Dehumanizing by Distance

A long time ago, I read an article (which I lament not bookmarking, because I can never find it now) that discussed a study regarding how drivers viewed other drivers as compared to how they viewed pedestrians. The findings of the study were basically that drivers viewed pedestrians as more human, and thus afforded them more forgiveness and lenience if the pedestrian made a decision that the driver viewed as stupid. Conversely, other drivers were viewed as less human, more likely to receive the driver’s anger and contempt. The thought process was that, when we’re locked away inside of metal vehicles, we have difficulty seeing each other as fellow human beings, and are more likely to become enraged and even violent with each other.

That study stayed with me, because I think that it’s onto something. It’s easy to feel hatred toward someone with whom we can’t relate or find common ground, and distance simply makes it psychologically more difficult to relate or find the common ground. When we have metal walls between each other, we become less than human in each others’ perspectives.

It turns out that it’s not just physical barriers that accomplish this dehumanization. The pandemic showed us this, I think, as we desperately turned to video screens to maintain some level of human contact, while realizing how poor a substitute it was for keeping in touch with our loved ones. The distance, the resolving of a person that we know into pixels, somehow alters our perspective of that person. If it’s someone that we don’t know, exponentially more so.

This is what I thought about when I read this article about the expansion of the use of drones in the war in Ukraine. This war, which, like most wars is completely senseless, has been the first wide-scale use of drone technology in full scale combat. Soldiers are taking other soldiers’ lives without ever being in shooting distance. They simply watch on a video screen as they pilot an airborne weapon from miles away, applying a video-game style of lethal force with real-world consequences.

Theologically and philosophically, I’m a pacifist. As all human beings are created in God’s image (even when they’re driving the other car), I don’t see God leaving open the option of taking another life. I see that principle as being as old as the Ten Commandments. This is why I see armed combat as wrong, because inherent in the action is the presupposition that the life of the person on the other side is somehow worth less than one’s own. The soldier from the other side is not another father, sister, or loved one. They are the other. They are the enemy.

We are currently seeing the largest war in Europe since World War II, and, like many wars, it’s simply about a dictator’s power grab. While I am forced to recognize the reality that armed conflict is necessary at times in order for a government to defend the citizens of its country, I think that a war fought by remote control is worse than the savagery of trench warfare. It is cold, and calculating, Human lives are eliminated with no opportunity to surrender or yield. Were a miracle like the Christmas Truce ever to be in the inclination of either side, it would be impossible to realize through a television monitor as one pressed the button that took more lives.

Lives that aren’t seen as lives. Just pieces being removed from the game board.

As I consider this through the lens of Advent, I ache for the time when our swords are beat into plowshares. Then, at least, we will be beyond the point of constantly trying to kill each other. In the meantime, let us pray that this war ends soon.

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