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Dehumanising Our Brains

Updated: Jan 14

Reflection by Martin Edwards on a talk given by Lisa Yu on "Anti-Asian racism from a neuropolitical perspective" at the University of Vienna, 10th January 2023


What is the relationship between our brains and our politics? Can the differences in our brains explain some of the differences in our political beliefs? When we dehumanise others, can this be detected in our brain?


These are some of the questions that the science of neuropolitics seeks to answer, and that Liya Yu touched on in her wide-ranging and perceptive talk “Am I fully human in your brain? Anti-Asian racism and neuropolitics”.


Neuropolitics draws on a myriad of influences, from neuroscience and psychology, through to political philosophy. Yu, who is both a published author, and has a doctorate in political science from Columbia University, is perhaps best placed to make sense of these questions.


Yu’s talk focused on dehumanisation, something that has long been associated with acts of violence and discrimination, particularly in the context of war and genocide. By showing how acts of dehumanisation can be detected within brain scans, dehumanisation is brought out of these contexts and situated within our own bodies. In reality, dehumanisation happens every day in the lives of marginalised people. Sadly, it’s often perpetuated by politicians and the media.


The depiction in the media of Asians, and especially Chinese people, during the Covid-19 pandemic provided many examples of dehumanisation. Chinese people were often depicted masked, faceless or in large groups of individuals without distinguishing characteristics. Often, Chinese people would not be depicted at all, instead being replaced by symbolic representations like pandas or a waving cat. Yu highlighted several depictions within the media including the following image.


In what ways are the humanity of its subject obscured?


In the image the subject averts his gaze, his face obscured. His uniform strips him of individuality. He is adorned with mass-manufactured items such as headphones and an iPhone, symbols of China’s status as the world's factory. All of these act to undermine his humanity. The media are experts in their use of images, and whilst it may not be their explicit aim, dehumanisation is often a result of conscious editorial decisions.


Understanding dehumanisation means understanding how those same people can be rehumanised. That work must include engaging with those people who are dehumanising others. Yu’s most challenging idea is that our lack of knowledge in this area means our persuasive strategies will be ineffective. She argues that there is a (real or perceived) liberal “holier-than-thou” righteousness to many anti-racist persuasive methods. As an alternative, she claims neuropolitical approaches can provide a judgement-free context where people can re-examine their own prejudices. Educating people on biases within their own thinking that we all share doesn’t carry the same stigma as forcing people to confront their own racial prejudices.


Organisations such as Beyond Conflict https://beyondconflictint.org/ are already adapting such approaches in how they tackle political polarisation. The following video was “named one of the most effective tools to reduce support for political violence, anti-democratic attitudes and animosity across partisan lines”[1] by a Stanford-led project.

We live in a time of increasing polarisation. There is conflict within many societies around a culture war, wokeness, religion and changing notions of identity. Far-right figures are already adept at exploiting divisions caused by globalisation and our increasingly diverse societies. New perspectives on problems like these are necessary for all those involved in the fight against racism.


Liya Yu’s book Vulnerable Minds: The Neuropolitics of Divided Societies (Columbia University Press, July 2022) can be purchased here: http://cup.columbia.edu/book/vulnerable-minds/9780231200318

[1] https://beyondconflictint.org/adm-video-intervention

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