Theses Doctoral

Examining Dehumanization Through the "Political Brain Perspective": Towards a Minimal Neuropolitical Theory for Hyperdiverse Societies

Yu, Liya

What cognitive conditions need to be in place in order for cooperation, and potentially, solidarity, to exist in hyperdiverse societies? What aspects of our social human brain are indispensible when it comes to achieving shared goals in divided liberal democracies? This dissertation singles out the dehumanized perception and categorization of out-groups as one of the most decisive disruptors of political cooperation. I develop an interdisciplinary model – the “Political Brain Perspective” (PBP) – that combines political theory, political science and social neuroscience insights to advance my argument about dehumanization in both domestic and International political contexts. I argue that dehumanized perception at the brain level is politically troublesome because it disables an important social brain function called mentalizing, which is foundational for both basic political transactions and more complex feelings such as empathy. I show how this is relevant in regard to the neuropolitical duties public representatives owe to their constituents in a diverse liberal democracy, and further, how various liberal traditions such as social contract, multiculturalism and human rights theories have hitherto ignored dehumanization as a fundamental disruptor to any political cooperative process. At the international level, I examine the potential for dehumanization within civilizational discourses in history, with a particular focus on the post-Cold War distinction between “civilized” and “barbarians”. I show that in the international context of genocide, intergroup conflict and identity politics, dehumanizing categories not only diminish the cognitive reasoning and mentalizing abilities of the dehumanizer, but also have an intense impact on the dehumanized, in the form of reciprocal dehumanization and retributive violence. Based on the epistemological premises of the PBP, I contend that a minimal neuropolitical theory of cooperation ought not to prioritize an ontological concept of human dignity but instead treat the ascription of humanness as an interpersonal brain mechanism. The brain data, in other words, can only tell us what our brains do when engaging in politics, not who we are as political beings in an essentialist way. In sum, this dissertation highlights the need for political scientists to pay attention to the neuronal mechanisms underlying dehumanization, and to distinguish it from other forms of exclusion and prejudice as a fundamental brain ability in its own right.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Johnston, David
Snyder, Jack
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 29, 2017