Countering Genocidal Dehumanization: Paulo Freire and Thomas Norton-Smith on Humans and Animals

By Lauren Eichler

English Abstract

In genocide the most common form of dehumanization is animalization—comparing humans to and treating them like animals. Despite the prevalence of animalization, most genocide scholars omit animals from discussions on genocide prevention. However, animals shouldn’t be overlooked because throughout Western history the animal has been the baseline against which humans define themselves as superior to other life. Given this and the role of dehumanization in genocide, I contend that humanist responses to genocide like the expansion and enforcement of human rights appeal to the same metaphysical assumption at work in dehumanization—the existence of the human/animal dualism. I argue that to halt genocidal violence, we must challenge the human/animal dualism and develop a nonhumanist ethics and politics. Here I engage Paulo Freire and Thomas Norton-Smith as representatives of a humanist and a nonhumanist view respectively, applying their thoughts on animals, personhood, and humanity to the problem of genocide.

Resumen en español

En el genocidio, la forma más común de deshumanización es la animalización: comparar humanos y tratarlos como animales. A pesar de la prevalencia de la animalización, la mayoría de los eruditos del genocidio omiten a los animales de las discusiones sobre la prevención del genocidio. Sin embargo, los animales no deben pasar por alto porque a lo largo de la historia occidental humanos han definido su superioridad en relación de los animales. Teniendo esto en cuenta y el papel de la deshumanización en el genocidio, afirmó que las respuestas humanistas al genocidio como la expansión y aplicación de los derechos humanos apelan a la misma suposición metafísica que funciona en la deshumanización: la existencia del dualismo humano / animal. Yo sostengo que para parar la violencia genocida, debemos desafiar el dualismo humano / animal y desarrollar una ética y política no-humanista. En este ensayo involucró el trabajo de Paulo Freire y Thomas Norton-Smith como representantes de una visión humanista y no-humanista respectivamente, y aplico sus pensamientos sobre los animales, la personalidad, y la humanidad al problema del genocidio.

Resumo em português

No genocídio, a forma mais comum de desumanização é a animalização – isso é, comparando seres humanos com, e tratando-os como, animais. Apesar da prevalência da prática de animalização, a maioria dos estudos acadêmicos sobre genocídio omite os animais das discussões sobre a prevenção de genocídio. No entanto, os animais não devem ser omitidos porque, ao longo da história ocidental, foram tratados como uma base de diferenciação contra qual os seres humanos definiram-se como superiores. Diante disso e junto com a função da desumanização no genocídio, sustento que as respostas humanistas ao genocídio, como a expansão e aplicação dos direitos humanos, apelam para a mesma suposição metafísica presente na desumanização – a existência do dualismo humano/animal. Afirmo que, para travar a violência genocida, devemos desafiar o dualismo humano/animal e desenvolver uma ética e uma política não-humanista. Aqui invoco Paulo Freire e Thomas Norton-Smith como representantes de uma visão humanista e não humanista, respectivamente, aplicando seus pensamentos sobre animais, personalidade e humanidade ao problema de genocídio.

Dehumanization can take various forms, but in genocide the most common form of dehumanization is animalization—comparing humans to and treating them like animals. According to Gregory Stanton, president of the non-profit Genocide Watch, two of the ten stages of genocide are classification and dehumanization.i Classification involves categorizing groups into “us” and “them,” setting up a self-other distinction. This lays the groundwork for one group to dehumanize the other by emphasizing their differences, particularly differences in their moral worth. These devaluations occur when one group denies that the other shares in human nature or fails to exhibit characteristics believed to be uniquely human. Behaviors and characteristics that associate the group with animals get underscored. In other cases, genocidal dehumanization consists of grouping others based on a perceived essential characteristic.

Despite the prevalence of animalization, most scholars on genocide omit animals from definitional discussions of genocide and from discussions on how to prevent genocide. Genocide is typically understood as a uniquely human problem because of the moral standing we grant humans, because the crime of genocide is defined as the destruction of a group based on its religious, national, or ethnic identity, and because humans appear to be the only creatures who commit genocide since genocide requires intent. However, in genocide the status of the animal matters immensely because throughout Western history the animal has been the baseline against which humans define themselves as unique and superior to other life forms. More importantly, in Western traditions commandments against murder do not apply to animals because of widespread beliefs that animals exhibit no or low levels of self-awareness, that they cannot act with purpose, and that they are unable to enter into moral relationships.

Evidence of dehumanization can be found in every modern genocide from the destruction of indigenous peoples in Australia to the genocide in Rwanda. If dehumanization is integral to the practice of genocide, particularly in how it primes people to do and justify violence, then our treatment of and relationships with animals must also factor into any discussion of solving the problem of genocide. Given the status of animals in Western culture and the role of dehumanization in genocide, I contend that humanist responses to genocide like the expansion and enforcement of human rights or appeals to human dignity fail because they appeal to the same metaphysical assumption at work in dehumanization—the existence of the human/animal dualism.ii

I argue that if we are to halt genocidal violence, we must challenge the human/animal dualism so that we can break out of these circular humanist discourses in order to develop a nonhumanist ethics and politics. Such a task is too large for this paper, so here I will address one small facet of this project: a closer look at some pitfalls of the humanist response to dehumanization and some of the upshots of a nonhumanist approach. In this paper I will engage Paulo Freire and Thomas Norton-Smith as representatives of these two views, applying their thoughts on animals, personhood, and humanity to the problem of genocide.

In his essay “Modern Genocidal Dehumanization,” genocide scholar Rowan Savage interrogates the assumption of dehumanization in genocide to determine the role it plays. He defines genocidal dehumanization as a discursive strategy of denying “that a certain group is ‘equally’ human, no matter how that ‘humanity’ is defined” and is thus unworthy of the moral consideration given to the in-group.iii As Savage points out, dehumanization occurs in contexts outside of genocide, but in genocide it reaches an extreme form. Such extreme dehumanization is a necessary mechanism for the practice of genocidal violence because it produces for individuals a narrative that allows them to overcome social, psychological, and visceral resistances in preparation for genocidal action. For example, European settlers called Native Americans “bucks” and “squaws”. This language associated the victims with animals, making it possible for perpetrators to distance themselves from the victims while annulling any sanctions against taking human life. Dehumanization facilitates moral disengagement and can be employed to re-orient systems of meaning so that the elimination of the out-group fulfills a greater good. In Savage’s words “it manufactures a consensus of acquiescence within the populace.”iv

Dehumanization in genocide functions in two ways: to motivate genocidal violence and to legitimize it.v Motivating and legitimizing dehumanization happens in both colonial and non-colonial genocides. In the colonial context, Native Americans were routinely referred to as rats and vermin, implying that they were disease-spreading pests or wild beasts and wolves, insinuating that they were threatening or dangerous and antithetical to civilization. In a non-colonial context, during WWII Nazi propaganda overtly depicted Jews as rats and diseases while accusing them of infesting Europe. Such depictions stimulated fear and disgust in the perpetrator groups so that the motivation for extermination could be for a moral good (like the spread of civilization) or for self-defense (like protection against danger and disease).

Animalization was not always a part of motivation, but it frequently appeared in legitimizing strategies of dehumanization. Motivated by the prospect of acquiring land and resources, English colonist Robert Cushman argued that the forced removal of American Indians from their land was acceptable because they “do but run over the grass, as do also the foxes and wild beast”vi and have no conception of private property. Likewise, Nazi soldiers and supporters, motivated by the acquisition of Jewish businesses, property, and wealth, routinely subjected the Jews to materially and physically degrading situations from forcing them to defecate publically in train stations to stripping them of their clothing and hair to reducing them to Musselmen—a slang term in the camps for the living dead.vii Soldiers and civilians who witnessed the Jews’ behavior in these situations took it as proof that the Jews were animals. Each incident reinforced the justification for genocide. In this respect, animalization is central to both functions of dehumanization because animals frequently fall outside of the moral and legal injunctions against killing. Except in certain circumstances (i.e. pets) and for certain species (i.e. endangered animals) violence against animals is largely accepted, especially if it serves human purposes (i.e. food, safety, research). Even when it is not outright condoned, the implicit assumption is that animal and human suffering and death are not equal.

There are two problems with the current literature on preventing dehumanization. First, little of it specifically focuses on dealing with dehumanization in genocide, but tends to look at dehumanization in general or looks at how to help people cope with the dehumanization they have suffered. This means that solutions suggested in this literature may not be sufficient for tackling dehumanization as it occurs in genocide. Second, even though the connection between dehumanization and animalization is not new, the current literature does not consider the human /animal dualism to be central to the problem. Rianna Oelofsenviii and Susan Fiskeix, for example, argue that fostering empathy and recognizing other minds as like our own will help reduce dehumanization and even “rehumanize.” Social psychologists Kimberly Costello and Gordon Hodson recognize that dehumanization hinges on human/animal relations but continue to assume that “human” and “animal” are real categories as is evident in their solution, which is to reduce dehumanizing prejudice by showing people how animals are like humans (but not the reverse because that has the opposite effect of increasing dehumanizing prejudice).x In these cases, the ontological certitude of the human-animal self/other relationship is taken for granted. It is my contention that as long as responses to dehumanization remain humanist and do not consider the human/animal binary to be central to the problem of dehumanization in genocide then the logic of dehumanization will be perpetuated.

This type of humanism is especially apparent in Paulo Freire’s analysis of dehumanization in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire argues that oppression dehumanizes both oppressed and oppressor, and that the way to overcome this oppression and rehumanize both groups is through the awakening of a critical consciousness in the oppressed. This will enable the oppressed class to reject humanist models of education that teach them that to be human is to either be like the oppressor or slave to her. As their critical consciousness develops the oppressed can, through praxis, begin the task of liberating themselves and their oppressors so that they can fulfill humanity’s “ontological vocation” of becoming free subjects.

Freire’s thoughts on humanism are both insightful and contradictory. He argues that the oppressors’ banking method of education is humanist insofar as it teaches the oppressed that to be human is to be like them. Furthermore, because the banking method is designed to deposit information into the minds of the students without dialogue, critical thinking, or consideration of the students’ interests and needs, this pedagogy shuts down the very qualities that Freire considers necessary for freedom such as agency, purposiveness, and subjectivity.xi By stripping people of these abilities they are dehumanized. Freire defines dehumanization as that which distorts “the vocation of becoming more fully human.”xii Frequently this happens through oppression. Oppression, for Freire, is “any situation in which ‘A’ objectively exploits ‘B’ or hinders his and her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person.”xiii Violence occurs when those who exploit fail to see others as persons. In this self-other relationship, Freire most frequently says the oppressed are treated like inanimate things rather than human beings.xiv Furthermore, humanity itself becomes a thing that is possessed or owned by the oppressing class.xv The opposite of dehumanization is humanization through which people can fulfill their vocation of becoming more fully human.

At this point, Freire’s argument seems straightforward—dehumanization occurs when one group denies the personhood and agency of another group by treating them like things, but that humanity can be regained when the dehumanized person has the freedom to pursue her self-affirmation as a responsible person. As stated above, Freire claims that becoming more fully human is the “ontological vocation” or essential purpose or function of all persons. In other words, to become more fully human means to engage in praxis, a particular, uniquely human ability. In addition, Freire claims that the task of becoming more fully human is always incomplete, and that, like reality, human beings are always in process.xvi Here Freire takes up two ontological positions. First, there is something that is distinctly human and, second, reality and humans are unfixed and becoming. Regarding the first stance, in order for dehumanization or rehumanization to occur, there needs to be some real thing called “human,” and this is where Freire runs into trouble.

Like many philosophers of the Western tradition, Freire defines the human by setting it up against the animal. In a chapter on the centrality of dialogue for the process of humanization, he begins his discourse on animals with, “man is the only [being] to treat not only his actions but his very self as the object of his reflection; this capacity distinguishes him from the animals, which are unable to separate themselves from their activity and thus are unable to reflect upon it…animals can neither set objectives nor infuse their transformation of nature with any significance beyond itself.”xvii He clarifies this by stating that animals are both produced and part of their environment insofar as their actions are merely hardwired behaviors that result from outside stimuli to ensure the creature’s survival. Animals lack objectives, any sense of temporality or history, intent, self-awareness, and agency. They are unable to overcome the situations which limit them. Given the context of this chapter, it is fair to say that animals cannot participate in the dialogue that is required for humanization because they lack language. Freire says, “As a result, animals do not ‘animalize’ their configuration in order to animalize themselves—nor do they ‘deanimalize’ themselves. Even in the forest, they remain ‘beings-in-themselves,’ as animal-like there as in the zoo.”xviii

This turn to animals raises several problems for Freire. First, it contradicts his process-ontology. By relying on these categories at all and then defining them via the characteristics listed above, Freire essentializes humans and animals, fixing a hierarchy in reality and fixing humans and animals as beings capable of or incapable of praxis. In this way, Freire limits the very becoming that he says makes up reality. Second, his reinforcement of this dualism continues to provide a boundary at which one can be considered human or animal, leaving open the possibility of having that boundary redefined based on some other set of characteristics. Finally, by relying on this concept, Freire’s philosophy cannot deal with situations in which the oppressors already believe the oppressed are animals or in situations where oppression includes extermination. For example, throughout the conquest of the Americas indigenous peoples were frequently viewed as “wild beasts” and hunted for sport. In South America, the Spanish fed their dogs on human flesh and taught them to especially relish the taste of native infants.xix In North America, Andrew Jackson boasted of all the Indians he had killed, keeping their scalps and noses for trophies while claiming that killing Indians was like killing wolves.xx In these situations, the oppressed are not given the benefit of a banking education; as far as the oppressors are concerned they might as well be a different species.

These criticisms in no way dilute the very important critiques of education that Freire makes; nor are they meant to suggest that Freire’s work does not contribute to the overcoming of oppression. Rather, I want to draw attention to how animals themselves are used in the dehumanizing process and how they help to facilitate a humanist discourse that continues to perpetuate the very logic on which dehumanization rests. Freire claims that when people are dehumanized they become things. But here, we see that dehumanization and humanization rely on the assumption of an animalized other that bears witness to the human. In the same way that the oppressors oppress for the purpose of securing their own humanity, Freire dismisses the creativity, agency, and communicative abilities of an enormous diversity of creatures that we subsume under the label “animal” to secure his project of humanization. In other words, this very notion of humanity is built on the oppression of animals. If we take Freire’s discussion of dehumanization and rehumanization as a model example of a humanist solution to oppression and apply it to genocide, where dehumanization as animalization is central to the motivation and legitimation of violence then we can begin to see how a humanist solution for tackling dehumanization in genocide cannot succeed because it reaffirms rather than disrupts the thinking and language that enables dehumanization.

In this concluding section, I offer some preliminary thoughts on an alternative approach to dealing with dehumanization. Given the shortcomings of humanist responses, I argue that we should take a nonhumanist approach. If the human/animal dualism is at the heart of dehumanization, then no effective response can fall back on it. This means that we might need to radically rethink the categories “human” and “animal” or at least submit them to a different frame of meaning. The work of Shawnee philosopher Thomas Norton-Smith offers a starting point for this task even though he does not write on the topic of dehumanization. In his book Dance of Person and Place Norton-Smith presents an “American-Indian world version” that shares a similar kind of process ontology to Freire. However, where Freire seems to limit this process ontology to human beings, Norton-Smith asserts that the world (and everything in it) is “creative and animate, dynamic and purposeful, interconnected and orderly…unfixed and unfinished.”xxi Unlike a Western conception of the world, which takes it to be inert, lawlike, and mechanical, the world is actually in constant flux. This has metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical consequences. Norton-Smith explores these consequences through an account of four world-ordering principles for a Native American world version that transcend specific tribal beliefs: relatedness, an expansive conception of persons, the semantic potency of performance, and circularity. Though all four principles work together, here I will touch on the first and second.

For Norton-Smith the principle of relatedness holds that universe is interconnected and dynamic rather than made up of discrete parts and inert. It also takes everything to be in a relationship with every other thing. By this Norton-Smith means that no being exists in complete isolation or abstraction and that no actions can occur without meaningful effects. To clarify the importance of this principle, Norton-Smith points out that the notion that everything is related organizes, orders, and categorizes Native American experience. In other words, because nothing is truly determinate and fixed, beings in the world cannot be known or understood based on abstract observation and categorization. Rather, knowledge about the world and knowledge about what actions to take in the world must be based on observable relationships between beings. Furthermore, there can be no innocent observation. Humans and their actions cannot be separable from the rest of the doing of the world nor is the world just sitting around for human use. For Norton-Smith the ethical ramifications of this are clear: humans and all other beings exist within a moral universe. All endeavors require that one be attentive to and respectful of relationships. These relationships include those between humans and nonhumans.xxii

According to Norton-Smith, in Native traditions nonhuman animals and other nonhuman beings like plants and land can be persons. In this view, personhood is not a result of having a certain set of characteristics like language or self-awareness, but can be derived from two factors: animacy and morality. Humans and nonhumans can be persons because they are animate and have life force or Manitou which can be observed through their needs, desires, rationality, and volition and seen in how they participate in moral and social relationships.xxiii As we saw in the previous principle, because all things are interconnected and related to one another, all beings in the world (human, animal, plant, land, or sacred pipe) can potentially be persons. These relationships are more like kinship relations than contractual relationships and are grounded in respect and equality. Rather than viewing plants, animals, earth, etc. in terms of a hierarchy, as Westerners do, American Indians “see differences which exist among equal ‘beings.’”xxiv According to Norton-Smith, moral agency is at the core of personhood, and being human is not necessary for being a person.xxv By extending personhood to nonhumans, humans are not “lowering” themselves to the level of animals as Westerners might imagine, but raising other beings to the level of humanity for there is no clear distinction between human and nonhuman persons.

If we apply this framework to the problem of dehumanization in genocide, then we could avoid perpetuating humanist discourse while undermining the ontological assumptions about humans and animals. Responses to dehumanization like Freire’s attempt to assert the humanity of the out-group in a way that can be manipulated to exclude certain people from the category “human.” Norton-Smith’s approach would require us to shift the focus of our efforts to prevent dehumanization to understanding and respecting our relationships in a way that recognizes and appreciates differences without essentializing them. In this view, there are no fixed categories, just dynamic processes that shift based on shifting relationships. Perhaps people will turn to some other self/other distinction to justify genocidal violence should the human/animal binary be eliminated, but for now the indigenous views presented by Norton-Smith offer some promising ideas for addressing a grave problem.

Lauren Eichler
University of Oregon
3610 Knob Hill Lane
Eugene, OR 97405

i Gregory Stanton, “10 Stages of Genocide,” Genocide Watch, last accessed December 12, 2017,

ii Following eco-philosopher and logician Val Plumwood, I define a dualism as not just a binary opposition but an opposition that implies a hierarchy, the superiority of one term over the other.

iii Rowan Savage, “Modern Genocidal Dehumanization: A New Model,” Patterns of Prejudice, 47, no. 2 (2013): 144,

iv Ibid., 154.

v Ibid., 155.

vi Robert Cushman, “Reasons and Considerations Touching the Lawfulness of Removing out of England and into the Parts of America,” in Mourt’s Relation (Boston: 1865), 148.

vii Olga Lengyel, Five Chimneys: The Story of Auschwitz (Chicago: Ziff-Davis Publishing Co., 1947). See also, Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

viii Rianna Oelofsen, “De- and Rehumanization in the Wake of Atrocities,” South African Journal of Philosophy, 28, no. 2 (2009): 178-88.

ix Susan T. Fiske, “From Dehumanization and Objectification to Rehumanization: Neuroimaging Studies on the Building Blocks of Empathy,” Values, Empathy, and Fairness across Social Barriers, 1167 (2009): 31-34,

x Kimberly Costello and Gordon Hodson, “Exploring the Roots of Dehumanization: The Role of Animal-Human Similarity in Promoting Immigrant Humanization,” Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 13, no. 1 (2009): 3-22. In a follow-up article the authors along with Cara MacInnis argue that further investigation into the way humans treat animals needs to be done to both understand and prevent dehumanization. Gordon Hodson, Cara MacInnis, and Kimberly Costello, “(Over)Valuing ‘Humanness’ as an Aggravator of Intergroup Prejudices and Discrimination,” Humanness and Dehumanization, ed. Paul G. Bain, Jeroen Vaes, and Jacques-Philippe Leyens (New York: Routledge, 2014).

xi Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. (New York: Continuum, 2011), 74-75.

xii Ibid., 44.

xiii Ibid., 55.

xiv Ibid., 59.

xv Ibid.

xvi Ibid., 84.

xvii Ibid., 97.

xviii Ibid., 98.

xix John Grier Varner and Jeanette Johnson Varner, Dogs of the Conquest (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983).

xx David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

xxiThomas Norton-Smith, The Dance of Person and Place: One Interpretation of American Indian Philosophy (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010), 47.

xxii Ibid., 56-58.

xxiii Ibid., 86-87.

xxiv Ibid., 92.

xxv Ibid., 90.