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Conversely, failure to recognize and value other individuals as fellow human beings underlies many of our cruelest behaviors, from sexual violence to human trafficking to prisoner abuse and torture to genocide. Systemic devaluing of individuals contributes to entrenched problems such as inhumane labor conditions and demeaning treatment of patients at health facilities.
When dehumanization reaches a tipping point or when particularly reprehensible cases become visible to the public, movements can emerge like those that swept through the Middle East or like the one we are witnessing in India. It is as though collective repulsion provokes and empowers people to stand up and demand change from authorities, to demand that as a society we evolve beyond such behaviors.
In India the government has committed to a number of steps – including the requisite establishment of commissions – to prevent sexual violence and more rapidly mete out justice to rapists. Many protesters are demanding further action, and significant reductions in rape will clearly require sustained effort on multiple fronts. Nevertheless, the movement born in New Delhi and the policy actions it has elicited demonstrate how citizen responses to cruel and dehumanizing acts can mobilize social change.
Dr. Tony Castleman is an associate research professor of international affairs and associate director of the Institute for International Economic Policy at George Washington University. He was previously director of a non-profit organization in Lucknow, India, working on health, education, and women’s empowerment.