What happens when you thingify people? Nothing good.
Apologies. As I mentioned, this week has been vacation, and has been busy with family matters. Without breaking anyone else’s confidentiality, suffice it to say that there’s a lot of complicated and slightly scary stuff happening to people I love. I’ll try to stick to three posts a week, but it may be two for the next little while. Please forgive.
Short thought: Evil begins, to paraphrase that great sage of our times Terry Pratchett, when you start treating people as things.
A bit trite, you might say. How can you run any society, any organisation with more than a handful of souls, without doing precisely that? Which, of course, is true. You have to abstract. You have to say: this many people take this much resource. This many people = this many sales, or (in the public sector) this much tax. Subtract one from the other: sustainable or not?
But this comes back to the heart of thingification. Do you do this as a planning tool, as a calculation shortcut? Or do you start to see the abstract instead of the people who comprise it? Do you somehow start to see some, if not all, people as worth less than others? Or, in the worst-case scenario, as simply pieces on the board?
Because that, I think, is what Pratchett was talking about. Particularly in ethics and politics, there’s a clanging alarm bell that I always look out for. Just as certainty warns of a closed mind, this is an indicator that people are being thingified – and evil is lurking.
And it’s terrifyingly common. It’s that easy tendency to build a community – political, religious, otherwise – around who you blame. Who you hate. Who you see as different. Who you treat as “other”.
In other words: who isn’t as truly human as you are.
It’s the thing I can’t trust. The thing that will, inexorably, drive me away from any group that manifests it, from any leadership which relies on it.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a convenient means to an end which is claimed to be laudable. Or if it’s a nod and a wink – “people will understand I don’t really mean it”.
Because it never stops there. This is the genie that never goes back in the bottle. We humans always find it fatally easy to put people in a box marked “not quite like us” – and then treat that box as a thing, with all the negative consequences. Every time we encourage that, we normalise this human tendency. So anyone who does so is, in my world, simply beyond the pale.
Back to Sir Terry. In one of his later books, he deals with the imminent explosion into hot war of a centuries-long enmity, as one side’s rhetoric turns vicious. Changing the wording a bit to minimise spoilers, someone finds the following on an old recording:
“The enemy is not one side nor the other. It is the baleful, the malign, the cowardly, the vessels of hatred, those who do a bad thing and call it good. Those we fought today, but the wilful fool is eternal and will say…”
“This is just a trick!” one of those present shouts.
“…say this is a trick,” the recording concludes.
Hatred is comforting. Nationalism or any other belief that defines itself by hatred, or against another, instead of seeking worth on its own terms, is comforting. But it’s deadly. It’s poison. It’s a parasite that not only destroys its host on its way to other minds, but pollutes the sea in which that host swims.
We’ll never win the fight against turning people into things. Not permanently. It’s too easy a trick to exploit, to abuse, to weaponise.
But that only means we shouldn’t stop trying.
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