Believing in Monsters: David Livingstone Smith on the Subhuman

Acting on a dehumanizing ideology does not require fully believing that ideology.Wikicommons

The Nazis called Jews rats and lice. White plantation owners called their Black slaves soulless animals. Pundits in Myanmar call Rohingya Muslims beasts, dogs, and maggots. Dehumanizing talk abounds in racist rhetoric worldwide.

What do people believe, typically, when they speak this way?

The easiest answers are wrong. Literal interpretation is out: Nazis didn’t believe that Jews literally fit biologically into the taxonomy of rodents. For one thing, they treated rodents better. For another, even the most racist Nazi taxonomy acknowledged Jews as some sort of lesser near-relative of the privileged race. But neither is such talk just ordinary metaphor: It typically isn’t merely a colorful way of saying Jews are dirty and bad and should be gotten rid of. Beneath the talk is something more ontological—a picture of the racialized group as fundamentally lesser.

David Livingstone Smith offers a fascinating account in his recent book I like his account so much that I

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