No one would talk so much in society, if he only knew how often he misunderstands others.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749-1832, German playwright/poet
When dictators come to power, they often use a well-planned strategy for ousting their rivals. Part of this strategy helps them to justify the harsh tactics they use against their political opponents. One part of the strategy gradually strips away the human character of people who stand between the dictator and total control of the country. By stripping away human characteristics, dictators dehumanize their adversaries. When they dehumanize the people they oppose, they begin the process of objectification – turning people into objects. Once they paint a group of people as objects, they can do virtually anything they want to the group because objects have no moral standing.
Unfortunately, many of us also engage in a similar practice when we find ourselves involved in an interpersonal conflict. We may not resort to murder or physical violence as a result of our objectification of others, and, still, we use the process to justify our actions and reactions. The process often begins with the use of broad, categorical labels to define people. These labels might even apply in a general, statistical sense to a large population of people. However, when applied to small groups, or even worse to individuals, the labels lose all connection to reality and they become the tools that allow us to justify our own bad behaviors towards others.
You have probably seen or experienced the objectification process yourself. Sometimes it comes from blatant prejudice or ignorance. More often though, it enters our thinking by accident because we are tired, hungry, frustrated, or otherwise stressed. The process of objectification usually begins with labeling a person. Labeling can take many forms, and it often comes in the form of a “those people” statement. Here are just a few examples:
- “Those Marketing people just don’t understand what we have to do to meet this deadline!” (You could substitute Sales, Production, or Research for Marketing in this statement.”
- “The problem with our government is those Democrats!” (You could substitute Republicans, Independents, or Libertarians in this statement)
- “We could really make some progress in this organization, if those older people wouldn’t keep dragging their feet.”
- “The reason we have so much conflict around here is that those younger people want to change everything.”
In and of themselves, these comments can seem almost innocuous – just statements of exasperation or frustration. They can also reveal our underlying view of other people as objects rather than as people. Once we view others as objects, we can justify or rationalize a whole host of behaviors that intensify or aggravate conflict rather than resolve it. For example, when we view others as objects we can justify:
- Avoiding them
- Attacking their character
- Gossiping about them
- Seeking revenge or retribution
To ward off the unconscious objectification of others, monitor how you refer to people for signs that you might be slipping into this thought process. If you find yourself referring to people with some form of “those people” statement, look for a way to rephrase the statement so that you consciously acknowledge the other person’s humanity.
Here are some alternative ways to phrase the example statements above. These statements are just suggestions. I do not propose that they are the only, or even the best, way to rephrase the examples. Within the scope of this article, we have not even begun to address the issue of the context in which the statements are made. So, the specifics of the rephrasing could change significantly depending on the situation. I only offer these suggestions as a way to stimulate your creativity about different and better ways to communicate the issues hidden in the “objectifying” versions that many of us default to when the pressure hits.
- “We’ve got a communication disconnect between us and the people in the Marketing department.”
- “The problem with our government is the breakdown in respect and communication between people who hold different perspectives.”
- “We could really make some progress in this organization, if we could find a way to communicate our vision of the future more clearly.”
- “The reason we have so much conflict around here is that we have not listened to and carefully considered the concerns of everyone in the organization.”
Remember to Beware of Labels.