When We Dehumanize Others While Fighting for Justice / by Robyn Rapske

"The natural/easy way of fighting for equality/justice is to dehumanize dehumanizers. But perhaps we could find a way to transcend that cycle"
Michael Gungor, May 2, 2016, Twitter

I regularly listen to Michael Gungor on a podcast he runs with three other podcasters, called The Liturgists. Having listened to most of their podcasts, I’ve seen that Michael is not always super great at what he suggested on May 2, 2016. He reacts to ‘dehumanizers’ in a somewhat unhelpful way, teetering over the line of grace and into unkind words.

However, he has surrounded himself, at least on that podcast, with people who see beyond his human instincts of dehumanizing the dehumanizers. The other podcasters, as well as guests they invite to speak, generally keep each other in line. Within friendship and accountability, they always come to a more gracious point together.

I see that in many people, including myself. Blind to how we dehumanize others on our unique journeys towards justice and equality for the oppressed.

I began to notice this in myself more when I started to get involved in the lives of people from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.


In my fourth year of university, I volunteered with a group of women who came down to the DTES to offer hot chocolate and prayer to women in the survival/street sex trade industry. I don’t know how helpful we were in anything we did, but maybe God used us anyways.

One time I felt shattered as I saw a fancy car driven by a man, pick up a woman, so he could pay her for the use of her body. I seethed with anger and hatred against that man, and all men who would ask a vulnerable woman to dehumanize herself to distract himself from his own sick soul. All I could see was a woman struggling to survive amidst trauma and pain, and a man taking advantage of her struggle to use her as an object.

At that time, this event solidified my hatred for men who would do this, rich or poor. I could only see them as an oppressor. I could not see their humanness at all.

Luckily God works well into the depths of our sins, and he gradually showed me how my dehumanizing of the ‘oppressor’ was not in his will. It’s not even helpful for my goals of bettering lives for vulnerable women.

This happened in many ways, but a major influencing factor was learning the stories of men in the recovery program attached to the organization I now work at. The organization I work at is on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, where every street corner nearby has vulnerable women selling the use of their bodies. The recovery program attached to our program works with many of the men in the area who were previously the pimps to vulnerable women, or who paid for women to have sex with them.

These men were coming into our recovery program and revealing the horrid sickness they had been hiding within their souls, and how much pain they were in. They were in severe addiction to substances, and their relationships were devoid of health and goodness. The solution? Love, Acceptance, and New Life. Their remorse and apologies for previous hurtful behaviours, including paying vulnerable women for sexual services, slowly had the opportunity to heal them, as they were shown such grace and love in our program. Listening to their stories has chipped away at my hard heart towards men like them.

I was waiting at a bus stop sometime after just getting a job at the organization I’m now at, when a man who had gone through recovery started talking to me. I don’t think he knew that I worked in the same organization that he had found this recovery through, but he struck up a conversation with me about his freedom from addiction anyways. He included the fact that he used to think it was fine to treat women like objects, and said he regularly paid women for sex. Now, through his recovery, he realized it was hurtful both to the woman and to himself, and was finding freedom from that realization.

I still get the gut instinct of hatred towards those cars stopping by, or the men who strike up a conversation about sex with a woman in street prostitution. But when that fades, I also see a man who is sick, and in pain. He may not admit it, but I know that God sees his pain, loneliness, and/or anxiety, and if I do as well, maybe I can be more useful in helping him stop the dehumanizing behaviours.

It doesn’t mean that I have to condone behaviours I disagree with, but it does mean that I can see the humanity in all, not just in the people I’m defending.

Not only is this a relational, healing way of approaching dehumanizers, but in a more pragmatic way, it seems like it could be more useful for the goals of those wishing to bring forward justice.

Have you ever been dehumanized by someone because they disagree with your behaviour? It sucks! Even if you secretly agree with the behaviour being wrong, being treated that way hurts.

I remember a conversation with a Greenpeace advocate in California many years ago. It was a conversation full of judgement towards me, hatred of my choices, and zero care for my well-being in that moment. It brought absolute stubbornness in my soul to their message, out of self-preservation instincts against their attacks.


However, a few years later, I unexpectedly won a book at a justice conference, called “Planted”, written by a wonderful woman, Leah Kostamo, who runs environmental work in BC. In the book, she was gracious, honest, kind, and she understood, even related to, the conflict many of us have with environmental decisions, and how hard it is to involve a better earth into the daily, practical needs of our lives. And what was my response to her love, respect, and her efforts to see the best in her readers? I was inspired to make changes in my life.


I gradually went from driving to work, to then bussing to work, and then to cycling (rain or shine!). I cycled for two whole years to work and back, and when I became ill, I went back to bussing to work for a further eight months. I directly attribute this decision to the words of Leah Kostamo. Her kind, understanding, realistic words. I continue to make better efforts of what food I buy, what clothing I buy, and other small efforts towards environmentalism because of her kindness. What a vast difference to how I responded to the Californian Greenpeace woman who could only see me as an unjust object against the environment. To Leah Kostamo, I was a human who was worth love and respect, and she offered me non-judgemental inspiration to be a better human.

It may not work to cause change and growth instantly in everyone’s life, and we don’t have continue to be in the company of those who hurt us if it’s too traumatizing, but still, I think we can have much more hope in our future if we treat the person we disagree with more humanely. Whether in our person-to-person interactions, our posts on social media, or our conversations with others about them.

Questions to consider:

Have you ever felt dehumanized by someone else for your life’s decisions and felt defensiveness or stubbornness?

Have you dehumanized someone else because they do something you disagree with? Does it actually work in changing that person’s decisions?