More Alike Than Different
“Greedy pig.” “Sly like a fox.” Stubborn as a mule.” “Follows like a sheep.” “Slow as a snail.” We use these phrases, often without thinking. They are part of the cultural lexicon, but they are also animal epithets. They dehumanize people by comparing them with non-human animals, and people who do this are more likely to dehumanize and devalue social outgroups such as minorities and immigrants as well.
This paper reviews a broad range of literature to examine the mechanism of dehumanization common to bias against both marginalized human groups and non-human animals. At the heart of dehumanization is how society views non-human animals. Our culture is marked by “speciesism”, or a preference for our species over non-human animals. While we tend to view non-human animals positively, we still believe they lack intelligence, emotional perspective, morality, self-determination, and other “human” traits.
Researchers have documented a relationship between discrimination against ethnic minorities and bias against non-human animals. Indeed, when people hold views that place humans above non-human animals, they also tend to be more ethnocentric (i.e. devaluing cultures other than their own). There are painful parallels between speciesism and oppression of outgroups such as minorities and immigrants. These groups rank above non-human animals but are still considered primitive and not fully human. For example, we describe immigrants as “beastly” to imply that they are uncivilized.
Research has also shown that ideologies that foster a belief in the superiority of certain human groups encourage hierarchical relationships and what is known as a social dominance orientation. This is a way to justify exploiting those with a lower rank. The pharmaceutical industry preys on the desperation of immigrants by offering them cash to participate in medical tests without making sure they understand the risks. This is only marginally better than the Tuskegee study, which left syphilitic African Americans untreated for decades.
Furthermore, the literature review shows that when people show more empathy towards non-human animals, they also show more empathy towards other humans. Conversely, there are links between the abuse of non-human animals and the abuse of women and children, as well as bullying by adolescents. This behavior is also linked to dehumanization, But while scientists have examined the outcomes of dehumanization, we know less about the causes of dehumanizing behavior.
To address this gap, the authors suggest using the interspecies model of prejudice to incorporate speciesism into the discussion of discrimination against outgroups. In this model, dehumanization is rooted in a speciesist belief system and mediates the relationship between speciesism and bias towards human outgroups. In other words, people who demonstrate speciesism engage in higher levels of dehumanizing behavior. This in turn predicts more outgroup prejudice.
Given this, it seems that highlighting similarities between humans and non-human animals would reduce dehumanization and along with it, prejudice against marginalized humans. And in fact, the review highlights experiments that confirm this to be the case. Subjects who were told that animals were like humans showed less speciesism and less bias towards outgroups. Stressing how humans and non-human animals are alike seemed to “rehumanize” the outgroups. Members of these groups no longer seemed as “other” or alien.
As animal advocates, we regularly struggle with speciesism, and likely will for a long time. Virtually every society believes that humans are superior in some way to non-human animals. Not only do these beliefs harm animals, they appear to harm marginalized humans as well. Coordinating efforts with advocates for minorities and immigrants could benefit both people and animals. Education campaigns that focus on the ways humans and non-human animals are alike can shift mindsets towards a more inclusive view that values all living beings