On Friday, December 11, 2009, The News of Cumberland County, our local paper in Bridgeton, New Jersey, ran the front page story, “Dragged behind truck, Reese is getting better,” Reese being a dog of pit bull and Doberman mix that had been horribly injured in the dragging incident still under investigation. Above the headline, however, was another: “Animal who did it still out there.” The article itself contained the same kind of statement: “The animal who did it is still driving the streets.” The rest of the article told of the wonderful work done by the SPCA to enable Reese to recover, retrain her to overcome some minor “bad manners” she had developed from poor training, and enable her to be a lovable dog fit for a new human owner and a better life.

An uplifting and helpful report was spoiled by name calling and mislabeling. A newspaper should not engage in labeling that corrupts appropriate indignation at an outrageous act into disgust with a person and, almost inevitably, with an entire group of people.

What’s wrong with this expression of outrage? Is it not natural when having learned of such a cruel and senseless deed to ask, “Which one is the animal?” Yes, it is a natural response, but not a helpful one. Reese is the animal. The perpetrator is a human being, an individual human being.

Disgust is a natural reaction built into us probably in its origins as a defense against bad food. The neuro-chemical affect known as disgust triggers a physical response that suggests vomiting or spitting out distasteful or spoiled food. Disgust as a factor in our emotional development also seems to figure prominently in the formation of prejudices against groups of people: bigotry and racism.

The philosopher and ethicist Martha C. Nussbaum has written persuasively against allowing any place for disgust in our criminal justice system because it shifts our focus from the criminal deed to the supposed nature of the accused and can seriously mislead the sentencing process. At worst, disgust can also lead to wrongful conviction of the innocent by rendering a jury blind and deaf to actual evidence because they have already fixed the accused in their minds as the disgusting thing who “did it.”

Dehumanizing the perpetrator of a crime can precipitate a whole set of unhelpful consequences. It can corrupt the judicial process. It feeds prejudices because disgust, focusing on the person rather than the deed, tends to generalize into a type of person. So, whatever ethnic identity is imagined by the reader or later portrayed in the photograph of a suspect will be generalized from “him” to “them.” Less obviously perhaps, shifting from indignation at the deed to disgust with the person and dehumanizing that person as an animal or a monster, as not really one of us, lets the rest of us off the hook.

Why do I say calling the perpetrator an animal lets the rest of us off the hook? What hook? We didn’t drag a dog until the poor creature was barely recognizable. No, we did not, and we are rightfully outraged that someone did, but that someone was a human being and therefore one of us. Neither Reese nor another of her kind would ever have done such a thing. We are the creature that can be wonderfully kind but also horribly cruel. We need to see ourselves in the perpetrator and him in ourselves for his sake and our own. Dehumanizing him puts him beyond redemption and also prevents our progress toward a better humanity in a more just and humane society. For his sake and our own, we need to acknowledge our shared humanity so we can improve it.

The unthoughtful, knee-jerk reaction to what I have written above would be, “So you’re defending that person?” No, I’m trying to refocus indignation where it belongs: on the cruel and criminal deed for which the perpetrator should be held accountable. Indignation is appropriate (heaven help us if we were not indignant over such a terrible act of cruelty). Dehumanization helps no one. Disgust feeds bigotry. And newspapers should not engage in calling people names and so encouraging public disgust with whole groups in our society.

For a thorough discussion of the subject, read Martha C. Nussbaum’s book, Hiding from Humanity.