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From Dehumanization to Rehumanization

Feb 14, 2014

We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered .—Martin Luther King, Jr., "Beyond Vietnam—A Time to Break Silence," 1967.


In a world in which economic factors are given priority over ethical considerations in decision-making, humans lose their dignity. Economic forces, left unchecked by ethics, dehumanize through a strange inversion: economic entities gain autonomy while humans lose theirs. Corporations become people while people become reduced to only their economic roles as workers, consumers, or investors.

The Dehumanizations of Workers

The dehumanization of workers is apparent once we notice that the paradigm for the ideal worker is the (idealized) machine: highly efficient, indefatigable, programmed to the clock (never late; always able to complete the work within the designated time-span without incurring overtime pay), unquestioningly obedient, and untroubled by inconvenient feelings or intrusive exigencies prompted by having a "life" outside of work. More precisely, the paradigm is the "smart" machine of modern technology: old models are ever being replaced by newer, smarter ones, offering "updated," sleeker, more beautiful looks, and improved interfaces, all while being more functional, efficient, reliable, and available in smaller packaging that can do even more that the older, larger, less-efficient models. What this means for human workers is that they are being asked to do more for less under the constant threat of "replacement" if they should fail to perform up to the ever-rising expectations. If our cell phones can do ever more in smaller, faster form at the same cost, if not less, than our older, clunkier models, why can't our employees?

The Dehumanization of Consumers

As consumers, are we somewhat more human? Do we not gain some autonomy through our purchasing power? In this dimension of our lives, are we not taken seriously in that businesses must cater to our needs: "the customer is always right"? Unfortunately, this image of consumers is idealized, and even largely fictional. Even as consumers, we are more dehumanized than not.

Our "purchasing power" is limited by our so-called "disposable income," which many people do not have. Those who do have disposable income often compulsively spend it not on their own authentic needs and desires but on manufactured desires. When we do try to spend it on what we authentically want, we often cannot find what we are looking for, despite the illusion of infinite choice. Our desires are so cleverly manipulated that when we fail to find what we want, we are made to feel insecure: our desires (or perhaps our shopping skills) must be defective, because how can the scientific-sounding "market research" be wrong?

The market is less interested in meeting people's genuine needs and desires than in inexpensively producing goods that can be sold to large numbers of consumers. Thus, it has evolved to manufacture desires. It does this primarily by playing on our fears, insecurities, and anxieties and cultivating addictions. We are marked and labeled by what we own and wear—to have our social worth and identities determined by our material goods shows the dehumanization of consumers quite vividly. Furthermore, because the more expensive goods tend to correlate with higher social status, material advancement and acquisitiveness create a competitive framework that divides us against each other and undermines true community.

Finally, "the customer is always right" just does not hold true in today's world. While we have some choice in how we spend our money (if we are lucky enough to have disposable income), as individuals we are largely helpless in the face of larger trends in society. Consider, for example, our love/hate relationship with today's rapidly changing technology. To some extent, we are attracted to new technologies and happily choose to purchase them when we can. But the pace of change pulls us into a momentum that quickly throws us off balance and causes us to lose control. Many of us experience this most intensely at work.

Frequent changes in technology have changed the nature of work. Rapid obsolescence requires our having to "upgrade" our equipment with increasing frequency. If we fail to do this, our systems become incompatible with those of our colleagues at other offices, companies, and institutions. But the frequent upgrading costs money, and more than we may realize. While new equipment costs more money than simply repairing or replacing worn-out machinery, there are other costs as well, such as the cost of time. Each upgrade requires not only the time and staffing to implement the new technology (transferring data, installing and configuring the new equipment, customizing it to the workplace's needs), but then everyone else must learn the new software and completely rework all of their routine ways of getting their work done. The "upgrades" promise "improvements," but what we actually too often find is the loss of some of the functionality we had previously depended on. More and more of our work time gets spent on readapting to technological changes while we are concurrently still expected to keep pace with our primary responsibilities. Furthermore, in many workplaces, those primary responsibilities continually increase because of staffing cuts that are ironically brought about by the need to offset the great expenditures required to rework the technological infrastructure! Because of those staffing cuts, the technological changes are heralded as improvements in "efficiency," but are actually experienced by the surviving staff as more work and more pressure.

The net effect is the strange inversion of technology dictating how we work and what we can do, rather than serving our needs and priorities. The customer is no longer always right. Customers no longer have the means to assert their true needs concerning technology: "market research" does that for us and, at least in the work world, we have no choice but to comply.

Back in the world of private individual consumption, we do have more choices. Furthermore, it is encouraging that people have become more conscious of the ethics of consumption: raising questions about the morality of certain purchases based on assessing whether products meet environmental standards, and whether companies treat their employees well. But the sad truth is that there is not much we can really do to make a significant difference. Manufacturing is so complex that few companies meet the highest ethical standards. Much of what we need in order to function in society—our clothing, computers, cars, washing machines, etc.—is implicated in morally objectionable practices. Thus, we feel chronically guilty for how our consumerism makes us complicit in so much of what's wrong. While it is theoretically possible to opt out, it is not practically possible if we want to remain meaningfully connected to human society. Thus, we are forced to compromise some of our ethical ideals and values, and that too is a form of dehumanization.

The Dehumanizing Effects of Investing for Wealth

At first glance, it may seem that the dehumanizing effects of our financial system do not affect the investors: they seem to be the ones, above all, who are allowed to remain human, as they gain the power, through investment, to control production, and then through their increased wealth, they gain access to a way of life that gives them more chance of avoiding the dehumanizing effects of working and consuming.

Yet the world of investing carries its own dehumanizing potentialities. While there are some investors who are interested in ethical investing, the predominant ethos is that one invests in order to make more money. In this ethos, the main factor to consider is the likely return on the investment rather than what the money is actually doing: what companies the money supports. This emphasis on regarding investment as a way of making money makes investors vulnerable to the dehumanization of conflating self-worth with wealth. They are also inclined to equate money with power without realizing either the limits of that kind of power, or their own potential access to other, healthier, and more humanizing sources of power.

Conflating wealth with self-worth is dehumanizing most obviously because our full humanity includes so many more dimensions than our economic status. But a more insidious danger is that wealth brings so many social advantages that both the wealthy themselves and the non-wealthy can be led to infer that wealth is a mark of virtue, and thus the wealthy person truly deserves the rewards, privileges, and advantages that wealth brings. In a sense, they are right, but only because everyone deserves many of these rewards, such as courtesy, respect, kindness, safety, protection, opportunity, assistance, and forgiveness. Because there are many ways to gain wealth, not all of them requiring virtuous character, and there are, on the other side, many virtuous reasons to decline the pursuit of wealth, there really is no correlation between wealth and virtue.

Money and power are strongly linked, but they are not equivalent. There are kinds of power separate from those forms that are mediated by money, most notably a kind that can be called moral power, the power of love, or what Gandhi called satyagraha (truth-force). Martin Luther King, Jr., defines this power as "love implementing the demands of justice" (King, "Where Do We Go From Here?" 1967). While money can do many kinds of things, its power inherently contains a crucial limit, and that limit is the effect it has on those whose services are purchased with money. Money has a complicated effect on people's intentions and motivations. When people are motivated by the money itself, they may go along with projects they do not entirely understand or support. This makes their obedience fragile; furthermore such obedience must be continually renewed through ongoing expenditures of money.

Satyagraha taps into a different kind of motivation. Hence, its "currency" is moral persuasion instead of money. Instead of building networks of utility and systems of obedience and complicity, renewed and maintained by money, it builds networks of friendship and genuine community, renewed and maintained by information sharing, education, and kindness.

Theoretically this alternative source of power is just as available to the wealthy as to everyone else, but in practice wealth may actually impede access to it. The dazzling effect of wealth's immediate power may blind the wealthy to this other source of power so much that they may not acknowledge it or even believe it exists. Additionally, the skills needed to acquire and wield the power of wealth are very different from those required to wield satyagraha. Finally, people known for their wealth can never be sure that people are cooperating with them on the basis of moral persuasion and personal commitment—there is always the possibility that they are instead angling for access to the wealthy person's wealth and influence.

The kind of power money offers is, unfortunately, inherently vulnerable to corruption in ways that satyagraha is not. Because of how the offer of money can displace motivation from its proper moral grounding, those who are indeed "bought out" are morally damaged. The corruption can also extend to those who wield money in this way. When using money to buy the obedience of the unwilling, the wealthy "buy in" to a "might makes right" mentality. Since they do not have to appeal to moral persuasion to convince others to help them (because their money gives them instant access to a kind of efficacy that obviates this need), they do not have to examine their own moral motivations, and thus their own intentionality too is at risk of becoming displaced from its moral foundation. Only the most ethical can resist such temptation.

Two Aspects of Dehumanization

From the above analysis, we can distill two linked aspects of dehumanization: the techno-economic complex, and the division of people against each other.

In 1961, Eisenhower identified and named the "military-industrial complex" and warned of the dangers of failing to keep close watch over it. He implored the American people to make sure that it would continue to serve our needs; he predicted that it had the potential to take over as a force unto itself. Many today suggest that it has. Its insidious method has turned out to be the development of what can be called the "techno-economic complex." The military-industrial complex refers more specifically to military technologies and the industries that create them. The techno-economic complex is broader, referring to how all of our present-day rapidly changing technologies have dramatically altered our lives, how much their development is motivated by financial interests, and how their widespread use has injected an economic mentality into all of public thought, undermining the essential ethical orientation to life that is what is required to support humanization.

Technology is more and more taking over our consciousness. We become addicted to our devices that distract us and feed us information. Computers used to be tools for processing and organizing information. Then the internet allowed the computer to be used to facilitate communication and share information. The web next evolved into an increasingly dynamic space, an arena for live, immediately-responsive interaction. At this point, it was still potentially a creative and human space, a space for user-generated inquiry and expression, a new medium supporting autonomy and creativity. But now the web is becoming something different: something that invisibly watches and tracks us, trying to anticipate our interests, and then proactively feeding us what it thinks we want to see. Blogging (people sharing extended thoughts, stories, and well-reasoned arguments) largely gave way to microblogging (people sharing tidbits of their personal experience), which in turn has given way to meme-replication (people reading and then forwarding content that others have created).

Even commenting—originally thought to be personally empowering and thus potentially rehumanizing in how it made this new medium conversational, turning passive consumers of news and programming into active participants—has lost its creative edge as that space of commenting becomes flooded, repetitious, and often cruel and divisive. The anonymity enabled by this medium unfortunately often unleashes the worst of human nature. This dark side begins to dominate through exaggeration. Sensitive, thoughtful people retreat, thereby unwittingly reinforcing the walls of division that the mean-spirited commenters have erected.

For a time, we had held out the optimistic view that the web could help unify us. The sharing of information and experiences would expand our horizons, enhancing global understanding and fostering new bonds of empathy and compassion. Instead, the direct human-to-human connection is giving way to indirect mediation by "memes" accompanied by anonymous mean-spirited commenting. These changes drive us to retreat to corners of comfort, surrounded mostly by like-minded voices, but enclosed in cells defined by walls of ever-strengthening divisiveness. Mere differences of opinion have increasingly become matters of interpersonal hatred.Old divisions of race, gender, religion, political affiliation, and sexual orientation have been increasingly revived, renewed, and reinforced, even exacerbated, and new divisions are being created.

The Call for Rehumanization

Rehumanization is the restoration of human dignity and the reassertion of the priority of humans above the systems originally intended to serve humanity. If we are to achieve rehumanization, we need to domesticate the techno-economic complex and quell its divisive forces.

The heart of this transformation is the principle of universal respect, a principle dating back at least to 5th century B.C. Chinese philosopher Mozi advocating universal love as the antidote to recurring warfare, finding expression as well in Christian thought ("love thy neighbor as thyself," and even "love thy enemies") and in Kantian ethics ("Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end"). There is a fundamental paradox in human nature: on the one hand, we are interdependent creatures who rely on each other for survival and happiness; on the other hand, humans are humans' most fearsome natural enemies. We generally manage this paradox by being tribal: that is, we tend to trust and favor those close to us and fear strangers. The great religious and ethical systems of the world, however, call us to replace our tribalism with universalism, recognizing that the fear that creates lines of division becomes self-fulfilling, itself instigating the very violence and destruction it thinks it is protecting against. King notes that the only force that can finally eliminate enemies is to use love to turn them into friends ("Loving Your Enemies," 1957).

One dimension of rehumanization, then, is to conquer divisiveness by emphasizing the cultivation of good communities, seeking ever to extend them and connect them until we build a genuine global community. Good communities are communities of caring, formed from strong bonds of trust and friendship, exemplifying true justice. Such communities operate through the healthy satyagrahic power described above. These communities offer to the individuals within it a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging, which are among the most truly fulfilling experiences people can have.

Technology still has a role in such a world, as long as we use technology to aid human priorities. We must reclaim an older use of the term "economy": the wise management of resources, which means using money and other resources to serve human priorities. This would be an economy of addressing the full range of basic needs: not only survival but also our social and self-actualization needs (Maslow's hierarchy of needs). We must reaffirm the dignity of work and reclaim its function in human life as mutual aid and creative expression. We must think of investment as serving the common good instead of furthering individuals' financial gain. Healthy communities would liberate us from thinking our happiness depends on money. Fulfillment can only be found through establishing relationships and communities that affirm the full humanity of everyone.

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