conversation. Couple that with philosophy as the study of contradiction. That's hard. How are you doing?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

It's a tough time in the world right now. And it's hard to be, I'll say, ethnically and religiously connected to some of the worst trauma in the world with what's happening in Israel and Palestine and to have loyalties on both sides.

It's also hard at times to stand up in front of North Dakota and say these things and inspire these conversations that can be intimidating. And there are times when I'm on edge. But what I find is that doing this on the radio, doing it with you, doing it with these guests is actually tremendously healing, because the things that are not said are the things that have the most power.

The things that you keep in your mind that eat at you are the things that are the most self-destructive. And by participating in this conversation with the North Dakota, with the Prairie Public community, it helps me reach some sort of catharsis and engage with lots of people who listen, who email, who talk to me after and who help me figure out my own thoughts. And that's the best I can hope for in a time of great insecurity, great vulnerability and great tragedy.

And I think that if we as a culture, if we as a country, if we as a world had conversations about what was happening over in a long form like Why radio, like Philosophical Currents, as opposed to soundbites on a presidential debate or TikToks in 30 second bits, I think if we spent time and slowed down and had these conversations, I think we'd all be better off and we'd all be much healthier. And the more healthy we are, the less violent we would be.

Ashley Thornberg

Professor Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein and the host of Why? Philosophical Discussions about Everyday Life. Thanks for joining us and thanks for the work that you do.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

And thank you for asking. I appreciate it.

Main Street transcripts are AI generated and corrected on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of Main Street programming is the audio record.