Since this is Valentine’s Day, naturally this post will have an obligatory reference to love, suitable for the occasion. But my namesake, St. Paul, described love better than I ever could in a beautiful and famous passage in Corinthians 13. I could not hope to improve on his description, and will not attempt to do so.
Instead, I will examine love by considering an impulse contrary to love: dehumanization. Love, simply stated, is the desire for the good of another, or an action undertaken for the good of another. Dehumanization is the opposite impulse: a thought or action leading one to demean another person.
Dehumanization is a surprisingly common temptation. It is easy to view others as objects for one’s own gratification – to treat others as constructs, rather than real people. We may not personally believe in solipsism, but we often act like solipsists when it comes to our treatment others. We are the only ones who matter; others exist to serve us.
It is especially easy to dehumanize those we argue with – those defending just causes are perfectly capable of succumbing to this temptation. “Pro-life” activists can be tempted to forget the humanity of abortion advocates whom they spar with. Those who defend true marriage can be tempted to scorn their foes as hopeless and irredeemable sodomites. To my shame, I have become angry with my political opponents and responded to them with subtle personal shots. But those we argue with are people, created in the same image and likeness of God as we are, who demand our respect, if not our agreement.
The temptation to dehumanize others is not limited to our enemies. We can just as easily dehumanize those whom we claim to love. The lover who uses his or her significant other or spouse for physical or emotional gratification, the son or daughter who leeches off his parents – these are very real instances of dehumanization.
This form of dehumanization is more subtle and therefore more pervasive than the more hostile kind. After all, it is easy to recognize when we are treating our foes like dirt, and adjust accordingly. But dehumanization of friends and family often masquerades as love, and is all the more destructive because of this fact.