Why Torture Fails to Dehumanize

Is there something left of the human that can’t be dehumanized and what is this power to humanize or to dehumanize?

I think that we’re used to hearing that people are dehumanized by acts of torture and of course that is right and I would never dispute that, but I think we don’t always know what we mean when we say that someone or some group of people have been dehumanized or someone or some other group of people have been humanized. 


Are these processes that exist on a kind of spectrum?  Are some people partially humanized and others fully?  Are some people gradually or partially dehumanized and others fully dehumanized and what does it mean that we still say that those people are dehumanized, that those humans are dehumanized?  Is there something left of the human that can’t be dehumanized and what is this power to humanize or to dehumanize?  

I think these are complex questions and we have to consider that the human is a category that has changed historically and that not everyone who we might want to consider human has always conformed to the norms that govern who a human is, so we certainly have seen that in the case of slavery.  We have certainly seen that in the case of indentured servitude.  We’ve certainly seen that in explicit cases where people are deprived of the right to vote on the basis of their ethnicity or religion or deprived of citizenship on the basis of some particular attribute that they carry, but it seems to me that we have to realize that although torture dehumanizes clearly it’s also a way of trying to lay claim to who will be the human in the sense and who will not. So we could say that the category of the human is being brokered in the sense of torture. 

The torturer wants a certain kind of power, even an absolute power, and if the tortured does not suffer the torturer is not going to be happy, is not going to be satisfied.  In other words, there has to be suffering, but if there is suffering that means that whoever is being tortured is displaying some kind of human emotion, some kind of human response, so in that way dehumanization fails to completely achieve its end if its end is to deprive the other of all human attributes since the dehumanization that torture affects also requires a certain kind of human response. 

So my point is simply that torture is a contradictory activity, that dehumanization does fail and even if torture kills the person we still have a person who has been killed and who can be openly mourned and if that person can be openly mourned there is a certain kind of quality of humanization that is attributed to that person.  They are still constituted as a human life that is lost, so humanization takes place ex-post facto, we might say. 

The 4 types of thinking talents: Analytic, procedural, relational and innovative

Understanding thinking talents in yourself and others can build strong teams and help avoid burnout.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to collaborate within a team and identify "thinking talent" surpluses – and shortages.
  • Angie McArthur teaches intelligent collaboration for Big Think Edge.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Do you have a self-actualized personality? Maslow revisited

Rediscovering the principles of self-actualisation might be just the tonic that the modern world is crying out for.

Personal Growth

Abraham Maslow was the 20th-century American psychologist best-known for explaining motivation through his hierarchy of needs, which he represented in a pyramid. At the base, our physiological needs include food, water, warmth and rest.

Keep reading Show less

Scientists reactivate cells from 28,000-year-old woolly mammoth

"I was so moved when I saw the cells stir," said 90-year-old study co-author Akira Iritani. "I'd been hoping for this for 20 years."

Yamagata et al.
Surprising Science
  • The team managed to stimulate nucleus-like structures to perform some biological processes, but not cell division.
  • Unless better technology and DNA samples emerge in the future, it's unlikely that scientists will be able to clone a woolly mammoth.
  • Still, studying the DNA of woolly mammoths provides valuable insights into the genetic adaptations that allowed them to survive in unique environments.
Keep reading Show less

Believe in soulmates? You're more likely to 'ghost' romantic partners.

Does believing in true love make people act like jerks?

Thought Catalog via Unsplash
Sex & Relationships
  • Ghosting, or cutting off all contact suddenly with a romantic partner, is not nice.
  • Growth-oriented people (who think relationships are made, not born) do not appreciate it.
  • Destiny-oriented people (who believe in soulmates) are more likely to be okay with ghosting.
Keep reading Show less