Dehumanization is the process of stripping away or denying other’s access to basic human qualities or rights. An ideal society would be free of this inequality, however, during the modern era, encouraged by capitalism and free competition, it is difficult to maintain complete equality and fairness. In fact, three books from the reading list, Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Sumner’s essay, What the Social Classes Owe to Each Other, and Primo Levi’s tale of Survival at Auschwitz, truly illustrate how difficult ideas and cultural values of the era make it to eliminate dehumanization. Although, the situations presented in each of the book are very different, they mainly deal with the loss or diminishment of four basic human qualities: the natural value in being human, the uniqueness of the individual, the freedom to act and make decisions, and the equality of status. This paper will analyze not only how these qualities were diminished in each of the cases in the modern era but also look to see if dehumanization was resisted. Communist Manifesto
The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx, attempts to explain the goals of Communism as well as the theories underlying this movement. It argues that class struggle, or the exploitation of one class by another, have been occurring for generations. Marx quotes, “The history of all hitherto existing society [has been] the history of class struggles” (79). Class relationships are defined by an era’s means of production. However, However, eventually these relationships cease to be compatible with the developing forces of production. At this point, a revolution occurs and a new class emerges as the ruling one. Specifically, the Modern industrial era is characterized by the class conflict between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. The bourgeoisie consisted of employers of laborers or the owners of the means of production. The proletariat represented the wage laborers and they were dehumanized. In fact, the bourgeoisie violated all four of the main human qualities listed in the introduction.
Firs, the fact that there was an economically based class system indicated inequality in status. Second, since the bourgeoisie class employed the proletariat thereby controlling the action and decision of the lower class. Third, the bourgeoisie in he modern era clumped the entire proletariat class together and considered them mere laborers, Fourth, Marx believed that wage laborers working with machinery dehumanized the worker. Human values were diminished since laboring class could be easily replaced by machinery in some instances for more efficiency. Any one of these violations alone can stand as mere inequality; however, when many more of these violations get stacked, inequality becomes a form of dehumanization. Therefore, as production demand increased, the exploitation by the bourgeoisie class of the proletariat class increased.
Eventually, this would anger the proletariat class enough to start a revolution and overthrow the bourgeoisie. Marx wrote, “[The bourgeoisie] is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society” (93). This uprising would be the Proletariat’s form of resistance against dehumanization.
However, unlike previous revolution, where powers simply shifted from one class to another, Marx predicts that class will be eliminated altogether and a truly equal and fair state would emerge. Readers can’t help but feel skeptical while reading Marx’s theory due to the “dictators” present in current day communist countries. However, it is important to know that these current day communist countries only got influenced by Marx’s ideal but did no fully carry out his theoretical society. What the Social Classes Owe to Each Other
William Graham Sumner was influenced by Social Darwinists and argued in his writing that helping the poor would only interfere with laws of nature and slow down evolutionary progression. In fact, Sumner argued that a “poor” or a “weak” person were merely lazy and they did not exist. Therefore Sumner wrote, “A maudlin impulse to prolong the lives of the unfit stands in the way of this beneficent purging of the social organism” (45). He would further defend about not giving by writing, “we all owe to each other good-will, mutual respect, and mutual guarantees of liberty and security. Beyond this nothing can be affirmed as a duty of one group to another in a free state” (49).
In addition, he believed that if was unfair how “if the rich, comfortable, prosperous, virtuous, respectable, educated, and healthy cannot make everybody else as well off as themselves, they are to be brought down to the same misery as others” (62). In another words, Sumner did not think it was fair how the rich were expected to help the poor, and if not was possibly penalized. Unlike the Marx’s Manifesto, the opposing classes are not clearly defined. However, it is still assumed from Sumner’s writing that Sumner values some life over another.
For example, when he writes, “society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members to leave room for the deserving” (45). With this remark, and many others similar to it, Sumner dehumanizes people who did not succeed. While, a positive message is being sent by Sumner in a way by encouraging citizens to work hard, Sumner is inconsiderate of those who like the proletariats, have no control over their life due to greedy overbearing employers. The only option that Sumner gives to resist the dehumanization is to keep working hard and do not accept defeat. Survival at Auschwitz
Many have heard the accounts of the holocaust before in history class or in other books on the subject; however Levi truly does an excellent job giving the readers detailed glimpse into what it really is like to go from being a free human being, then being stripped down to nothing. His intention for the book was not “to formulate new accusations [but] rather to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind” (9). This book demonstrates dehumanization at its worst. It was established in the introduction that often times Men and women were treated like animals while getting dehumanized. Yet, the people at Auschwitz were actually getting treated worse than livestock. This is because with livestock at least they were somewhat cared for before they were killed, and even if they weren’t they were killed to serve a higher purpose. On the other hand, the prisoners at the concentration camps were starved, killed, and then deserted.
Unlike the other two books, this book contains so much elements of dehumanization that no amount of pages would be enough to capture it all; however, it is important to draw from this book also how people have truly used every inch of their will power to try and maintain their self-value. How did the prisoners resist the urge to admit defeat and continue resist dehumanization? How did they when even “ordinary moral world” (86) like “good,” and “evil begin to get mixed up and the differences between these opposites became unclear? Levi present a man in his story, who may have been physically reduced but who is an insane man and “a survivor, the most adaptable, the human type most suited to this way of living” (97). Portrayed by this insane man, Elias is a strong message that morals and self-value can adapt and survive even in the most extreme situation. Conclusion
Based on the scenarios presented by the three books, and personal understanding of dehumanization, I believe it cannot be absent in modern era society. The degree to which dehumanization can occur is extremely varied, and while we can hope and wait for it to merely pass by, it is better to act. Try to resist dehumanization as much as can, as Levi’s character Elias demonstrated, with strong will power and determination, there are so much we can achieve. Perhaps, while we may not be able to eliminate several factors of unfairness or inequality, we can still treat people with respect and at least eliminate dehumanization.
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