Book Review of Less than Human: Why we Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others. Book by David Livingstone Smith.
Book Review: Less than Human: Why we Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others
by David Livingstone Smith, [with index] [326 pages]
St Martin’s Press, New York, 2011.
[Dewey Catalog Number 305.568]
One of the things I have been saying for a while in my forays into the world of disabled advocacy is the only way you can kill another human being is by first dehumanizing them. You have to create a category for your target that removes their uniqueness, or you will be unable to kill with a clear conscience.
In many ways, euthanasia enthusiasts have turned this concept on its head; they are arguing that the only way to preserve someone’s humanity is by destroying them. Oddly, this is to stop their suffering – never defined.
In the book Less than Human, David Livingstone Smith traces the history of dehumanization from the Greeks through to the present day. One significant omission from this work is the dehumanization of the disabled, and that is a glaring omission.
This is an example of marginalization in action. I know an author has to pick his or her scope, but in talking about dehumanization, disabled attacks should be present in any list. However, the author does have some very important things to say about dehumanization otherwise.
This is the book’s value: the author said he did not come across any systematic work examining dehumanization as a focused subject when he was writing.
Less than Human traces dehumanization from the classical era and through the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment to the present day.
One take-away I would suggest to any reader: we are no less superstitious and callous now than the ancient Greeks were about dehumanization. In fact, we are worse: through the ages, our society has learned to be polite about our dehumanization, allowing certain professionals to have their say and way with our common ethic of inherent value of humanity.
Consider Peter Singer, who famously said that we should with-hold human status from infants so as to avoid the thought of human murder.
Smith would argue it would be difficult at first for a nurse to allow this in a nursery, but with the right coaching and the correct social atmosphere: one in which everyone thought the same about infants – this would become less of a problem.
The one definite gap in the book is the dehumanization of the disabled, as in Germany post World War I, or dehumanization of disabled victims of murder. Such dehumanization does not present itself in this book, and that is a serious oversight.
The author argues there is a three step process of dehumanization: authorization, routinization and dehumanization.
Permission comes to some disabled people, according to evidence I found on the net, in the form of silent Do Not Resuscitate orders. This is given evidence in another book called After the Error. The authorization to kill comes from the medical community to doctors whose belief systems hold that some life is not worth saving as an ideal. (They can argue that this ideal is not the case, but then why are they acting on it?)
The routinization comes as nurses who would have fought for disabled patients stay silent, for a variety of reasons. One known reason contributing to this silence are legal gag orders in employment contracts. Another would be the accepted norm or groupthink that the disabled patients are better off dead. The sad part is that nurses themselves do not speak to the patients in the stories I have read.
It can be said that once such killing is routinized – I remember reading a blog piece about the starvation deaths of disabled children at a large children’s hospital in a major Canadian city from the EPC blog – then there is a tacit authorization from those who formerly would have protested or fought. (It’s the way they do things now, don’t rock the boat). So the continuing permission comes from parents who do not question.
And those parents or family who do question can be labelled troublemakers. This is why I read a story of a family last year who had to legally fight to get their daughter back out of medical care – they were defined as problems. Eventually, after much trauma to the family and particularly to their daughter, they succeeded.
Dehumanization is the final step in this process. The person, once in the grip of this ideological foregone conclusion, will be moved, in inevitable fashion to the desired outcome by those who have the social power to control them. This will happen if those means are legalized or not.
Smith cites a social experiment wherein the subjects overheard whether they were in a dehumanized or a humanitarian group. When these subjects – who were being measured for their resultant humanity and not their fictive action – applied ‘electric shocks’ to people, the dehumanized group was more vicious.
Smith says, quoting the researcher Herbert Kelman,
‘To the extent that the victims are dehumanized, principles of morality no longer apply to them and moral restraints are more easily overcome.’ [The whole discussion can be found on pages 127-131 of the book]
Remember Peter Singer, who famously said that human infants should not be considered human until about a month after birth. Why is this? So we can dispose of the defective ones. If the child is given permission by such people not to be human, that permission is also an authorization, and such a viewpoint becomes routine.
This is why the SCOC decision on euthanasia is wrong: it allows for professional dehumanization of the dying and disabled. It also creates a tacit pressure on the disabled to hurry up and die, because that option exists. In medical parlance, chronically ill people who refuse to refuse treatment and fight silent DNR orders are probably suffering from a medical condition called FTD.*
Smith does not mention disabled murders, nor does he mention the T4 Programme. However, and this is interesting, he does write, ‘Psychological studies have strongly confirmed the link between killing and psychological damage.’ 
That is psychological damage to the one doing the killing, and that has implications for abortion, infanticide and assisted suicide. I do not remember reading anything in print about doctors and nurses and the aftermath of killing their dying or disabled patients. In the idealistic, enthusiastic arguments, the doctor is a cipher, someone who acts without volition to kill a patient and experiences no harm. In chemistry this role would be one of catalyst. Participates in the action, but is not impacted by the action.
Despite assurances that we are only weeding out vegetables, doctors and nurses who kill patients are breaking one of the oldest taboos.
So the gap of not showing disabled murder and that process of dehumanization is a glaring omission in this book. Having said that, the book is good as a presentation of the roots of the process of dehumanization in history and context. We now have a theoretical anchor on which to tie our thoughts on disabled murder.
The reason we as members of the disabled community must consider this is because of the urgency in fighting the notion that our lives are not in any danger. With examples and data from this book, we can now show that there is a very real danger to us.
In conclusion, I think one of the elements in another book I was reading recently applies: when we have medical killing authorized, routinized and working to dehumanize, we need to remember critics of the disabled in Holland who have been shown to say to patients complaining of their chronic challenges: you have no right to complain; you could choose not to be here.
That victim blame is the ultimate last step before dehumanization. I have been thinking about these issues for a while, because it always struck me as odd when patients were referred to as vegetables. Obviously, they are not. This book helped me realize it was a shorthand, allowing previously unspeakable things to be done to the most vulnerable in our culture.
So read this book, but with a caution: it does not directly address disabled dehumanization. However, with the advent of euthanasia in parts of the US, with the disabled murders we read about, with the fight that disabled people in England are having to keep their benefits, we can see that now, from the concepts in this book, we have a framework for testing the hypothesis that the disabled are being dehumanized in action.
*Failure to Die: a frustrating condition for caregivers when they need the bed and the patient stubbornly clings to life, when obviously, they’d be better off – and more convenient – dead. I am being sarcastic, relax.