Looking Beyond the Screen - Combatting Dehumanization
George Xie, member of the LOG OFF Writers Group, evaluates dehumanization in the context of social media, offering perspective on the ways in which we can be more compassionate members of the online world.
If ‘dehumanization’ were to be mentioned offhandedly, the first reaction is usually one of visceral contempt. After all, this form of moral disengagement was the cause of centuries of strife and struggle and countless atrocities; along with being the reason why reading the comments section seems to always bear the fruit of never-ending migraines. Though this deeply cultural issue may seem insurmountable in light of the vastness of the internet, at the end of the day it exists only because individuals propagate and perpetuate this rash behaviour. Critically thinking and attempting to understand other parties may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, but those small steps can be invaluable for a society's and individual’s well being.
Dehumanization is defined as “a convenient mental loophole that seeks to reduce ‘other’ parties to a level that is less than human”. On a large scale, dehumanization leads to retrogressive changes in global immigration policy, ceaseless bipartisan bickering, and isolation into inclusive, single-minded social circles. On a smaller scale, this culminates in heated discussions and unnecessary prejudice.
An example of dehumanization, albeit a relatively mild form of it, comes in the form of a viral TikTok. I’ll spare you the details, but the gist of it is that a girl is pushed onto a pile of snow — a feat somehow garnering millions of views. Of course, the real reason why the video was able to garner views was not because of its slapstick entertainment, but its ability to incite an emotional response. Accusations of bullying and abuse flew around the comment section as the video gained more traction, spurring thousands upon thousands of comments. Unbeknownst to the average viewer, the action was all staged. To an average viewer, they were only able to see the bullies and the helpless female victim.
All too easily inflammatory comments and the irrational behaviour of users on social media are brushed off and disassociated from the ‘self.’ To vindicate themselves, users identify the perceived opposition as being merely identified by these flaws — flaws that are oftentimes merely a projection of their insecurities and shortcomings. Individuals on either side of an economic, political, or social question react emotionally to be heard, seeking only to shame, distort and ridicule the other side for the benefit of their own; more often for self-gratification than an action taken for the sake of productive discourse. Bringing us back to the aforementioned TikTok, many individuals ‘performed’ their concern for the girl in the public comments section, all while attempting to take down those who doubted the accusations of bullying. Despite this seemingly massive wave of support for the supposed victim, few made the effort to contact the girl. The actions of many were not only largely dismissive of other possibilities but constituted a condescending face value judgement, accompanied by a solely performative action that was more self-soothing and boastful than potentially helpful. In the view of certain users, she could only have been regarded as “the victim” that could be “helped” for their gain — not fully human.
Dehumanizing views imposed on others play at the most instinctual need for belonging, which is exactly what makes them so appealing. Us vs them solidify one’s belonging and indulges in attitudes that fundamentally degrade other groups by identifying them simply as plain ‘evil.’ It is through these lenses that many still believe that immigrants simultaneously abuse welfare and steal jobs from domestic workers. This proposition is absurd but is readily adopted by those who desire a feeling of unification against a common “enemy.” Social media algorithms additionally make discerning the truth of these statements far more difficult because of the exclusive ability for only hyper-radicalized opinions to attract attention. Users are far more likely to engage in social media wars when they are given the illusion of being in a group with broadband support — an opinion routinely formed when all of the posts in their Facebook feeds affirm their biases, and when their opposition is viewed as inferior. This only adds more fuel to the fire of the ceaseless internet spats. It attracts people who could desperately benefit from running in the opposite direction, but instead feel as if they must stand up for their respective groups and unknowingly perpetuate this cycle of opinion polarization. The consequences of our actions, whether that comes in the case of racist or sexist slander, or the milder scenario of a disdainful comment on TikTok, have real-world effects.
We must understand our place in the online world sooner rather than later. Words, actions and reactions can leave a profound negative or potentially positive effect on others, and simple awareness of that goes a long way in decision making. To become truly capable of connecting with others in general, not just online, there is the prerequisite of understanding. This understanding comes not through wasting hours on end winning unwinnable debates, but through seeking out and confronting foreign ideas — testing their worth by considering other individuals as human, with their desires, worth and identity. Social media is often blamed as a vehicle for evil, but it is too opportunely forgotten that social media is a clean slate. It is individuals who make up the population of a social media platform. The sooner that individuals realize that, the sooner they can take responsibility and begin to better understand and communicate with the world, and perhaps selectively ignore parts of it.