On Dehumanization In Fiction

I have to admit it… I have a lot of drafts kicking around in my notes which most people would consider to be perfectly good blog posts but which, for me, were just flashes of inspiration that I wrote down to avoid losing them, but I never felt were “finished”.

While I was looking through the snips I’m accumulating for a book on writing, I rediscovered a couple which, looking at them now, are good enough to share, even if I still feel that there’s more insight to be teased out and more room for the style to be polished.


Dehumanization is at the heart of some of the most effective dark writing.

What hits harder than cruelty? Casual cruelty.
What hits harder than casual cruelty? Institutionalized cruelty.

Dropping a man in the wilderness, hundreds of miles from the nearest human, will cause hardship, but, if you want a man to despair, drop him into the heart of a big city, penniless, alone, and ignored by all who pass… and that’s just from cruelty by neglect.

Humans are social animals to our very core, and slavery is abhorrent precisely because its institutionalized cruelty at its most powerful… forcing the reader to not only observe active dehumanization on a mass scale, but to confront how flawed their optimistic preconceptions of human nature are in a way that rings too true for them to deny.

(Humanity’s social nature is also why solitary confinement is considered torture in many places, but this is much more difficult to communicate to someone who hasn’t experienced it personally.)

Looking at it from another angle, it’s also so powerful because of the specific kinds of emotions it evokes in the reader/viewer via their sense of empathy. It’s not just that the character is experiencing misery or defeat or isolation, it’s that their circumstances evoke a sense of despair AND powerlessness, futility AND hopelessness.

Most telling, I think, is how Chip Conley pseudo-mathematically expressed despair: suffering without meaning… and isn’t that also the perfect starting point for a definition of my own term, “Hardship Porn”. (Fiction where, through intent or incompetence, the author seems to revel in making their hero’s life miserable, not because it makes the writing more powerful but just to gratify some emotional need.)


I also made a related observation that slavery is powerful because it tends to associate itself well to two kinds of atrocities which fall under the other major class of violations we readily recognize: the sanctity of self.

To wilfully and permanently disfigure someone’s body against their desires, or to attack their very psyche, is the most personal form of dehumanization possible… denying you control over the only things that are unarguably, undeniably, unquestionably your own and attacking your thoughts, the one hiding place nobody should ever intrude… let alone tamper with. It is no accident that, as a species who think in metaphor, we often refer to the body as a temple and the mind as a sanctum.

CC BY-SA 4.0 On Dehumanization In Fiction by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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