We’ve become quite dehumanised. You might not like to think so. In fact, you may even bluntly deny it, but actually and sadly, it’s quite true, I’m afraid. We’ve lost quite a lot of our humanity and I’ll explain how and why and my view of what we might do about it, later in this article. We also tend to see other people, who are different to ourselves, not as fellow humans, but as “lesser others”. We dehumanise them. It’s getting out of hand, but art can help.
The root of the problem is that, despite having plenty of evidence that it never turns out well, we turn to authority and authoritarianism to solve the world’s problems, which we feel personally and acutely. We’d rather back somebody that seems to be a tough guy, who pronounces that he is unashamedly willing to kick some asses, than understand that the real problem, the reason why there are so many troubles in the world, is that those troubles are directly caused by those in authority. History is littered with endless, documented examples of this. These authoritarians / tyrants / psychopaths / dictators (choose as appropriate) are empowered by our irrational addiction to a belief in authority. We unleash the very monsters that turn everything rotten.
Why do we do it? Are we wicked? Stupid? Ignorant? Fearful? Why do we continue to believe in the myth that a strong man will come along and put everything right, selflessly and to the benefit of all mankind? When has it ever been true? Has there been a single example, throughout all of history, where this was accomplished? Even our heroes, we later learn, had self-serving flaws and faults, which we might have overlooked at the time, to protect our collective belief in their ability of a single human being to rule benignly, as if a God. Does it never occur to any of us that the nub of our global problem is our persistent, pernicious belief in this myth of the necessity of a ruling elite, who govern the rest of us in all aspects of life, maintaining their arbitrary and peculiar version of order, through the threat of State-sponsored violence?
They come to us, these strong men, promising to punish our enemies. Our enemies are identified usually by some irrelevant, shared characteristic and in so isolating that group as being “different to us” (ignoring the fact that we are not a uniform, undifferentiated, homogeneous group either), we designate them as an inferior sub-species, thereby justifying the violence that will be inflicted upon these people, innocents included, in order to stop our designated enemies from doing what we perceive them to be doing and don’t like. They don’t even have to be doing it. We just have to form a consensus belief that this group is acting in ways we don’t approve of. That’s enough for us to sanction torture, inhumane treatment, arbitrary detention, gross violations of human rights, theft of everything they own and destruction of their homes and neighbourhoods. Then we turn them away at the border, when they flee. We deny them food, shelter, safety, warmth, water and compassion.
We become this hard-hearted, research is beginning to confirm, through misfortune. The bad things that happen to us, which make us feel less than human, turn us into people content to visit the same (or worse) misfortunes on other people. It’s not exactly revenge. It’s more a feeling that if we weren’t entitled to be treated as full human beings (by the very State that is supposed to protect us, in many cases), then why should anybody else be afforded the dignity of their humanity (which is, after all, their birthright)? We dehumanise others, in turn, because we have been dehumanised.
Yes, it’s a vicious, downward spiral, but to somebody broken and caught up in it, there seems to be an inexorable (but wholly flawed) logic to it. Those that benefit from becoming the elite ruling class exploit this confusion for all it’s worth. They reinforce the broken logic with their slogans and sound bites. They present the thing that damaged us as the solution, provided that others are damaged, as we were.
The reason people have turned nasty and intolerant is rooted in how insecure and hard their precarious existences have become. Those at the bottom of the income and opportunity scale live lives that would terrify the more privileged. The privileged, for their part, are only too acutely aware that this seething mass of people could overwhelm them and take everything they have, at a stroke, were it not for their walled communities, their private security guards and the separation they maintain between themselves and the less fortunate. They’re terrified too, but for different reasons. Everybody is terrified, so they act like cornered animals.
People have become fearful because they have been terrorised, in one way or another. These are the adult adverse affects analogous to childhood ones, though children are bullied and terrorised too, at a time in their lives where they feel they have very little control over their own destinies. We reinforce this feeling of helplessness in the way we educate and school them, but that’s a subject for a longer piece.
What is this daily terror? In some cases, it’s the terror that stalks the life of everybody living in poverty. There’s the crime, the rundown urban environments, the lack of access to justice, the rampant rentier culture that milks them dry, the denial of opportunity, despite their talents and abilities, the blind prejudice and the State pulling the rug out from under them, taking away any safety nets that might have lessened the impact of any fall. It’s very expensive to be poor and the poor are terrified by every brown envelope that lands on the doormat, assuming they have somewhere to live at all.
At the more privileged end of society, even the simple act of getting to work can feel brutalising. Either you’re commuting on a packed train, like self-loading livestock, or you’re kettled, corralled and penned in by the traffic. You do things you wouldn’t voluntarily do, all day long, sacrificing the things you would prefer to do, just to pay your bills and remain semi-solvent. Most people aren’t, of course. They’re heavily indebted and know only too well that a failure to be obedient would threaten everything they hold dear, their home included.
Even the most elite of rulers are subject to intense media scrutiny (which they buy off, to pacify) and their lives are not their own. They are frequently over-scheduled and required to travel extensively, show up to all manner of time-wasting events and denied the ability to fully self-actualise. The wealthiest are so tied up protecting their money and investments and finding Machiavellian ways of avoiding taxation, that their every waking moment is spent in defence of their privilege, not in becoming better versions of themselves. Everybody is miserable. Nobody lives authentically. We all live lives of quiet desperation and abandoned hope, in order to uphold a system of authority that serves nobody especially well.
Losing heart or having your heart broken is another way of becoming dehumanised. Disappointments and rejections implant the idea that you were not worthy of human dignity. You must have been less than good enough, you conclude. Again, you are a lesser other.
Some people turn to art, as salvation. In exercising their creativity, they experience true freedom, self-determination and the satisfaction of achieving something they felt was worth achieving. In making things, you can largely set your own agenda and there is little direct State interference (mostly – there are exceptions, of course). Doing your art-making before and after the bill-paying day job leads to exhaustion, however, which affects both your art and your performance on the job. There is no escaping the fact that you need rest and that you are dividing your productive, waking hours between things you might be doing through obligation and things you do to give yourself a recreational respite from obligation. Unfortunately, that division often excludes other important things, like raising your children and nurturing your most important relationships, for example. As restorative and refreshing as exercising your creative powers can be, in your spare time, it just wears you thinner.
When it all gets too much for you and you lose the strength, energy, power and control over your own life to solve the inevitable problems that must arise in every life, they prescribe SSRIs to you; not to solve your problems, but so that you become utterly apathetic about them, while they worsen and spiral out of control, unaddressed. The imbalance in brain chemistry thus induced by the drugs, for a deficiency in serotonin you never had (and which was never medically verified by definitive, repeatable lab tests), induces what is, for all intents and purposes, an actual mental illness. This, too, is a form of violent dehumanisation, inflicted by what are supposed to be caring physicians, but who are, in practice, often little more than drug salesmen and representatives for big pharma, reliant on guesswork and opinion, for their diagnoses; diagnoses which are devoid of any sound, evidential basis, if you care to objectively examine the facts closely enough.
Read this, if you want to explore this matter some more: http://themindunleashed.org/2015/07/antidepressants-may-be-worsening-depression-not-treating-it.html
It is now becoming obvious that we have a serious public health crisis on our hands. Mental illness is attributable to childhood misery and trauma. The effect overwhelms all other causal explanations by orders of magnitude. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to conclude that any and all misery has a profound effect on our mental well being. Here is an interesting article about that:
Quoting from the article:
“Recent studies have pointed to a wide range of social and environmental factors that increase the risk of mental ill health. These include poverty in childhood, social inequality and early exposure to urban environments; migration and belonging to an ethnic minority (all trending in the wrong direction); early separation from parents; childhood sexual, physical and emotional abuse; and bullying in schools.”
It goes on to say:
“In an analysis of all the research on childhood trauma and psychosis, my colleagues and I found that exposure to any of these childhood adversities increased the risk of psychosis approximately three-fold, and those who had multiple traumatic experiences were at much higher risk. In fact, the evidence of a link between childhood misfortune and future psychiatric disorder is about as strong statistically as the link between smoking and lung cancer.”
The effects are physical and measurable:
“There is also now strong evidence that these kinds of experiences affect brain structure, explaining many of the abnormal neuro-imaging findings that have been reported for psychiatric patients. And of course there are myriad adult adversities that also contribute to mental ill health, including debt, unhappy marriages, excessively demanding work environments and the threat of unemployment. Arguably the biggest cause of human misery is miserable relationships with other people, conducted in miserable circumstances.”
Sobering reading, with many serious implications for how we run our societies, isn’t it? Misery is dehumanising and dehumanised people have a tendency to dehumanise other people. A belief in authority compounds the problem, instead of solving it.
The problem with how we regard and treat those that have suffered misery and misfortune is best summarised by this quote:
“They always ask what is wrong with you and hardly ever ask what happened to you.”
They spend trillions on war and war preparations, building terrifying weapons of mass destruction they haven’t a hope of controlling, over the long term and yet those that fund and profit from this commerce in destruction and imperilment claim that it must be so, or else they will lose their pre-eminent economic status and jobs will disappear. We could just as easily decide to spend that money on solving everybody’s existential problems, housing them in comfort and security, providing genuine outlets for their creative talents and real opportunities to better themselves and the society they live in, but we decide to spend on destruction instead. We act as if there is no alternative.
Ultimately, the only justification for this wanton waste of resources is that the elites in charge of the money aren’t in the business of improving the lot of humanity – they only make weaponry and depend on mayhem and catastrophe for the continued necessity to spend. Never once has anybody said to these people, “Well, get out of that business and go into the business of improving individual lives”. No, their decision to focus on war production is considered a sacrosanct choice, beyond reproach or the slightest challenge or modification.
This, too, dehumanises us all, but especially those whose labour and talents produce nothing more than misery and debilitation, or even death, for their fellow men. This occupation is only sustainable, of course, if your embedded, internalised mental model of those you harm is that they are lesser others, not equivalent humans, with equal rights and equal opportunities. You have to see those victims of your work as sub-human, just to be able to turn up to work, every day, to make weapons.
How do we counter those that threaten us with violence? Some threaten them with more violence, of greater terror and severity. They simply “pack bigger guns”. Where does that end? How can that de-escalate, of its own accord? To see somebody else as deserving of your summary violence requires that you deny their very humanity, or you simply couldn’t make the threat, let alone carry it out.
You know what they say: Inside every bitter cynic, there’s a badly disappointed idealist.
If there is one positive aspect to being brutalised, it is that it can harden you to it and allow you, therefore, to survive it. Perversely, miserably, against your will and at the expense of your dignity and self-confidence, it changes you forever. For example, the one thing extreme rejection in personal relationships taught me was how to survive being awake and alert, while everybody else was asleep to the truth of matters. As isolating, lonely and abandoned as holding thoughts that others are too afraid to contemplate can make you feel, you can survive it, if you learned how to survive rejection before. You can make peace with loneliness and feeling excluded. As a consequence, I find I can face difficult truths others find too uncomfortable and distressing, with calm rationality and peaceful lucidity, because I have coping strategies for being ostracised from the pack. These are the few crumbs I can salvage from what was, in reality, quite a devastating event, in my life.
This article says it better than I ever could:
The people that are asleep to the dehumanisation that has taken place are, frankly, bloody dangerous, because they still use violence to attempt to quash the thoughts of those that disagree with their prevailing hallucination about the world. They see those that are trying to rehumanise as the problem, not the solution, which they will happily and ignorantly kill with fire, to make it go away, if necessary. This, they feel, is preferable to revising their own ideas and actually waking up.
If you want some eye-witness testimony and deep insight about what makes us human and what dehumanises us, listen to John Bird, founder of the Big Issue, a magazine that has placed over £100m directly into the hands of the homeless, since its inception:
(Note that this link will only work for a limited time, due to BBC policy, but it’s worth listening to all 27 minutes of it, while you still can)
Rehumanising is what’s needed, not huckster politicians preying on the fearful. They encourage us to prey on each other, for their own enrichment and benefit. We need this kind of authority like another hole in the head. Instead, it’s time we turned our backs on people like that and got on with improving ourselves, as human beings and revising how we treat and respect other earthlings.
It’s a distressing reflection on human affairs that “rehumanising” is not even a recognised word, by the average spell checker. You have to add it to your dictionary, because it is so little used.
We can rehumanise and access our essential humanity through the practice of art. Art as therapy is a proven technique, shown to be effective. For any artist, a paying career as an art therapist is, indeed, an honourable and noble one, if sometimes upsetting and challenging. People can heal by accessing their creativity and expressing their repressed, painful feelings, through the medium of art. The miseries and psychological injuries that trouble us can be expounded in an art work. Things that you might find difficult to talk about can be raised and worked through, in song, painting, drawing, drama, pottery, whatever art form you feel can convey your emotional state. This is why art is so essential and becoming an artist such an important thing to do. It rehumanises us.
As John Bird said in the interview I posted a link to, above, investing in yourself is what you need to be able to do. To see yourself as a worthwhile, worthy human, you need to be able to connect with yourself and spend the requisite ten thousand hours bettering yourself. Only once you see yourself as fully human can you begin to understand that everybody else is just as worthy of being seen in that same light. There are no lesser others.
Surviving your adverse childhood events, or the miseries of adult life, requires a strategy that can lift you out of that terrible reality and place you into another more ideal universe, of your own making, even if temporarily. Art soothes. The immersive qualities of art, which allow you to enter a trance-like state of flow, can be just the remedy required.
We need more empathy, not more enmity. We don’t need faux positivity and self-involved mindfulness as much as we urgently need a genuine reaching out and connection to those that desperately need a helping hand. Self-improvement can absolve you of your feelings of being less than human, but ultimately you need to bring everybody else up the state of feeling human and being treated as fully human. Sorting yourself out, without extending that healing to others, is only going half the distance. Being an artist is not as effective as helping everybody else to become one, as well. That’s one of the reasons this blog exists.
Tolerance comes from finding some sort of independent security, freedom from oppression, an absence of manipulation and protection from violence (including State violence). Isn’t that a more worthwhile goal than lending your support to bogus strong men, who will only cause more dehumanisation?
It’s a pity that art doesn’t allow you to live well on what you make from it, given the way we have organised our accounting conventions. If it did, that would go a very long way toward rehumanising everybody.