How abstraction can lead to human cruelty

Abstraction strips away the meanings and humanity from human beings.

Nazi Germany disliked Jews, their propaganda slowly convinced the German people that Jews were inferior evil “things”.  I stress “things” because that is what abstraction does, an attempt to strip away anything meaningful from a human being leaving a hollow shell.  For the Nazis by stripping away the humanity of a Jew they can focus in on a few qualities that reflected their goals to portray a Jew as an inferior less than human beast.  The next stage was simple, exterminate the Jews. Nobody was going to object to the cruel treatment of the Jews, because all they saw was the abstracted “things” the Nazis displayed.

Often in a dispute both parties use abstraction to demean the other, by portraying the other as less than human, or inferior to the other.  Abstraction is a standard weapon people use against others they are disputing with.

Once a human being has been abstracted to a basic set of qualities, they are stripped of the meaning and dignity of a human being, then they are treated in that manner, often cruelly.

With mass globalisation, technology and capitalism the individual becomes abstracted down to being a “consumer”, a number, a statistic.  Experts and administrators place human beings into categories, with labels and neat generic descriptions.  No longer is Alex Jones the customer of XXX Bank, now he is a consumer, in category Y under label Z, and thus let’s try to sell him Q. Nobody wants to know about the individual needs of Alex Jones, they instead want Alex Jones to follow their generic plan for those in category Y and label Z, and how dare him to think otherwise. If Alex Jones complains he is not following the system like all the other consumers, he is trouble, get rid of him.

John has autism and Jill is gifted, they are individuals in a certain school.  Schools now abstract students into a generic student, and run generic education courses, that work well for generic theories in the minds of experts and administrators, but fails to satisfy the needs of John and Jill.  Both John and Jill fail to follow the system, they are punished, medicated, persecuted to fit in, and if not then expelled.  Both John and Jill fail in the education system, and this sets the tone of their lives in a generic world of abstracted “things”.

Elderly people in nursing homes are human beings, but the system is built around profit, and the elderly are reduced to generic cattle.  Often elderly, especially those with dementia, are seen in abstracted ways, as “things”.  The result of this abstraction? Read for yourself.

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2 responses to “How abstraction can lead to human cruelty

  1. Even though human nature is ‘programmed’ to be competitive and for survival, I hope that one day all of mankind will learn to respect eachother. No matter what ethnicity, social status, physical abilities,…

    Rationally, I think that this will never happen, but we never know what the future might hold. However, it’s this same rationally thinking that got us into this habit of abstraction in the first place — making priority lists to decide what is important and what isn’t.
    Rationally thinking isn’t wrong, making priority lists isn’t wrong, because if you know what you’re going for, you’re more likely to achieve it.

    However.
    There is not a single excuse for treating people like cattle. There is no excuse for treating people as if they were materials to play around with. This is wrong and this issue should be worked out and investigated. But what do we do with those who are blamed for their actions? Surely action needs to take place to punish those who do such evil deeds.

    But aren’t we ‘abstracting’ them too, the way they abstracted their victim? Aren’t we putting them in a “criminal box”?

    Just to make this clear: yes, I do think that these people need punishment. The way they treated their fellow human beings is uncalled for. If you don’t like the job, no one is stopping you from quitting it. Don’t release your anger on helpless, elderly people. They have a lot of knowledge to share with the world, it’s a shame some are treated this way.

    But I just wanted to briefly touch the following question:

    Will these events eventually be stopped if we “punish all those who do bad”? Because if we do, aren’t we doing the same abstracting they did to their victims?

    • Thanks for your insights. I think that most of the problems of humanity is down to separation in their minds from fellow human beings, themselves and nature, which makes them destructive and cruel. “Abstraction” is one of the big issues of this separation and thus cruelty. If efforts are made to put the humanity and meaning back into everything, where we start thinking in terms of the person and not a thing, then a lot of these problems would vanish.

      You are right that the danger is that a person who does a criminal offense does become abstracted by the system to a thing, something inferior, so there is no encouragement for them to rise above their wrong to be a more responsible and loving human being. In USA they lock up 1% of their population in any one time in conditions that takes the humanity away from them, so when they come out of jail they become worse than they went in.

      In the society we live in “abstraction” appears to have a direct relationship with irresponsibility, for instance when profit is put in the way of care, then they cut corners and the human beings suffer, as did the elderly person in the linked story.

      I consider that in any relationship there is a contract, which means there is a list of rights and obligations that each person has to follow, and if they break the contract they should face a reasonable penalty for doing so, but in a way that retains their humanity. If a person breaks the law they should face the penalties for doing so, jail, fines, restriction of a right, but if they fail to learn from that because we stripped them from their humanity and meaning, then they won’t learn or evolve from that situation.

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