District 9 and Man’s Inhumanity to Man: a filmic guide to dehumanisation

I am fortunate enough to count Professor Jonathan Glover, a world renowned medical ethicist, amongst my former teachers. A very modest and thoughtful man, Jonathan Glover spent a number of years writing a similarly thoughtful book in which he tries to understand what he terms man’s inhumanity to man (Humanity: a Moral History of the Twentieth Century. Pimlico, London 2001). His starting premise is that, given the wrong circumstances, we are all capable of doing evil things to other human beings. At the heart of his efforts are a desire to understand, for all our sakes, what it  has taken in the past, and by extension what it would take in the future, for people- just like you and me- to be willing to take part in our own equivalent of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.

Professor Glovers’ book comprises 480 pages of closely argued and well researched scholarship. A striking and recurring characteristic of all the cases he studies is the need- if ordinary people are to be persuaded to do extraordinarily bad things to other human beings-to dehumanise the intended victims. George Orwell, describing an experience during his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War, found himself unable to shoot the enemy soldier in his sights once he realised the soldier was undertaking the all too human act of urinating. This simple act provided such strong evidence of the humanity of the man in Orwell’s sights that he was no longer capable of taking his life. After all, this too was a man, with hopes and dreams and fears and children waiting at home to be tucked up in bed.

I haven’t read Jonathan Glover’s book since 2001 but I was reminded of it by a film a went to see recently called District 9. The title of the film refers to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, set up for a million or so refugees. The locals don’t like or understand them but, with the eyes of the world and various international human rights groups keeping an eye on what they do, the government has no choice but to provide minimal facilities to the refugees. The refugees are shown sifting through the rubbish, urinating in public, despised for their love of cat food, likened to prawns, and tricked into signing away their rights by a mixture of threats and deception. And, as we learn later on the film, they are being spirited away to be subjected to inhuman medical experiments.

And, incidentally, they’re aliens. Aliens escaping some unspecified home planet disaster who arrive sick and malnourished above the skies of Joburg. Pitiful to start with but quickly and, it turns out, all too easily reviled, all too easily dehumanised. Now maybe you’re wondering whether dehumanise is the right term to use, after all these aliens aren’t, by definition, human. Right? And yet a human rights response is exactly the one their initial plight provokes. Until, after a while, as they grow in number, get bolder, and start to break out beyond the wire fence that defines their slum refugee camp, it is those things that make them different- their appearance, their apparent lack of social graces and mores and the different food they eat, that is emphasised and ridiculed.

As we hear yet more terrible news presaging the havoc climate change will bring, this time in the Phillipines, I can’t help but wonder whether the moral challenge for the coming generations will be whether and how we choose to humanise or dehumanise the many millions who will in the future be forced to seek refuge. Will we once more salve our consciences by focussing on that which differentiates the us from the them, the haves from the have nots, or will we instead look down the barrel of our gun only to put it down, unable to shoot at /to turn our backs on the human beings we see looking back at us. I hope the latter, but we should fear for and plan against the former.