Friday, January 27, 2012

When we Dehumanize the Dehumanizer

I think there is one thing upon which most people with whom I interact, and probably you as well, can agree: child abuse is bad. We may not always agree on what point discipline becomes abuse, but I am willing to bet that when a child arrives at a hospital with retinal hemorrhages and brain hemorrhages, the line has definitely been crossed. The conference I attended this week focused on such injuries, and it forced me to confront an issue that has been boiling below the surface for me for years. 

Where I tend to disagree with most people with whom I work is what we think of the person who caused the abuse.

Working in child welfare again has reminded me how quick we are to judge, how quick we are to throw people under the bus when we think they are monsters who can dehumanize innocent children.

But why does that give us the right to dehumanize them? Dehumanizing others, while convenient, takes its toll on your own humanity. That, however, is a topic for the next post.  Here I want to focus on what we do to others.

I am the last person who is going to say that it is okay for someone to harm a child. I am the last person who is going to defend actions that lead to hospital trips and very often the morgue. The actions, yes, are abhorrent. But my first response to that is, what happened to the person who did it such that he or she got to the point where abuse occurred? What was his or her life like? Someone like that needs our compassion, not our judgment.

I know there are people in the world who believe that someone who can abuse a child cannot be rehabilitated. I know there are people who believe they are monsters who should be locked away forever. But how is there any chance of someone changing if the rest of us believe it is absolutely impossible? I refuse to give up hope. Many people have told me that more time working in this field will knock that idealism out of me. They think that with enough time seeing the horrifying nature of some people, that I will go to their side.

But they do not understand the power of the yoga and all it has taught me over the years.

Just like the last post, I am not sure I have an answer to this dilemma, but I do know that I refuse to dehumanize anyone. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” None of us are perfect, and if we attack each other, we destroy life and go blind. We are all connected, and destroying anyone in that connection destroys a piece of us. I want to ensure we can all see clearly.

Law school tried to beat the humanity out of many of us. We are asked to be “rational” and think about how evidence is relevant to the law, ignoring how it is relevant to people. We live in a world where corporations are considered people. Our concept of humanity is skewed. I have little doubt of that anymore.

But yoga gives us the space to come back to that sense of humanity. Perhaps you are not ready to see someone who abuses a child as a fellow human being, albeit one who needs some serious help (and to stay away from children until receiving that help), but are you willing to see opposing counsel as a fellow human being? What about the client on the other side of the case? What about your political rival? What about someone who disagrees with you about gay marriage or taxing the rich?

I know these ideas are controversial, but I strongly believe that if we do not have these discussions, we are going to continue down the road to destruction of all of us. And I think it is one of the most important lessons yoga can teach us, especially those of us being asked through our jobs to dehumanize, whether that dehumanization is of a child abuser or just the lawyer across the street. 

And what if your act of humanizing someone else allows them to pay it forward? What if we all treated each other with humanity? Could that eventually stop the abuse? Could that eventually allow us all to see clearly? I believe it can.


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.


  1. The hardest thing is to continue to humanize the individual who crosses the line of being humane. Even though this is the right thing to do.
    Do we reflect these acts upon ourselves or do we sink into judgement and feel superior in some way.
    Through yoga, we have a tool that allows us to see into ourselves. Sometimes that means looking into a dark place to find uncomfortable things. This also allows us to find that place to humanize the persons we would so much like to dehumanize by recognizing the humanity in ourselves.

    1. So well said. Thank you, Daniel. I appreciate it.

  2. Great post, Rebecca.

    It can be difficult to show love to those who exhibit or participate in actions that we (either as a society or personally) abhor. The easy route, I believe, is to fall into the the trap of shutting out empathy and allowing dehumanizing judgment.

    Even as attorneys, it can be easy to lapse into buying into a client's position and thus shed our duties as counselor, besides that of an advocate, i.e. drift into the snare of dehumanization. The legal profession is honorable when its members share the objective of a fair and just resolution. A humane result.

    By being humane, empathetic and even charitable, we can start to achieve the balance that we need.

    1. Thanks, Benjamin. Well said. I agree that it is sometimes too easy to fall into the role of advocate without counselor, and it places us in a difficult bind. Well said.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.