Category Archives: dehumanization

Posthumanist postcolonialism?

In 1987, a group of leading conservation biologists called for a “new age of exploration and classification of the biosphere on a scale to rival that of the colonization of the new world”. And indeed, scientific-political responses to mass extinction have taken

Baby rhinoceros in ex situ conservation programme. Photo by Ritu Raj Konwa, TheHindu.com.

Baby rhinoceros in ex situ conservation programme. Photo by Ritu Raj Konwa, TheHindu.com.

markedly colonial forms. For instance, huge effort and resource has been invested in the collection of comprehensive data on existing species, as reflected in projects such as the IUCN’s Red List and the ‘Encyclopedia of Life’. These projects employ the distinctly colonial strategy of using taxonomic knowledge to subjectify and control the Other (see, for instance, Said 2003). Indeed, the objective of these data collection programmes is to support biopolitical efforts to ‘make life live’, or, in Achille Mbembe’s words, to ‘abolish mortality’. This goal is most directly reflected in ‘ex situ conservation’ programmes. In these contexts, life forms classified as endangered are entered into global breeding programmes and made to reproduce in ways that are often indistinguishable from coercion (see the work of Van Dooren and Chrulew). These strategies exemplify a colonial logic in which billions of beings are suspended between being and nothingness “dwel[ling] close to death” in a state of “half life” (Mbembe 2001). In this context, all life on Earth is imagined as wretched: driven to the edge of extinction yet (selectively) forced to remain in existence.

What framework can one use to engage critically with these kinds of responses to mass extinction? On the one hand, they are clearly linked with the maintenance of boundaries, hierarchies, violence and power dynamics used to separate humans and other beings. From this perspective, they look like issues for posthumanist critique. On the other hand, the particular logics and strategies used in response to mass extinction owe much to the repertoire of colonial thought and practice, and therefore demand insights from postcolonialism. Engaging critically with responses to mass extinction seems to call for a form of engagement that synthesizes the two. And this is far from the only issue that makes such a demand. To name just a few, the logics and practices surrounding geo-engineering, synthetic biology, and space colonization all cry out for this kind of response. Why, then, do the two bodies of thought remain so separate?

Rob Nixon and Graham Huggan have each helped to explain why proponents of environmental thinking and postcolonialism have been reluctant to join forces. For Nixon, US-dominated environmentalist narratives have traditionally clashed with the aims and ethos of postcolonial thinkers in several ways. For instance, he argues that where the former stressed purity (e.g. of ‘wildnerness’) and connection to place, the latter has tended to place more value on hybridity and cosmopolitanism. Moreover, he contends that the anti-humanist strains of some strands of environmentalism jar with the postcolonial commitment to humanism and equality. By framing certain groups of humans as ‘excessive’ (primarily in terms of population), they appear to reproduce the violent logics of colonial power. For his part, Huggan points out that environmentalism is viewed by some postcolonial theorists as yet another means for extending neocolonial forms of control. The example of colonial conservation, discussed above, does little to dispel this fear. From these perspectives, the orientations and normative commitments of the two approaches seem to pull in different directions.

However, it is crucial to note that Nixon and Huggan are writing about environmentalism, and not posthumanism (for a brief introduction, see this post). Posthumanists might be environmentalists, or not – and vice versa. Rather than espousing a particular ideal of an ‘environment’ to be preserved, posthumanism does precisely what it says on the tin: it attempts to decentre and deconstruct dogmatic forms of humanism. While many variations of posthumanist thought focus on the relations between humans and other beings, they do not necessarily espouse the notion of an ‘environment’ (let alone ‘nature’). Instead, they are concerned with the boundaries and hierarchies constructed between beings, and with what these structures efface. However, for precisely this reason, the integration of posthumanism and postcolonialism might be an even harder sell.

There are good reasons for posthumanists to engage with postcolonial thought in order to contest the erased histories and power dynamics that have entrenched exclusive norms of ‘humanity’ and its planetary dominance. In other words, it is quite logical to imagine postcolonial posthumanist approaches, and some authors have already begun to elaborate them. For instance, Erika Cudworth and Stephen Hobden have shown how norms of ‘civilization’ underpin assumptions about a firm boundary between humans and other animals, and of the dominance of the former over the latter. Deconstructing these standards, they claim, denaturalizes claims about both the superiority of humans over ‘nature’, and of certain groups of humans over each other. In making this argument, Cudworth and Hobden call for the exploration of “new possibilities for humanism without the imperialist baggage of a civilising mission”. Nonetheless, their work seeks to unsettle the humanist ethos that lies at the heart of postcolonial theory.

However, the central place of humanism in postcolonial theory prevents an easy reconciliation with posthumanism. This raises a crucial question: could there be a posthumanist postcolonialism? Moreover, are there good reasons for postcolonial theorists to adopt a posthumanist perspective? What’s in it for them? I want to argue that there are, indeed, very strong reasons for adopting this kind of perspective. Most importantly, posthumanist perspectives can help to resolve a perennial tension within postcolonialism: the tendency of humanism to entrench the conditions of dehumanization. Several of the key texts of postcolonial theory identify dehumanization as one of the primary tools of colonial rule. In his introduction to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre contends that violence in the colonies does not only have for its aim the keeping of…enslaved men at arm’s length; it seeks to dehumanize them”. Dehumanization is said to occur when biologically human subjects are socially constructed as any one of a range of nonhuman beings: threatening animals (lions, hippopotami, ants, gorillas, even zombies or tribal masks) (Mbembe 2001); ‘things’ (Césaire 1955); or ‘vegetal’ forms (Fanon, 1963) that can be harvested like the ‘fruits of the trees’ (Arendt, 1976). Moreover, Aimé Césaire contends that dehumanization applies not only to the subjects of colonialism, but also redounds onto the colonizers. As he puts it, “colonization…dehumanizes even the most civilized man”.

SMH PIC ED ROCKETS IN LAMB LAND

‘Dingo-proof’ fence, Australia – a literal expression of the boundary between humans and other animals. Photo by James Woodford Sydney Morning Herald.

As I have argued elsewhere, dehumanization functions only when it is possible to posit a sharp boundary between the onto-ethical category of ‘humanity’ and everything else in the universe. In order for it to be effective – that is, in order for dehumanizors to get other people to treat another being as ‘dehumanized’ – two conditions must be in place. First, there must be a widespread belief that anything that does not fit the normative criteria of ‘humanity’ has no ethical standing and can be disposed of with impunity. It is only on this basis that dehumanization functions as an expeditor and justification of violence. Second, it must be assumed that there is a firm boundary separating ‘humans’ from ‘nonhumans’, and that simply categorizing a being on one side or the other is enough to determine its onto-ethical status. As Samera Esmeir puts it, this logic underpins “the idea that humanity can be given or taken back”. In short, the functionality of dehumanization utterly relies on the positing of a firm boundary between humans and other beings.

One of the most important normative tools of postcolonialism is to assert the humanity of the oppressed in the face of the peoples and structures that would dehumanize them. For instance, Fanon interpellates colonial subjects to ‘rehabilitate mankind’ by demanding their rightful membership in the category of humanity. Similarly, Said undermines the claims of dehumanizing colonial logics by invoking universal humanism based on shared rationality. Yet their calls have ironic consequences. Paradoxically, by asserting one’s ‘humanness’, one entrenches the set of beliefs that renders it revocable.

There are several ways of countering the logic of dehumanization without entrenching its basic onto-ethical principles. One is to invoke a transcendental notion of ‘humanity’, rooted in a divine realm that is not subject to the transformations and manipulations of human agency. This type of belief underpins Christian (and other transcendental) systems in which humanity is endowed by the divine. This kind of argument helps to address the second condition of dehumanization: the belief that humans (or their social structures) can invest or divest beings with humanity. However, it may also entrench rigid and timeless norms of ‘humanity’. And, as Neta Crawford  has argued, it is the ability to extend or otherwise alter the boundaries of ‘humanity’ that has enabled the recognition of the ethical standing of many peoples. A posthumanist account, on the other hand, offers an immanent means for addressing this problem that retains, in fact affirms, the fluidity of being and becoming on Earth.This approach rejects both of the conditions of dehumanization, undermining its possibility. It requires embracing the idea that there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ human – just as there is no such thing as a ‘pure race’, or ‘untouched nature’. Esmeir  identifies the embryo of this idea in Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. He argues that dehumanization (and (re-)humanization) will always be partial processes, “because the nonhuman coexists with and within the human”. The force of Fanon’s argument lies in the assertion that a being can retain its ‘humanity’ – that is, its ethical core – even when the boundaries between it and other forms of being are dissolved.

Adopting this orientation would involve recognizing the multitude of ways in which human beings are entangled and co-constituted by other beings – animals, plants, metals, machines, and matter of all forms. Crucially, recognizing the entanglement of humans with other beings does not mean yielding to attempts to degrade the status of humanity. On the contrary, as Jane Bennett puts it, recognizing the liveliness of all matter not only minimizes differences between objects and subjects, but elevates all materiality such that “all bodies become more than mere objects”. In such a context, it would be nonsensical to claim that a being was disposable or inferior simply on the basis of its being ‘non-human’, and the rug would be pulled from underneath the logic of dehumanization.

I want to be very clear: this argument is not intended to let perpetrators of dehumanization off the hook, or to downplay the violence that their actions involve. And I am certainly not advocating that the targets of dehumanizing violence accept or capitulate to these violent acts. On the contrary, I am arguing that they can radically neutralize the process of dehumanization by removing the basis on which it operates. Dehumanization functions only insofar as people believe in its effectiveness – that is, to the extent that they accept the two conditions discussed above and act accordingly. A posthumanist postcolonial approach makes it possible to undermine this logic.

There are multiple other ways in which posthumanism and postcolonialism could be fused in mutually strengthening ways. In fact, this would be less a matter of joining separate discourses than of drawing out existing affinities – or, simply put, following through key principles of each discourse to their logical conclusions. There are a few obvious starting points for such a project.

First, one of the most important values of postcolonial thought is the recognition and embrace of heterogeneity. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues, “the colonized subaltern subject is irretrievably heterogeneous”; it is figured as a homogeneous mass only by the essentialist, taxonomic categories imposed upon it. Indeed, Chandra Talpede Mohanty contends that 14367854917_ed681fe74b_zsubaltern groups such as ‘women’ are constructed on the basis of a perceived common experience of oppression. These arguments are mirrored in Jacques Derrida’s treatment of the ‘animal’: a category used to homogenize an almost unthinkably diverse set of beings, and to construct them through their shared subjection to industrialized violence. Each of these approaches acknowledges the violence of erasure and homogenization enacted by ontological categories, whether the distinction between ‘subaltern’ and colonizer, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, or ‘human’ and ‘animal’. But instead of arguing for the inclusion of the second term in each pair within the first, these approaches call for the celebration and expression of diversity.

In the same spirit, Césaire rejects a both ‘narrow particularism’ and ‘disembodied universalism’, seeking a “universal rich with all that is particular…the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all”. These ideas are mirrored in Isabelle Stengers’ notion of ‘cosmopolitics’, which involves involves attending to the multiple, diverse and constantly transforming beings that constitute the cosmos. Although it does not advocate treating each being as equal (normatively or ontologically), it insists on acknowledgement and responsiveness to modes of being that do not necessarily fit with a universal ideal or common form of measurement – for instance, the category of ‘humanity’. Crucially, this includes finding ways of attending to the “shadows of that which does not have, cannot have or does not want to have a political voice” (Stengers 2005, 996). In a context in which the subaltern is too diffuse and heterogeneous to ‘speak’ as a unified subject, it is necessary to engage in “measuring silences” (Spivak 1985, 92). Indeed, Stengers argues that, in a cosmpolitical context, all beings can ‘force thought’ in a manner similar to what Homi Bhabha has called ‘presencing’. That is, they can slow the universalizing process by unsettling existing assumptions, boundaries and patterns of political action. Drawing on this principle, a posthumanist postcolonial ethos can cultivate responsiveness to the multiple forms of presencing. Instead of pursuing a humanism made to the measure of the human world, cosmopolitics calls for an ethics responsive to the universe in all of its heterogeneity.

Various postcolonial positions also call for a relational ethics across the boundaries that define ‘humanity’. They encourage genuine forms of ‘contact’ (Césaire 1955) not based on violence and subjugation, but instead generative of “solidarities across class, race and national boundaries” (Mohanty 2003, 19). A posthumanist postcolonial ethos would involve extending these affinities and connections across the boundary of species and forms of being. Mbembe (2001) recognizes how colonial violence encompasses a range of humans, plants, animals and objects. Indeed, he argues that colonial violence annihilates subjects by forging a “close connection, both venal and convivial, among slave-being, animal-being, native-being, and thing-being” (Mbembe 2001, 240). In other words, colonial power does not only makes slaves of humans, and animals of slaves, but also slaves of animals and so forth. This is a mode of ‘being-together’, but not of ‘existing together’ (Mbembe 2001, 27) in the sense of recognizing the other as a full participant in being. A crucial means for resisting this kind of negative conviviality would be to convert it into a positive form, as Donna Haraway’s recent work suggests. This entails cultivating a sense of responsiveness and accountability to the other beings with which humans interact – not by humanizing them, but rather by understanding the multiple ways in which we cohabit with them. For Haraway, living well with others does not involve aspiring to an impossible ideal of nonviolence. Instead, involves cultivating a “responsible relation to always asymmetrical living and dying, and nurturing and killing” (Haraway 2008, L751- 759). This, in turn, demands a form of ‘becoming-with’ as ‘becoming worldly’: building sites of attachment with other beings, and tying ‘knots’ which bind humans into patterns of “response and regard that change the subject- and the object” (Haraway 2008, L4588). In other words, Haraway calls for the diametric opposite of dehumanization and its boomerang effect: a mode of interaction in which each being is enriched in its trajectory of becoming through contact with the other.

As this brief discussion has suggested, there are numerous shared nodes of postcolonial and posthumanist thought. Cultivating them would not involve ‘exporting’ ideas from one into the other, but rather on amplifying existing resonances. At its root, this is a move to recognize not only shared aims, overlaps or similarities, but rather the fact that both bodies of thought contest and struggle against the same logics, violences, structures and repertoires of action. Although I have analyzed the issue in terms of ‘postcolonial posthumanisms’ and ‘posthumanist postcolonialisms’ to reflect existing perceptions, I don’t intend to suggest that either approach should dominate. What I am proposing is a mutual co-extension , of postcolonial thought and ethics beyond the boundaries of the normatively ‘human’, and of posthumanism into the realm of global ethics. This kind of approach can better equip us to confront an Anthropocene epoch in which ‘humanity’ and colonial power are increasingly conflated.


Down to earth

(c) Routledge 2014

(c) Routledge 2014

Cosmology, secularity, worldliness

My new book , International Intervention in a Secular Age: Re-enchanting Humanity, Routledge, 2014 (see here for a synopsis) is coming out in the next couple of weeks. As is the case with most academic publications, it will make its appearance long after I’ve moved into a new area of research, and one that seems, on the surface to be very different. So I wanted to reflect on a question I’ve been asking myself, and trying to explain to colleagues, more frequently as the publication date nears. Simply put, what is the link between this analysis of Western secular cosmology  and the ‘worldly’ security ethics I’m now working on? Or, in other words, how did I get here from there?

IISA is not (directly) about non-humans. It is an analysis of how Western secular notions of life and death shape practices of international intervention, and how this contributes to the production of the category of ‘humanity’. But it does focus on the links between cosmology, ontology and ethics , the perceived border between human and inhuman, and the dangers of treating the universe as a dull, ‘disenchanted’ object. This has a number of implications for thinking about a more-than-human universe and conception of security.

First, one of the main features of Western secularity is that it hones human thinking and ethics on the mundane  (or worldly) – that is, the immanent realm, or the concrete, ontic sphere experienced by humans. As IISA argues, Western secular beliefs are not entirely devoid of transcendence, but they entail a limited concept of transcendence which takes place on earth. For example, instead of positing life after death on a higher plane, Western secular beliefs tend to focus on providing a lasting legacy of lives, or forms of life, in ‘this world’ (that is, in human time, space and social structures). This focus on the immanent, and on the various forms of semi-transcendence within it led me to move away from transcendental and metaphysical notions of harm, and towards the worldly  approach.

Second, IISA is a study of cosmology – not in the scientific sense, which deals with the physical aspects of the universe, but rather in the anthropological sense, which focuses on human beliefs about how the universe is ordered. Indeed, one of the central arguments of the book is that Western secular cosmology frames humans as the highest beings in a hierarchy, and simultaneously places the full responsibility for maintaining their status into human hands. It explores how humans carve out the ‘category of the human’ within what appears to be a totally immanent, human-dominated universe. Thinking about cosmology in this way helps to explain the sources of extremely anthropocentric ethical models – for instance, those of liberal cosmopolitanism and human security – which treat human well-being as the only possible bottom line, and exclude everything else in the universe from ethical consideration. Recognizing this is, I think, crucial to developing notions of harm that are not limited by the boundaries of the human (as they are perceived at a given historical juncture).

Third, and in a related sense, writing IISA made me think a great deal more critically about the idea of agency, in particular agency exercised on a large scale. I argue that ‘intervention’  – whether in the form of military action or the gradual processes of peace-building – is a distinct conception of agency. It’s also one that humans have usurped from somewhere else. Specifically, I argue that the traditional Judeo-Christian image of ‘divine agency’ has been transferred, at least within Western secular belief, into human hands. This means that humans are now held responsible for defining the parameters of humanity, responding to the ‘evils’ that beset it, shoring up its boundaries and deciding on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of human  life and death. Placing these beliefs within the context of a specific and contingent cosmology (Western secularity) helps to denaturalize them, and to recognize them as one account among many possible ones. This led me to think much more carefully about alternative forms of causality, including new materialist, object-oriented and other more-than- human analyses of causation and force in the universe.

Fourth, IISA explores how the category of ‘humanity’ has been carved out and defended largely by drawing a sharp, qualitative distinction between humans and the rest of the universe. Many eminent philosophers (including Arendt and Agamben) have given convincing accounts of how humans distinguish themselves from other kinds of beings – for instance, by positing criteria for humanity or disavowing ‘animal-like’ traits. What I wanted to know was why they do this, and the conditions that make it seem possible to do this. So, I decided to look more closely at the different ways in which dehumanization can happen. Ultimately, I argue that it is based on the belief in (or one analogous to),  ‘disenchantment’ : the stripping of intrinsic meaning from the nonhuman universe.  Moreover, without an external (that is, a divine) guarantor, to the Western secular mind it looks as if humans are entirely responsible for creating and maintaining the category of humanity. This makes it seem necessary for humans to distinguish themselves against other beings, and a belief in disenchantment makes it appear possible to do so. This, I argue, is how dehumanization happens: because we believe that it can, and because we stake our humanity on our ability to enact it.  IISA focuses mostly on how this process affects humans, but of course it also has important implications for everything excluded from the category of the human. Indeed, if dehumanization involves the disenchantment of humanity, then disenchantment as a process involves the dehumanization of the entire universe except for those beings deemed to be ‘fully human’.

Fifth, one of the major tenets of Western secularity is the idea that humans are ‘alone in the universe’. This is quite a scary thought when we think about the kinds of challenges  or ‘global catastrophic risks’ with which we, and our world(s) are faced.  At the risk of massive over-generalization, many transcendent systems of belief offer some sort of recourse in the face of such harms.  Perhaps one or more deities might intervene to protect humans, or total meaninglessness might be avoided if there is a divine plan. Or, alternatively, the promise of a ‘higher’ plane of being, or perhaps an afterlife, might take the edge off the horror of total annihilation. But in most Western secular belief systems, it is entirely up to humans to confront and respond to these threats, using only their powers of cognition, rationality, imagination, affect, agency, and so on. This raises a difficult question: what kinds of options does a person living in a Western secular framework have for confronting the enormity of these threats and harms? She could go it alone, even if this means accepting that the universe is meaningless, and that all of our attempts to project meaning onto it are doomed. Or she could adopt a transcendent framework that might help us to cope with our horror and might even guarantee our place in the universe. Alternatively, she could reject the notion of disenchantment and try to find meaning, beauty, attachment and other forms of value in planet that is frightening, volatile, indifferent to our well-being and potentially facing catastrophic transformations. This third option is the one I’m currently pondering.

So, thinking about Western secularity is a great starting point for exploring the more-than-human aspects of politics, security, ethics and ontology. In fact, I would argue that it’s no coincidence that many of the authors working in this area are rooted in Western secular lines of thought and institutional settings.  Indeed, my goal is not to denigrate Western secularity, which deserves as much respect as any other belief system. Nor do I want to valorize it, or to reproduce its deeply problematic dichotomies and hierarchies. Instead, I want to think about the various possibilities within Western secular forms of thinking, in conjunction with insights from other cosmologies and Western secularity’s less dominant variants. In short, I think that paying attention to cosmology is crucial for thinking about how we can live well in the face of an unknowable universe and ‘unthinkable’ threats.


Who are you callin’ a drone? On hating robots and hating humans

Photo by asterix611 licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

Photo by asterix611 licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

On 2 October, 2013, a small ‘recreational aircraft’ equipped with a camera crashed into a pylon near the Sydney harbour bridge, prompting an investigation involving the civil aviation authorities and the counter-terrorism unit. The vehicle was a quadcopter , a kind of machine often used by researchers and hobbyists to record video footage. The next day, across the globe in Manhattan, another quadcopter crashed into a busy street, nearly striking a pedestrian – and bearing with it a clear image of its operator, who was subsequently arrested on charges of reckless endangerment.

While the Australian investigation continues at the time of writing, there is no indication that either of these robots was being used for anything other than recreational purposes. Certainly, both incidents posed a threat to public safety and broke civil aviation rules, but this level of threat could just as easily have been caused by the malfunctioning of a remote-controlled toy or hot-air balloon (not to mention a crash between ‘manned’ vehicles). They were a far cry from the lethal strikes carried out by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) by the US over Pakistan and Yemen.

Yet both episodes were reported as ‘drone crashes’ and framed as harbingers of a future dominated by rampant ‘drone attacks’.

The ‘d’ word

It’s easy to understand why journalists use this language. The word ‘drone’ immediately invokes an image of deadly, terrifying, soulless machines, of the aptly named Predators and Reapers increasingly used by Western states to conduct the ‘war against terror’. Indeed, many automated robots – unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in particular – carry out lethal strikes from a distance of thousands of miles, or force civilians to live in conditions of constant anxiety.

And still others deliver cakes and pizzas, help football teams to hone their technique, or take part in dance performances. Calling all of these creatures ‘drones’ is a very bad idea.

In a recent blog post, Keven Gosztola argues that we should emphatically use the word ‘drone’ to draw attention to the rise of robotic warfare and its implications for civil liberties and human rights. Reporting on a ‘drone and aerial robotics’ conference held in New York, he states that many delegates refused to use the term, opting instead for technical terms such as ‘remotely-piloted aircraft’.

Echoing Carol Cohn’s pioneering work on nuclear euphemisms, he suggests that these highly technical names mask the lethal purposes of many militarized robots. Usually, he suggests, these names are used by people with ties to the military, law enforcement, defence contractors or businesses, who have vested interests in turning a blind eye to the moral implications of their work.Others, he argues, refrain from using this word because it contributes to public criticism which might undermine national security or express sympathy towards ‘terrorists’.

Gosztola’s conclusion is that we should use the ‘d word’, and do so deliberately, as a means of critiquing the military-industrial complex and its ever more efficient ways of killing. I agree with him, but with an important caveat: we should use this term, but we should use it precisely. That is, we should use it to refer to those robots designed and/or deployed to carry out lethal strikes and surveillance by governments or non-state actors. But we should be extremely careful about applying it to anything else, for several reasons.

Preserving the political power of ‘buzz’ words

The most obvious reason is that calling all robots ‘drones’ dilutes the normative force of the term. As Gosztola’s article points out, the term ‘drone’ is a buzzword (no pun intended) whose power lies in its ability to generate immediate fear and revulsion, which might in turn translate into outrage and public action. ‘Buzzword’ need not be a derogatory term. Instead, it can refer to a term that evokes passionate emotions and channels political action.  However, like all buzzwords, it loses its force if it is applied to anything and everything that moves mechanically. If it is used to refer to all robots, or to robots that might, hypothetically, be used in violent ways, then it will be stretched so far as to be meaningless. In this case, arguments about ‘drones’ will collapse into endless debates about the inability to distinguish between, let alone regulate, technologies that could be used either for harmless or beneficial purposes or for killing (military or otherwise).

Robots don’t kill people – people do

This raises another issue: the term ‘drone’ suggests that there is something monstrous about the machines themselves. But the problem is not robotic technology – rather, it is with the people who use it and their reasons for doing so. There is not (yet) any such thing as a fully autonomous robot, let alone one capable of developing a personality with traits such as sadism or malevolence. These qualities remain, for now at least, distinctly human.

Indeed, all of the machines discussed above fall into the categories of human-in-the-loop and human-on-the-loop systems. So what turns these machines into efficient ‘killers’? The clue is in the name. Robotic systems may assist in selecting targets and may, in the near future, do so with minimal or no human input. But currently and for the foreseeable future it is humans who determine whether a robot is used for counter-insurgency or to monitor endangered orang-utan populations.

In this sense, there is nothing inherently evil about robots. Rather, the problem is that these robots are dominated and instrumentalized by humans, who use them to kill and oppress other humans. There is no reason to believe that fully autonomous robots would, without human interference, behave violently towards humans or any other set of beings unless humans programmed them to do so (see below). So, using the term ‘drone’ to describe robots lets humans off the hook, using machines as scapegoats for the human capacities for violence, destruction strategic killing.

Hating robots, hating humans (and other beings)

Photo by nebarnix licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic.

Photo by nebarnix licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic.

This brings us to a final, and perhaps less obvious, reason why we shouldn’t call all robots ‘drones’: doing so promotes robot hatred. The term ‘drone’ works as a buzzword because it taps into a deep and widespread human fear. The simple fact is, a lot of us are terrified by robots. We assume that there is something about them that poses an existential threat to us. But I think that this has a great deal more to do with humans than it does with the robots in question.

One explanation for this is quite simple: we are terrified of things that are unlike us. Robots are, for the most part, made of metals, plastics and other inorganic compounds. They are not alive in the strict, biological sense that underpins Western science. They don’t possess the kinds of emotional, cognitive or normative restraints that we expect our fellow humans to have, and on the basis of which we predict their behaviour. The standard argument is that humans are hard-wired to care for beings that are like them and neglect or, at worst, harm those that are unlike them. Extrapolating from this idea, many humans fear that, given the chance, robots would run amok killing every human in sight. There is a deep irony in this argument: we assume that the robots would harm us because they are radically different from us. Yet this leap of logic requires us to project onto ‘robots’ a notoriously human pattern of behaviour:  hostility to others on the basis of difference. In other words, we fear robots precisely because they might act like we do.

However, we are also terrified by the similarities between ourselves and certain kinds of robots. Some robots encroach on territory that humans have long regarded as ‘ours’. By moving independently or self-repairing, some robots undermine the human belief that we are the only truly autonomous beings. When they make use of algorithmic decision-making to pathways for movement, predict obstructions to their movement or identity things in their environment, they undermine the idea that ‘intelligence’ is the unique preserve of humans (other sentient organisms also raise this issue). Robots with certain capacities for human-like behaviour expose and transgress the boundaries humans set up in order to distinguish themselves from other beings and to cement their dominance (for a useful discussion of this, see Jairus Grove’s work).

It gets even more complicated than this. Robots aren’t just a useful foil for human nature. They also represent the things we find disgusting or repugnant in ourselves. In fact, it’s on the basis of these very properties that humans ‘humanize’ themselves, and ‘dehumanize’ others (whether humans or nonhumans). We do this through the process of abjection, in which we form an identity by rejecting the aspects of ourselves that both repel and compel us.

Abjection plays an important role in dehumanization. According to the social-psychological theory of infra-dehumanization, people make subconscious decisions about whether or not a being is human by assessing different sets of properties. ‘Human nature’ properties (which are also possessed by a number of non-humans) include warmth, responsiveness and autonomous agency. ‘Human uniqueness’ properties include ‘refined emotions’, self-control and moral responsibility. If a being is deemed to be low in ‘human uniqueness’ properties, the theory suggests, we treat it like a nonhuman animal. And if it’s thought to be low in ‘human nature’ properties, we treat it like a robot. In other words, one of the main ways we dehumanize is by treating certain beings like robots.

Here’s where abjection gets dangerous. According to the logic of dehumanization, this kind of self/other thinking creates a sharp divide between the beings which are treated as subjects of ethical consideration, and those that aren’t. It encourages humans to dispose of those beings deemed to be nonhuman in instrumental ways –  that is, to subject them to violence, harm or destruction if they threaten us or are simply useful in meeting our needs.

This logic underpins racism, xenophobia and other inside/outside distinctions that enable humans to kill with impunity. According to theorists of dehumanization, it is precisely this cognitive process that has made mass genocide and mass killing (of humans and other animals)  both thinkable and do-able.

This brings us to another irony: dehumanizing others enables us to kill with the cold, calculating sense of impunity of which we deeply suspect robots.

By treating all robots as (potential) ‘drones’ – that is, as inhuman and dehumanizing monsters – we cement the self/other logic described above. We also over-generalize,  demonizing robots unnecessarily and treating each robot as a threat to our humanity. The use of robots by humans to target civilians from afar and surveil populations almost certainly is a threat of this kind. But the simple existence of robots with various levels of autonomy is not.

The ‘d’ word is for dissent – not demonization (or doomsday predictions)

So, from this perspective, hating robots is deeply linked with hating humans, and with hating aspects of humanity. I’m not arguing that robot-phobia will convert the average person into a genocidal killer. Nor am I suggesting that we should all welcome companion robots into our homes or mourn the loss of robots destroyed in combat. And I’m certainly not claiming that hatred of robots is equivalent to hating humans in moral terms (that is a whole other can of worms). What I’m suggesting is that invoking the word ‘drone’ to describe any and every robot encourages this kind of self/other dichotomy, and the myth of absolute human superiority that it underwrites.

I do, however, think that robot-hatred can have an effect on how we treat humans and other beings. Elaine Scarry argues that exposure to things we find beautiful can evoke in humans a response of empathy and care that we then extend further in our relation to other people and things. I suspect that the reverse is also true. That is, if we allow or celebrate hatred of an entire set of other beings and normalize this kind of thinking, then it is likely to shape our ethical relations with all kinds of others – humans included.

Photo by strangejourney licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

Photo by strangejourney licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

From this perspective, if the term ‘drone’ helps to raise awareness and mobilize dissent against the instrumentalization of robots for extra-judicial killings and surveillance, then it should be used in these cases, as Gosztola suggests, to bolster public critique of the use of force. It should not be used as a blanket term to whip up generalized anti-robot fervour or to stoke public panics about  a future (and present) shared with robots.

Fear and outrage at drone warfare – that is, the systematic use of robots for killing and suppression – is rational, warranted and utterly crucial to contemporary political debates. But the fear of robots in general is just another narrow-minded expression of our own insecurities about being human.


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