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The Internet: New Gateway for the ancient pleasure of dehumanizing people

Dream of bashing in Michelle Bachmann’s ferocious grin? Ripping open the capacious gut of Gingrich? Frying that execution-lovin’ Rick Perry? Dissecting Mitt Romney to see if he’s as weird on the inside? Human decency (not to mention the hay Fox News would make of it) prevents the sane nonconservative from promoting such imagery. Solution: Make such people into already-dead fantasy creatures! By turning them into campy not-real and not-human characters, you license your destructive fantasies. That’s the appeal, for a certain kind of exasperated American, of this online game: Tea Party Zombies Must Die.

If you hate the Tea Party as much as I do, you might share the cheap and disreputable thrill I felt on the site. It comes from seeing someone you hate transformed from person into something both more (nearly unstoppable, impervious to pain) and less (brainless, dead) than a person. This penchant is old and widespread. I could probably make a case that the human race is dangerously vulnerable to addiction to this mental experience, for much the same reason we’re susceptible to heroin or cocaine: It fits a built-in desire as a key fits a lock.

What is that desire all about? Well, classifying people as not-human is a common psychological license for doing unto them what you would not want done unto you (to take just one example, the classical Greeks called their field and mine slaves andrapoda—“human-footed livestock”). However, creating justifications for exploitation could have been a cool intellectual exercise. It is not. Instead, it is truly “hot cognition”: A mental operation that involves intense, extreme and compelling emotions.

In fact, human cultures seem obsessed with ritual enactments of the transition from human to non-human status, and vice versa. (For example, boot camp breaks ordinary guys into slaves with no rights, then ceremonially gives them back human status when they graduate.) The little ceremonies of dehumanization and rehumanization are constant and sometimes overlap: When you start medical school in the United States, you may, in the course of a few days, be formally entered into the extraordinary human community of doctors with a “white coat ceremony” and be subjected to hazing that makes you feel like a less-than-human “monster.” What excites our interest and emotions is not the result of dehumanization, but the process itself.

So while I know, rationally, that Tea Party Zombies Must Die is bad for society and that I should endeavor to see all participants in our great democracy blah blah blah, nonetheless I happily clicked through all the images to see precisely how they’d rendered Gingrich, Santorum and all the others. I don’t excuse myself on the grounds that the Tealiban does the same sort of thing, or that this is a part of every human society, and a part of human nature.

What to do? You don’t stop a form of expression by making people afraid or ashamed to show it to the world. That just drives it underground and makes it more appealing. So what do you think, readers? What’s the best way to avoid the cheap high of dehumanizing people we don’t agree with?

Newt Gingrich was almost right about the Palestinians when he said they were an “invented people” (though the difference between right and almost right, to paraphrase Twain, is the difference […]

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