Kindness v Dehumanisation – Is it Relevant in Your Life?


I woke up this morning thinking about something which happened in my life more than 30 years ago. When I was 21, a close relative split up from her husband, in a violent, chaotic episode in our family’s life. Not that it hadn’t been chaotic, violent, and abusive through the years, but I thought I was out of it by then – an adult and making my own way.

At the time I was a brand-new staff nurse, working in our local mental health unit, in my first role as a qualified mental health nurse. To my horror, my relative’s husband tried to take his own life and ended up being admitted to my ward! He remained an inpatient for a few weeks, then went back out into the world to make his way. Through the months that followed I found myself supporting him – and being on the receiving end of wrath from her. She felt I should take her side exclusively and that it was disloyal not to do so. I found myself unable to completely abandon another human being, despite his terrible behaviour at that time and before. He had no one else to support him.

It was some time before he met someone else, moved on with his life and I could step away. I haven’t seen or spoken to him since. Thirty years on, my relative still occasionally reminds me of my ‘transgressions’, although I can’t say I’ve thought too much about it for a couple of decades or so. Until this morning that is.

Last week I listened to a podcast by Brene Brown called Words, Actions, Dehumanization and Accountability. First broadcast on January 13th, Brene discusses the outgoing Trump administration and more broadly, the thinking behind the violent and inhuman actions that humans take against other humans. I learned from her about the way that groups of people dehumanise others to justify their actions – how they think and talk about others in a way which makes them ‘less human than us’. The rhetoric and languaging we attach to this, facilitate us to justify behaving abhorrently towards those we think of as less human than ourselves.

I must have been thinking about this today. Brene talks about the abhorrent ways in which dehumanisation has shaped some of the most disgusting acts of human behaviour in history. It also occurs to me though, that we see smaller acts of dehumanisation in everyday life. The way you’re either friends with the ‘in crowd’, or you’re not. The way that one team feels more superior in the organisation, than another. The way that care staff might somehow feel more ‘human’ than those they support and care for. The way that in a breakup, one person is worthy of support and another should be completely denied it.

It also occurred to me that values sit at the core of our behaviours and may not change much over time. In recent years I have written much about kindness, compassion, and love in the workplace. If I could go back and ask my 20-something self about values, I’m not sure I could have articulated the understanding I have now. Values were implicitly there, but not explicit in a way I could have spoken about. It was a tacit notion, that you don’t have to condone or agree with someone else’s behaviour, or believe what they believe, to behave humanely towards them.

It seems that my 50-something self can recognise values that I have held dear for most of my life and which have played out in my behaviours during that time. I can’t help but think that kindness, compassion and ‘holding on’ to values, are a sure way of not falling into the dehumanisation of others. It might well be an antidote to ensuring that acts of cruelty and violence towards others, occur less and less in the evolution of our humanness.

We all have a responsibility to work on our self-awareness so that we can make the implicit, explicit. If we don’t, we lack the awareness to monitor, self-regulate and ensure we create workplaces with the conditions to enable people to bring their kindness, empathy, and innate belief in our humanness, to work. We must create workplaces where there is more that connects us than divides us. At Glassmoon Services, we are building a workplace where core values are discussed and lived every day in our practice. Our Dare to Care programme will ensure that learning is an everyday experience – not just to achieve a tick in the box, but to create truly humanised workplaces to learn, earn and live life. I am proud and humbled to be part of that movement.