One of the most amazing court cases you probably have never heard of had come down to this. Standing Bear, the reluctant chief of the Ponca tribe, rose on May 2, 1879, to address a packed audience in a Nebraska courtroom. At issue was the existence of a mind that many were unable to see.
Standing Bear’s journey to this courtroom had been excruciating. The U.S. government had decided several years earlier to force the 752 Ponca Native Americans off their lands along the fertile Niobrara River and move them to the desolate Indian Territory, in what is now northern Oklahoma. Standing Bear surrendered everything he owned, assembled his tribe, and began marching a six-hundred-mile “trail of tears.” If the walk didn’t kill them (as it did Standing Bear’s daughter), then the parched Indian Territory would. Left with meager provisions and fields of parched rock to farm, nearly a third of the Poncas died within the first year. This included Standing Bear’s son. As his son lay dying, Standing Bear promised to return his son’s bones to the tribe’s burial grounds so that his son could walk the afterlife with his ancestors, according to their religion. Desperate, Standing Bear decided to go home.
Carrying his son’s bones in a bag clutched to his chest, Standing Bear and twenty-seven others began their return in the dead of winter. Word spread of the group’s travel as they approached the Omaha Indian reservation, midway through their journey. The Omahas welcomed them with open arms, but U.S. officials welcomed them with open handcuffs. General George Crook was ordered by government officials to return the beleaguered Poncas to the Indian Territory.
Crook couldn’t bear the thought. “I’ve been forced many times by orders from Washington to do most inhuman things in dealings with the Indians,” he said, “but now I’m ordered to do a more cruel thing than ever before.” Crook was an honorable man who could no more disobey direct orders than he could fly, so instead he stalled, encouraging a newspaper editor from Omaha to enlist lawyers who would then sue General Crook (as the U.S. government’s representative) on Standing Bear’s behalf. The suit? To have the U.S. government recognize Standing Bear as a person, as a human being.
The case lasted several days, during which the government lawyers attempted to portray the Poncas as savages, more like thoughtless animals or unfeeling objects than rational and emotional human beings. Perceiving the Poncas as mindless, after all, is what had made it possible for officials to treat them as property under the law rather than as persons. This perception was clear from the government attorney’s opening question: he asked Standing Bear how many people he had led on his march. “I just wanted to see if he could count,” the attorney explained.
After several days of testimony, the trial drew to a close. Judge Elmer Dundy knew that Standing Bear wanted to address the audience in his own words, as was customary in Ponca tradition, but direct statements at the end of a trial were not allowed under U.S. jurisprudence. Respecting Native American tradition and violating his own, Judge Dundy called the bailiff to his desk, whispered that “the court is now adjourned” to secretly end the official proceedings, and then allowed Standing Bear to rise and address the court.
So it had come down to this. At about ten p.m., at the end of a very long day, Standing Bear rose. Illiterate, uneducated, and with no time to prepare an address, he stood silent for a minute to survey the room. Finally, he spoke: “I see a great many of you here. I think a great many are my friends.” Then he tried to reveal that he was, in fact, much more than a mindless savage. He explained his tribe’s difficulties in the Indian Territory, stated that he had never tried to hurt a white person, and described how he had taken several U.S. soldiers into his own home over the years and nursed them back to health. Then, in a stunning moment that channeled Shylock’s monologue from “The Merchant of Venice,” Standing Bear held out his hand. “This hand is not the color of yours. But if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man.”
Standing Bear was a man intelligent enough to lead his tribe along a six-hundred-mile journey in the dead of winter and back again, a man who felt love so deeply that he carried his son’s bones around his neck to fulfill a promise. Yet he found himself pleading with people from far-off places who had failed almost completely to see his mind and instead viewed him as a piece of mindless property. Facing those unable to recognize a sentient mind before their eyes, Standing Bear had been forced to show his to them.
Standing Bear’s case is an extreme example of a surprisingly common failing of our sixth sense. Like closing your eyes and then concluding that nothing exists, failing to engage your ability to reason about the mind of another person not only leads to indifference about others, it can also lead to the sense that others are relatively mindless. Most extreme examples typically involve some kind of hatred or prejudice that distances people from one another. The Nazis, building on centuries of anti-Semitic stereotypes, depicted the Jews as greedy rats without conscience or as gluttonous pigs lacking self-control. The Hutus in Rwanda depicted the Tutsis as mindless cockroaches before killing them by the hundreds of thousands. Exceptions in these extreme cases typically came from those who actually knew the targets of prejudice directly. General Crook had interviewed Standing Bear and his tribesmen in his office; they’d told him directly of their pain and suffering, of their hopes and dreams, of their beliefs and memories. He did not think of the Poncas as mindless savages, and so was willing to orchestrate the legal case in which he was named as the defendant. From these examples, we begin to learn important lessons about what it takes to recognize the existence of a fully human mind in another person, as well as the consequences of failing to recognize one.
Of course, Standing Bear is neither the first nor the last human being to have his mind overlooked and underestimated. The cross-cultural psychologist Gustav Jahoda catalogued how Europeans since the time of the ancient Greeks viewed those living in relatively primitive cultures as lacking a mind in one of two ways: either lacking self-control and emotions, like an animal, or lacking reason and intellect, like a child. So foreign in appearance, language, and manner, “they” did not simply become other people, they became lesser people. More specifically, they were seen as having lesser minds, diminished capacities to either reason or feel.
Similar evaluations play over the course of history like a broken record.
Apparently, it can be easy to forget that other people have minds with the same general capacities and experiences as your own. Once seen as lacking the ability to reason, to choose freely, or to feel, a person is considered something less than human.
The essence of dehumanization is, therefore, failing to recognize the fully human mind of another person. Those who fight against dehumanization typically deal with extreme cases that can make it seem like a relatively rare phenomenon. It is not. Subtle versions are all around us.
Our sixth sense’s shortcomings in these cases arise partly from our failure to engage it when in the presence of someone so different or distant from ourselves.
Even doctors—those whose business is to treat others humanely— can remain disengaged from the minds of their patients, particularly when those patients are easily seen as different from the doctors themselves.
Your sixth sense functions only when you engage it. When you do not, you may fail to recognize a fully human mind that is right before your eyes. It is comforting to imagine that such “mindblindness,” as psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen describes it, is just a chronic condition or personality trait for some people, a condition that neither you nor I have. Indeed, for some it is. This is a comforting story because it makes the inhumanity that can stem from dehumanization, from overlooking the mind of another person or being indifferent to it, seem like something that is likely to exist in other people, not in you. Although it is indeed true that the ability to read the minds of others exists along a spectrum with stable individual differences, I believe that the more useful knowledge comes from understanding the moment-to-moment, situational influences that can lead even the most social person—yes, even you and me—to treat others as mindless animals or objects. Engaging with the mind of another person depends not only on the type of person you are but also on the context you are in.
The mistake that can arise when you fail to engage with the minds of others is that you may come to think of them as relatively mindless. That is, you may come to think that these others have less going on between their ears than, say, you do.
This may sound too abstract, but there are many subtle examples of it in daily life. Let me start with one from the most basic and fundamental experience you have of your own mind: your sense of free will. Although many scientists have little patience for explanations of behavior based on free will, there is no doubt that you and I feel like we have it. It seems that we can freely choose to eat another doughnut or not, move our fingers or not, keep reading this book or not. But what about the minds of others? Are others as free to choose as you are, or do they have less free will? Are they more beholden to their circumstances or their environments or their rigid ideologies than you are?
The finding from careful research is that most people answer these questions by claiming that they have more free will than others do.
When the mind of another person looks relatively dim because you are not engaged with it directly, it does not mean that the other person’s mind is actually dimmer. Standing Bear was seen as being less than fully human—as being unsophisticated, unintelligent, and unfeeling—and today this seems like a relatively rare instance of extreme prejudice. Perhaps it is, but it is also an example of how being disengaged from the mind of another human being can make them appear relatively mindless, as having less going on between the ears than you and your close friends do. More subtle versions of that disengagement are common, and the mistakes they create can lead us to be less wise about the minds of others than we could be.(The psychology of hate," Salon.com)
Am I to understand that if I was to conclude that Germans in the 30s and 40s had a decreased capacity to empathize and feel, and therefore were possessed of lesser minds than the Jews they killed, that I am guilty of dehumanizing them? That is, that I'm not just seeing them straight but have become a bigot? I think so, for assumed in this article is the idea that Germans viewed Jews so harshly owing to centuries worth of accumulated stereotypes -- from birth, their generation was apparently the one bound to explode like Vesuvius! -- not because something had gone wrong in their heads, cutting off of mirror neurons in the right insula, and so on, as what happens with murderers.
The brain of someone who routinely empathizes is just not the same as someone who routinely sees demons (ones they've actually projected onto them) in other people. There's plenty of brain science behind this already, to what happens to infants born in love-absent, stressful environments -- their permanently impaired ability to regulate their emotions and feel the pain of others, owing to hyperarousal of alarm centres, damaged forebrains -- so why the concern to show people as sociologically/social psychologically universal?
Is it because if you don't instruct people to that, there's the matter not just of tea partiers and Russians but of Ugandans not tolerating gays, and that Nigeria massacre? That if you don't instruct people to that, there's not just the matter of Northerners probably being right to see their slaver Southern "brethren" as mentally impaired, but possibly too some of the indigenous peoples who were routed? We'd have to forgo this narrative of animist Standing Bear and his whole animist tribe seeing things absolutely straight, with only the sole "standing with wolves" white man managing the same thing. We'd have to listen to this mythologizing -- At about ten p.m., at the end of a very long day, Standing Bear rose. Illiterate, uneducated, and with no time to prepare an address, he stood silent for a minute to survey the room. Finally, he spoke-- and wonder what kind of a truly lesser mind could so fall for the native prince trope even as he's writing against misappropriation and dehumanization. There's superego intrusion there, and it'd show on a scan.
The case being made here is becoming harder to make when we progressives are feeling less sure of our grasp over the nation's intellectual climate. We're more in the mood to talk brass tacks, where we won't oblige tea partiers / global warming deniers / homophobes that they're just miseducated, suffering from too many years of shallow education. We know we're not talking to people with the same brains as we've got. We know it. Exposed to a scan their haywire minds would look as transmogrified as an alcoholics. You'd take a step back -- yikes!