Why dehumanization erodes accountability

Thoughts on accountability, name-calling, last week's aftermath, and Brené Brown

Happy Wednesday!

This week feels like it’s stretching out into eternity and everyone I know is deeply anxious and worn down, but here we are nevertheless, working our little jobs and typing our little words.

I started my morning today by listening to the newest episode of the Unlocking Us podcast with Brené Brown. Brené is a researcher who studies vulnerability and shame and I recommend her work to everyone I encounter, but even if you have no idea who or what I’m talking about, I think that this will resonate all the same, so bear with me momentarily.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the response to last week’s violent storming of the Capitol building by white supremacists. One week removed from that day, my thoughts have become less about the media’s response and more about the impact of our individual reactions and those I’ve seen online in the form of viral tweets and regrettable Canva graphics.

If I thought shaming people could make the world a better place, I would join in,” Brené says, reflecting on the past week. “Shame is a huge part of the problem, not the answer. What we need is accountability.”

That sentence, along with a few others, solidified and put into words an idea that I’ve been turning over in my head for months and maybe years now, which directly relates to what we’re dealing with this week, so here it is in big letters:

Dehumanizing people who cause harm directly undermines efforts to hold them accountable.

Across social media, the people who stormed the Capitol have been lumped together and characterized as uneducated, hillbillies, rednecks, etc. Aside from the obvious fact that this is not the case, as many of the people who participated turned out to be wealthy and educated with careers and fancy titles, this lumping together has harmful consequences. Not only does this type of name-calling sometimes end up being inadvertently offensive, but it also erodes our ability to hold people accountable for their actions and truly face the harm that they’ve caused.

So why do we do it?

I think, for the most part, that it’s an easy way out. It’s easier to write off a person or a group of people as uneducated and incompetent and to “other” them than it is to reckon with the depth of their cruelty. It’s easier to name-call than to reckon with the idea that these people hold so much hate, deliberately inflict so much harm, and roam free all around us all the same.

This type of name-calling has always made me uneasy in other contexts, but I wasn’t fully able to pinpoint why it bothered me. As a survivor, I’ve noticed that people trying to sympathize with me will sometimes default to similar rhetoric when speaking about abusers, calling them “monsters” or “evil” or something to that effect.

These types of responses, no matter how well-intentioned, have always felt unsatisfying, because they skirt around the issue of accountability.

Everyone processes anger differently, but calling someone a monster, at least in my brain, means that we should expect horrible behavior from them, and I feel like that breeds complacency – If they’re a monster then they’re doomed to behave terribly, so what good is it to hold them accountable? Why should we expect anything different?

When we dehumanize people with our words, it’s often because recognizing their humanity makes it harder to understand why and how they, a real human person (!) have caused so much inexcusable, unacceptable harm.

It feels like every week I stumble into a new, serious way in which language matters and this is another one of those instances. For a while now I’ve had a resolve to try and speak (and write!) more intentionally and carefully – It feels good to say what you mean and speak with purpose.

So may we all say what we mean, mean what we say, and choose our words carefully this week and beyond – especially if, like myself, you are in a position of privilege that affords you the ability to be more patient in your online and in-person interactions.

Tweets of the week

This one’s in two parts: