Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ain’t I a Human? – Dehumanization, Then & Now

In my previous post, I lamented the troubling legacies of the American Civil War that have been cropping up in recent headlines. In the intervening weeks since I wrote that post, a new scandal has broken into the headlines – a story which contains several parallels to the dehumanizing practice of slavery in the antebellum South and which originates from the same ideological cesspool…and yet no one in the Civil War community has uttered a word about it that I am aware of.

To Be Sold

The painting shown below was the subject of a recent exhibition at the Library of Virginia.

Slaves Waiting for Sale by Eyre Crowe (1861)
Entitled “Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia” the work depicts a slave auction on the eve of the American Civil War. It shows nine enslaved men and women – including three children – pensively awaiting the moment they will be put on an auction block for sale.

The viewer’s stomach churns in revulsion at the thought of this moment – that these people were dressed up only for exhibition, hoping that the fancy clothing might fetch a better price…that the children clutched tightly by their mothers might be sold to a different bidder, wrenching the family apart for years to come…maybe even forever.

Much of the injustice associated with buying and selling human beings is captured in this paining, and historians have done a fine job over the past half century to bring this tragic era of human history to light and to show that slavery was in no wise a benign institution – it was violence perpetrated against the human soul.


What cries out as so very wrong about the practice of slavery is, in part, its degradation and dehumanization of our fellow human beings. In his magisterial The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, David Brion Davis defines dehumanization as, “the eradication not of human identity but of those elements of humanity that evoke respect and empathy and convey a sense of dignity” (p.17).

Consider, then, the recent scandal concerning allegations that abortion provider Planned Parenthood has been harvesting body parts taken from aborted babies and selling them to medical research companies for profit. There has been quite a smoke screen attempting to cover the craven nature of what the recent undercover videos that exposed this illicit trade truly shows.

But I challenge you to reflect upon this snippet taken from one of the latest videos, in which Dr. Savita Ginde and her staff are picking through the severed pieces of a child. At one point a medical assistant cracks the child’s skull while Dr. Ginde laughs and says, “It’s a baby.” Shortly thereafter another assistant yells “It’s a boy!” when examining the eviscerated baby’s lower body.

This is the dehumanization of slavery on steroids. The aforementioned footage and mounds of other evidence (and plain common sense) shows that the abortion pushers at Planned Parenthood agree that they are killing what is clearly identifiable as human (otherwise they wouldn’t be able to profit from selling the body parts.) They simply strip the unborn child of any dignity or sense of worth – “life unworthy of life” as an ideological bedfellow of theirs would have put it – and rake in the profits, just like the slavers of old.

Calling All Historians

So where is the outcry from my colleagues?

As Prof. Jacquelyn Hall of UNC Chapel Hill said, “As a matter of civic duty and professional survival historians must unapologetically embrace opportunities to put the past in open dialogue with the pressing needs of the present.” 

Over the weekend Kevin Levin rightly praised John Hennessey for “fully embrac[ing] his responsibility to push park visitors to think about the tough questions related to how we think about and how we remember our Civil War. In a follow-up, Levin wrote “It’s an opportune moment for public historians, who focus on the Civil War Era and the history of race relations. Folks who have never thought about the American Civil War are giving it a good deal of thought.” 

And yet when it comes to this horrific scandal, mum’s the word.

It staggers me to see the amount of ink spilled over the controversy surrounding the Confederate battle flag and the unbridled zeal to take down monuments dedicated to those who fought to establish a slaveholding republic…with nary a word devoted to an indefensible practice that rivals the great human rights crises of the past.

In 1839, Theodore Dwight Weld wrote that the slaveholder did “not contemplate slaves as human beings, consequently [he] does not treat them as such; and with indifference sees them suffer privations and writhe under blows which, if inflicted upon whites, would fill him with horror and indignation.”

Today, many in our society are unmoved at the prospect of unborn children “suffering privations” and writhing in the womb as they are sliced to bits and sold at market to the highest bidder. Weld’s contemporaries relied upon Phrenology and other pseudoscience to justify their depredations just as Planned Parenthood hides behind junk science and deception to carry out its illegal trade.

The magnitude of this scandal exceeds traditional pro-choice/pro-life squabbles – it cuts right to the core and forces us to search our souls for an answer to the question of what makes us human.

Do we have intrinsic worth, or is some life more worthy of protection than other life – and how do we arbitrate between the two in the latter case?

If there is no absolute value to be placed on every human life, then there’s no logical reason why you can’t slaughter a child in utero and harvest its organs to finance your Lamborghini. 

And there’s no reason why you can’t own another person as well.


  1. Well said, a valid comparison.

  2. I'm sorry, what? I must have misheard you: I thought for a second that you were comparing the ownership and selling of actual human beings with a ginned up wing nut scandal about a medical issue that is about as far from slavery as humanly possible. And, no, Matt, it's not a valid comparison.

    1. Thanks for chiming in. If I held your position, I wouldn't want to use my real name either.