It’s said that one thing that makes humans unique is our ability to make tools. While some other primates can also make rudimentary tools, we excel at it.
Our toolmaking ability has allowed us to build some pretty incredible things – skyscrapers, skateparks, ice cream makers, smartphones. Unfortunately, that same toolmaking ability has allowed us to make tools out of people – and consequently, out of ourselves (heh).
Let me define my terms:
Objectification, n. the action of degrading someone to the status of a mere object.
In other words, objectification is a denial of human agency – that the same will and power that drives you exists in another person.
You’ve probably experienced objectification in a number of contexts. The most talked-about one is sexual objectification – people viewing you (or you viewing others) primarily as tools for sexual gratification. But objectification goes much further than that. Politicians routinely objectify people when they plan people’s lives for them. School administrators objectify the students passing through their “systems.”
Objectification is not always morally wrong, and it doesn’t only spring from narcissistic or nefarious motivations. At some point in your day, you’ve probably objectified your coworkers, your children, your parents, or any of the hundreds of strangers you passed by. It’s pretty inevitable. Your brain simply doesn’t have the resources to stop and notice the agency or beauty or importance in every human being.
But just as making tools is a practical benefit of our evolutionary objectification, degrading humans is a very impractical side effect of our toolmaking lens on the universe.
Impractical, you say? Well, what about the many rich and powerful people who made their way up through objectifying and dominating people?
First, I would check your premises. You might find that at least some of those “on top” got there because they were exceptionally good at recognizing and working with the agency of the people around them.
Secondly, I would dispute the idea that objectification, while evil, is also somehow practical. I think it’s the stupidest framework you could possibly apply to social relationships.
Objectifying a human being – treating them like a tool – is to reduce them to one purpose: sex, power, money, etc. Name whatever it is you want. If you decline to recognize the agency in others, they become simpler, and it’s sometimes easy to identify and get the one thing you want from them.
The problem is that humans are so much more than one thing.
That woman you’re objectifying purely for her sexuality? She might have the key to the research you’ve been working on for ten years.
That schoolchild you’re treating like a sheep in a herd? He might have profound insights into human nature. If you were open to it, he might be the person to tell you exactly what you need to hear.
Those people you’re objectifying on your way to political power? They might be amazing friends, family, business partners. They might have added something to your life if you hadn’t been so intent on taking from them.
Of course, you would never know about any of these unless your frame of objectification were broken.
This is the core problem with objectification. The people you are turning into single-use tools are people who are capable of creating thousands of unbelievable possibilities. Objectification is a lie which says this potential can be ignored. It’s a lie to yourself about the nature of reality. As such, it’s fundamentally impractical and against your self-interest, as well as the self-interest of those around you.
Or, to put it another way: when you objectify another person, you make your world a thousand times smaller.
Why not try to relate to the people in your life as rational agents, with all the creativity and unpredictability that you have? You can never fully love or honor another person as yourself, but the attempt will make your life so much better – and so much more interesting.