Concluding larger questions about dehumanization

If this account of the psychosocial dynamics of eugenic dehumanization is on track, larger questions about eugenic dehumanization loom. Can the perceived eugenic threat of degeneracy and the degradation of the gene pool justify policies regarding institutionalization and sterilization at all? Should the systematic wrongfulness that results when eugenics moves from theory to practice be viewed as an unfortunate but, on balance, necessary evil for the protection of society? Are there any people who are legitimate targets of eugenic practices?

As I hope this chapter as a whole suggests, these are not simply abstract questions to be thrown around in some history, philosophy, or bioethics seminar. Eugenic dehumanization persists not simply as a set of ideas or utopian ideals but in technologically mediated practices (See Paladino, Vaes, and Jetten, this volume). Collectively, those practices continue to affect many individual lives today. With expansions in the reach of genetic and reproductive technologies to direct intergenerational change, addressing these questions will take on even more importance for decisions about what sorts of people populate our future.

Answers to these large questions are hard, and they are not settled by anything 1 have said here. But, both recognizing the fundamental persistence of eugenic dehumanization in practice and understanding the psychosocial dynamics that give that dehumanization its staying power are constraints on how we should answer them.

Finally, eugenics is just one specific cluster of ideas that governs how we, collectively, respond to human variation and difference, a cluster centered on the intergenerational improvement of the putative quality of future populations. The psychosocial mechanisms that operate in eugenic dehumanization that I have specified likely operate beyond the realm of eugenics (Kendig 2018).

Consider, for example, much-discussed, recent U.S. policing practices resulting in the deaths of African-American citizens who not only had committed no relevant crime but had little objective basis on which even to be detained or questioned by police. Important work on implicit bias and dehumanization by Jennifer Eberhardt and colleagues has been applied both to understand and to counter this form of dehumanization (Eberhardt et al. 2004; Eberhardt et al. 2006; Goff et al. 2008). In addition to how we understand the input representations (e.g., stereotypes) and the in-the-head processing (e.g., implicit associations), operant here are processes and mechanisms governing the interpersonal dynamics that have often resulted in the killing of an innocent person. Attending to the occupant-role shift that characterizes the dynamics of witnessing in cases of wrongful accusation may shed complementary light on how such policing practices persist and what else might be adopted as a countering strategy of rehumanization.

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