The Thinking 

Is It Improper to Wonder If Extreme Depravity Is Subhuman?

August 6, 2012


A READER writes:

I’ve noticed you’ve avoided the whole VFR firestorm. I found the conversation interesting but I thought that it was not a conversation to be engaged in within the public sphere. The reason why is this; some subject matters require proper discipline and education to be responsibly engaged in. Because of this, those who engage in such a discussion in a responsible honest manner should be aware that the conversation could cause scandal among others. In our democratic society I believe all of us have fallen victim to the idea that all free people should be able to engage the facts and form their own opinion. This is not the case. As my political science professor said, a little education is a dangerous thing. Such a conversation as the one engaged in at VFR requires a disciplined, informed and spiritually mature audience. I’d be interested to know what you think.

Laura writes:

I haven’t avoided the discussion, which intitially concerned the issue of whether “feral blacks” who are remorseless killers have lost the “image of God” and then expanded into a larger discussion of whether depraved persons of any race can lose their humanity. There wasn’t the time to participate and I didn’t feel it urgently necessary since many comments were made, many of them quite excellent.

But having read the full discussion, I strongly disagree with those who say it was improper.

It is normal for a decent person to feel a great gulf between himself and a remorseless killer or extreme sadist. In her book about life in Siberian labor camps, Journey Into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginzburg meditated on the fact that camp conditions made some inmates so cruel they were “corpse[s] among the living.”

[I] started to reflect on the psychological type created by camp conditions, and whenever I met Tamara [one especially sadistic woman] afterward I was reminded of Blok’s lines:

How terrible to be a corpse among the living
Pretending to be alive and full of feeling!
But why pretend? To be accepted by society,
One needs only to conceal the rattling of one’s bones.

In later years, in the camps, I met many of these spiritually dead people. In prison, there were none. Prison, and especially solitary confinement, ennobled and purified human beings, bringing to the surface their finest qualities, however deeply hidden.

Was it wrong for Ginzburg to feel revulsion at this cruelty to the point of viewing these women as spiritually dead and to express it publicly?

The discussion involved the deeper questions we grapple with when face to face with extreme depravity, questions we should approach with humility, recognizing the limits of our understanding. No one relished the fact that these criminals exist.

I’m not sure what the reader views as the negative repercussions of such a discussion, which dealt with the visceral apprehension that someone has lost his soul through his own voluntary actions. After all, the subject concerned people guilty of dehumanizing others in extreme ways. And while there are many complex theological matters at issue, there was agreement among commenters that wicked criminals are never beyond God’s redemption or undeserving of legal rights.

The conservative blogger Lydia McGrew has stated that such a discussion, which included expressions of compassion for criminals and did not seek to suppress or avoid the ambiguities, could lead to the torturing of violent criminals by the government. This is quite honestly a ludicrous concern in present day America and an unfair burden, to say the least, to place on such an open-ended discussion. Her comparison of criminals considered outside the human community to aborted fetuses is wildly inappropriate. Liberalism supports abortion and at the same time admonishes society for imprisoning proven crminals. From whom does she expect this blood lust? Christian traditionalists? Oh, please. From people who listen to Christian traditionalists and are lacking in the spiritual maturity to understand them? But, society will feel more scruples, not fewer, if it  gives traditionalism even a superficial hearing. Besides this discussion did not come up with a philosophical position that criminals are lacking in humanity. In fact, the consensus was otherwise.

McGrew is willfully oblivious to the context of the discussion. She shows a reckless indifference to the normal person’s abhorrence of evil and imputes base motives to Mr. Auster and commenters at VFR that do not exist.

——- Comments ——

Jesse Powell writes:

I personally am glad that commenters like Lydia McGrew and Kristor have taken Lawrence Auster to task on this matter. I do indeed think the discussions at VFR regarding race have ventured into some “dangerous territory” that earlier Auster has been wise enough to avoid or restrain himself from.

The post that started this whole affair was “Feral Blacks and the Image of God.”

Some excerpts from the beginning of this post that I think are relevant:

Patrick H. – “Is it appropriate even to wonder if a significant portion of the black population does not deserve to be called fully human? Or is thinking that way itself a grave moral sin?”

Lawrence Auster – “I believe that blacks are formed in the image of God, and that it makes sense that blacks’ particular qualities add something valuable to the human mix. It is no contradiction to say that a being formed in the image of God is capable of being corrupted and debased to the point where he loses the divine image entirely. That is certainly true of a significant portion of the black population.”

Lydia McGrew – “I disagree in the strongest possible terms with any implication that human beings can lose the imago dei. This is simply not possible, and I think it puts us in grave moral and theological peril to entertain and a fortiori to embrace the view that a human being is ‘capable of being corrupted and debased to the point where he loses the divine image entirely.’ No, absolutely not. Human beings are not subhuman or no longer in the image of God, no matter how evil and debased they are.”

When people talk about others, in this case the focus clearly being on blacks, losing entirely “the divine image” or the “imago dei” or not being deserving of being called “fully human” there is clearly some over-the-line dehumanization going on. It is perfectly fine to talk about someone being evil, of being deserving of punishment, of the need to protect society from dangerous criminals; even advocating the death penalty for crimes that are particularly heinous seems reasonable to me. However, it is completely not reasonable to talk about people morphing into subhuman status or “losing the image of God” or “no longer being human” or any other such similar formulations. Such talk is particularly offensive when it is aimed at a particular minority group, in this case blacks, and it is even worse when such dehumanization is said to be applicable to “a significant portion of the black population” as Lawrence Auster phrased it.

There is only one word for this kind of speculation, and that word is dehumanization. Dehumanization, that is, being directed against certain blacks by Auster and others, not any kind of self-inflicted dehumanization based on an individual’s acts against others. To dehumanize another is clearly wrong regardless of the evil that person may have committed against others.

There is a crucial distinction between dehumanization and condemnation that people may be losing sight of here. Condemnation is entirely morally legitimate but dehumanization is entirely morally illegitimate. The difference between condemnation and dehumanization is that when condemning someone you are reacting to the harm a person has committed against others in a way meant to protect and value the innocent party. When dehumanizing someone you are falsely claiming that a person’s own rights as a human being either do not exist or are of an inferior importance or moral legitimacy. To condemn someone is to protect the rights of an innocent third party, to dehumanize someone is for you yourself to act as the aggressor in an attack against the dehumanized target. It doesn’t matter how evil or depraved the object of dehumanization may be, the dehumanization itself is still an illegitimate act of aggression. The evil that one may do to others in no way alters or diminishes the intrinsic value a human being possesses. Lydia McGrew put it well when she said “Human beings are not subhuman or no longer in the image of God, no matter how evil and debased they are.”

Laura writes:

Note the quote from Patrick H. that Mr. Powell begins with:

“Is it appropriate even to wonder if a significant portion of the black population does not deserve to be called fully human? Or is thinking that way itself a grave moral sin?”

Patrick H. lists the sort of crimes he is referring to  — he is not talking about just any blacks but vicious criminals and makes that clear — and states that even so it may be a mortal sin to consider those guilty of such crimes as outside humanity. I believe that it is a grave sin to come to the settled conviction that human beings by virtue of evil acts are no longer human and to order society upon that belief. I agree with Lydia McGrew when she says,

“Human beings are not subhuman or no longer in the image of God, no matter how evil and debased they are.”

But the purpose of Patrick’s initial question, and Mr. Auster’s initial articulation, was to bring about just such clarifications in the course of discussion. Mr. Auster wrote:

I did not state as a conviction that it is true that some human beings are lower than human. I said that this “was not a formed conviction that I would stand by, it was the thought of a moment, an attempt to make sense of the reality I was seeing.”

However, I did say that it is “certainly true” that a significant portion of the black population “have lost the divine image entirely.” I guess that in my subjective thinking on the subject, which is open to correction, being subhuman and not having the divine image are two different things. When I look at the photographs and read the accounts of the deeds of these mindless murdering remorseless thugs, I guess that they are some kind of human beings, but how can I believe that they are human beings that have any aspect of the divine image? If my statement is wrong from the point of view of orthodox Christian teaching, I will gladly take it back. But where does it say in the Bible that it is impossible for a human being to lose the divine image?

In any case, I then put aside any religious or metaphysical position on the issue, thus tacitly admitting that I was not being dogmatic about what I had said about people losing the divine image, and asserted the commonsense position that dangerous criminals must be separated from society.

But Lydia McGrew did more than admonish Mr. Auster for expressing the possibility that some people can exile themselves from humanity and she did more than attempt to explain the Christian conception of “imago Dei” for him. She soon accused him of something close to genocide. This was not simply “taking him to task.” She also decided that he is henceforth unworthy of attention and all his previous writings are nullified because of these statements.

Mr. Powell writes:

“To dehumanize another is clearly wrong regardless of the evil that person may have committed against others.”

Again, there was a lengthy public debate about just this issue at VFR, with the consensus being that no human being is beyond redemption but that individuals can become slaves to evil. The question ultimately became not whether vicious criminals are subhuman but whether such a thing should ever be pondered. In this case, the discussion was civilized. The remarks were thoughtful and ascribed moral agency, which is of the essence of humanity, to murderers.

Given that Mr. Powell has said repeatedly at this site that no human being is born in the image of God, I’m confused by why he finds it so offensive to speculate that a human being or group of human beings by virtue of participation in extreme evil may have lost their God-given souls.

Buck writes:

Jesse Powell writes:

I do indeed think the discussions at VFR regarding race have ventured into some “dangerous territory” that earlier Auster has been wise enough to avoid or restrain himself from.

Anyone who has sufficient understanding of the unique nature of VFR; the incisive thinking and writing of Lawrence Auster, knows that man’s fear and its various synonymous forms has been raised and analyzed repeatedly at VFR because of the manifestly “dangerous territory” in which we increasingly find ourselves surviving. Is a discussion of our fears about the dangerous territory in the next county or the next neighborhood – that is increasingly spilling over into ours – or, the “dangerous territory” in our minds that risks our souls, a “no-go zone”? “Enter here, you risk your soul”?

My favorite road sign reads just these five words: “Do Not Touch. Sharp Edges.”

I can’t explain any of this with deep philosophical concepts or Christian apologetics. But, anyone who is conscious, no matter what one thinks, can feel the fear. There is a growing current of fear flowing in all directions. This is an impossible-to-conclude discussion.

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