From dehumanizing to rehumanizing

    “There is a line. It’s etched from dignity. And raging, fearful people from the Right and Left are crossing it everyday. We must never tolerate dehumanization … When we engage in dehumanizing rhetoric or promote dehumanizing images, we diminish our own humanity in the process.” — Brene Brown

    Political polarization is our single most pressing issue. Current events force us to find new solutions to old problems. As Einstein noted, the same mindset that created our problems will not be able to solve them. We need fresh ways of seeing. Blind partisanship is getting in the way.

    Many high-profile people are working to fix this: Oprah Winfrey on "60 Minutes," Van Jones in "Beyond the Messy Truth," even outrageous Sarah Silverman on "I Love You, America." Each seeks to bridge the divide and move us forward together, toward fixing things instead of arguing about them.

    In "Braving the Wilderness," Brene Brown insists "we need to move from DE-humanizing to RE-humanizing." Grappling with this partisan divide can be seen as a path towards both inner and outer peace. In many ways this is a spiritual practice. We have to get below the surface to discover a cure.

    Both sides of our divide have contributed to a steady rise of mutual contempt — “the utter conviction that another human being is worthless.” When we hold others in contempt we dehumanize them. When we dehumanize them we don't feel empathy — which is necessary for cooperation, the foundation of healthy politics.

    Contempt leads to binary thinking: I’m right, you’re wrong; I’m good, you’re bad; I’m superior, better than you; you’re inferior, less than me. Since you are (morally) bad, you don’t deserve moral consideration and are subject to “moral exclusion.” You become unworthy of humane treatment. I can then justify my bad behavior towards you. I dehumanize and exclude you from the tenets of the Golden Rule.

    Scientists say this behavior is innate, rooted in "pre-wired" survival instincts — our natural tendency for self-protection. This is true of individuals as well as groups. We are tribal, careful to distinguish "us" and "them" — usually at the subconscious level.

    As Jonathan Haidt writes, “Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle.”

    It blinds us from seeing things from other perspectives.

    Innate behavior is automatic. I do it without thinking. So I need a “manual override” to do things differently. How can I accomplish that? By being mindful: I can think before I act; consider the Golden Rule — which I’m unable to practice if my survival instincts are in control, leaving me without access to rational thinking. I don’t have a conscious choice to respond differently when I’m on instinctual auto-pilot.

    Brene urges us to practice re-humanizing as the antidote to dehumanizing. “We are all vulnerable to the slow and insidious practice of dehumanizing, therefore we are all responsible for recognizing it and stopping it.”

    Once I’m mindful, there are steps I can take. I need “to leave the certainty and safety of [my] ideological bunker,” she writes. How might I hide behind my tribal ideology to try to feel safe in an insecure world? Being open to ideas from the "other side” can leave me feeling wobbly, and can risk push-back from my “own side.”

    I need to start catching myself in tribal, cliquish, ostracizing, dehumanizing behavior. How do I organize my life by “in-groups” and “out-groups”? Who do I have disdain for? Who do I treat with moral exclusion?

    Above all I need to watch my language. When I use demeaning words or the language of disgust, it’s a sign I’m dehumanizing.

    Charles Eisenstein writes: "Next time you post on line, check your words to see if they smuggle in some form of hate: dehumanization, snark, belittling, derision … some invitation to us versus them. Notice how it feels kind of good to do that, like getting a fix."

    Each of us has the opportunity to bridge our political divide by being mindful and changing the only thing we can: our own behavior. In doing so we affirm our dignity, as well as the dignity of others.

    — Marla Estes and Rob Schlapfer are facilitating a free screening and discussion of an interview with Brene Brown about “Bridging the Divide” from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1, at the Ashland library. For more information, see


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