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June 18, 2020

David Livingstone Smith

Harvard Book Store's virtual event series welcomes DAVID LIVINGSTONE SMITH—Professor of Philosophy at the University of New England and author of Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others—for a discussion of his latest book, On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It. He will be joined in conversation by JOHN KAAG, author of Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life.


The Rwandan genocide, the Holocaust, the lynching of African Americans, the colonial slave trade: these are horrific episodes of mass violence spawned from racism and hatred. We like to think that we could never see such evils again—that we would stand up and fight. But something deep in the human psyche—deeper than prejudice itself—leads people to persecute the other: dehumanization, or the human propensity to think of others as less than human.

An award-winning author and philosopher, Smith takes an unflinching look at the mechanisms of the mind that encourage us to see someone as less than human. There is something peculiar and horrifying in human psychology that makes us vulnerable to thinking of whole groups of people as subhuman creatures. When governments or other groups stand to gain by exploiting this innate propensity, and know just how to manipulate words and images to trigger it, there is no limit to the violence and hatred that can result.

Drawing on numerous historical and contemporary cases and recent psychological research, On Inhumanity is the first accessible guide to the phenomenon of dehumanization. Smith walks readers through the psychology of dehumanization, revealing its underlying role in both notorious and lesser-known episodes of violence from history and current events. In particular, he considers the uncomfortable kinship between racism and dehumanization, where beliefs involving race are so often precursors to dehumanization and the horrors that flow from it.

On Inhumanity is bracing and vital reading in a world lurching towards authoritarian political regimes, resurgent white nationalism, refugee crises that breed nativist hostility, and fast-spreading racist rhetoric. The book will open your eyes to the pervasive dangers of dehumanization and the prejudices that can too easily take root within us, and resist them before they spread into the wider world.

About Author(s)

David Livingstone Smith is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New England. His book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others (St. Martin's Press, 2011) won the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf award for nonfiction, an award reserved for books that made important contributions to our understanding of racism and human diversity. His work has been featured in prime-time television documentaries, is often interviewed and cited in the national and international media, and was a guest presenter at the 2012 G20 economic summit, where he spoke about dehumanization and mass violence.

John Kaag is the author of American Philosophy: A Love Story, which was named a New York Times Editors' Choice and an NPR Best Book of the year, and Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are, which was also an NPR Best Book of the year. His writing has appeared in the New York TimesHarper's Magazine, and many other publications. He is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and lives in Carlisle, Massachusetts.