the dangers of dehumanisation

at the risk of annoying people / offending people with this post i should say at the start – what happened in Norway a few weeks ago was terrible, shocking, awful and can never be justified. what i would like to think about briefly is how the perpetrator has been treated / is being treated in the press / in discussions.


it is dangerous to start thinking of breivik as a “monster” or “mad” or “insane” as some have already described him. if we think of people who commit these kind of crimes as a monster then we instantly de-humanize them and refuse to consider the more difficult questions and issues – how can another human being commit these kind of acts? what is the potential for others / me to be like this? if we de-humanize people in this way we instantly remove them from the human race – they are not like us, they are not proper people and therefore (potentially more dangerously) we are not obliged to think of them in the same way, or treat them in the same way.

this is not a modern phenomenon however. this is something which has been happening for a long time – the creation of monsters in the public / general consciousness is a common theme in literature, politics, rhetoric and life in general. by identifying those people who have transgressed the accepted laws of the culture in which they live and exist as “mad” or “monstrous” is essentially the same as identifying them as “different”. by categorising people like Breivik or Himmler as monsters, we are making them into the unknown and scary “other”. by doing this it makes “us” (the “normal” people) feel comfortable – we can explain away the actions of these people by their “monstrous” tendencies and the fact they are ill adapted to society and don’t know how to behave because they are “other” or “animals” and it gives us an easy, non-problematic explanation – they did that because they are like this.

unfortunately by dehumanising people like Breivik we remove the onus from ourselves to consider the implications and real reasons for his actions. the fact is that people like Breivik and Himmler are / were human. their actions, whilst clearly wrong and impossible to reconcile with living within a human society with modern enlightened values, were the actions of men and as the Bard remarked – “the evil that men do lives after them”. it is now for us to reconcile, think and contemplate the actions of Breivik in Norway a few weeks ago, but whatever conclusion, whether it be medical, legal, cultural or philosophical, it must be remembered that they were the actions of a man and we must remember that the “evil that men do lives on and on” and will remain with us now as part of our culture and who we all are.

whatever conclusions are reached about this man, we cannot and should not simply dismiss his actions as that of a “mad man” or a “monster” – to do so is simply too dangerous.