There is a long history of viewing certain groups as subhuman. The process of subhumanization, of defining, describing and treating certain individuals as less than human, takes many forms: it can be a part of social and political institutions, aimed at groups or particular individuals, and it can operate in a broad range of situations, including war, slavery, sexual crimes, and psychological violence. Subhumanization also helped to define many of the practices and policies at the heart of the eugenics movement. At a theoretical level, the concept of the subhuman functioned in a number of ways: it contributed to an understanding of the “feeble-minded” and certain ethnic and racial groups as inferior, and directly influenced theories regarding their treatment and management. In turn, the idea that some groups were less than fully human justified many eugenic practices, including institutionalization, sterilization, social segregation, and abuse. The legacy of these forms of subhumanization is still being felt at the individual level, as victims of eugenic programs like Alberta’s sterilization campaign voice their experiences of being denied basic human rights and treated as subhuman.
Theoretical Expressions of the Subhuman
The very concept of the subhuman requires a corresponding definition of what it means to be human. In the history of eugenics, individuals who were characterized as subhuman were typically understood in relation to three concepts: reason, animality, and morality. Eugenicists picked out many groups as subhuman by defining them as animal-like, and by highlighting their lack of cognitive and moral capacities.
The organizing principle in the definition of feeble-mindedness, as the term suggests, was the presumption of mental deficiency. In the taxonomy of feeblemindedness employed by scientists, eugenicists, and institutional superintendents (who were usually physicians), “idiots” were considered to be at the lowest end of the spectrum when it came to intelligence and the ability to reason. Because of this they were sometimes characterized as human in form only. In the words of American psychologist Samuel Gridley Howe, “Idiots of the lowest class are mere organisms, masses of flesh and bone in human shape.” This notion that, absent the faculty of reason, there was nothing more than a human form was central to the logic of subhumanization. The advent of new techniques that measured and reified intelligence, (e.g. intelligence and IQ testing) reinforced the perception of the “mentally defective” as lacking in rational capacities. While in one sense this placed even the most extreme cases on a distinctly human continuum of intelligence, the implementation of these tests allowed certain groups to be picked out and become targets of dehumanizing eugenic practices.
In addition to appealing to the absence of or diminished rational abilities, comparing certain groups to animals was another way of defining them as subhuman. The legacy of slavery is just one example of the long history of animalizing racial and ethnic groups. In the case of the eugenics movement, this animalizing discourse was often aimed at the “feeble-minded.” There are many examples of superintendents and eugenicists speaking about their animal qualities. In “On the Causes of Idiocy,” Howe spoke of the “monkeyish look” that many idiots possessed, and in his famous hereditary study of feeblemindedness, The Kalliakak Family, H. H. Goddard said of one of the subjects, “Her philosophy of life is the philosophy of the animal.” Decades later, the superintendent of the Provincial Training School (an institution for mental defectives) in Red Deer, Alberta, Dr. L. J. LeVann, stated that the ‘… comparison between the normal child and the idiot might almost be a comparison between two separate species.’” The fact that Goddard and LeVann, both superintendents of institutions, were comfortable speaking about individuals with whom they had direct contact in animalized terms suggests that the logic of subhumanization was entrenched in professional, eugenic discourse about feeble-mindedness.
Comparisons to animals and plants were also made by public officials making the case for sterilization. Emily Murphy, the first woman magistrate in the British Empire, who assisted in Alberta’s sterilization campaign, stated: “’We protect the public against diseased and distempered cattle. We should similarly protect them against the offal of humanity,” arguing that sterilization “was no more unnatural than pruning a tree.” (McLaren, 1990, 101) To view the “feeble-minded” as animal-like was not simply a reaction by ordinary people who might consider these unfamiliar individuals as strange or other; rather, it was perpetuated by those in positions of authority who were defining the face of feeblemindedness for society more generally.
There was also a close connection established between mental deficiency and moral deficiency (associated with criminality, pauperism, prostitution, and deviant sexuality). In considering the “feeble-minded” subhuman by virtue of their moral deficits, eugenicists echoed the ideas of Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, who believed that criminals had traits that resembled savages or animals.
The view that certain “feebleminded” individuals posed a greater danger to society because of their moral depravity and their inability to conform to behavioural and social norms became firmly entrenched in eugenic theories and practices by the early decades of the twentieth century. This is reflected in the definition of specific subcategories like the “moral imbecile” and “moron,” defined specifically in terms of moral deficiency, and increasing concern with targeting them for segregation and sterilization. For Canadian physician and eugenicist Helen MacMurchy, who issued annual reports on feeble-mindedness between 1907-1918 and whose 1920 study The Almosts: A Study of the Feeble-Minded publicized many of these eugenic concerns, “feeble-mindedness” referred to this higher class of mental defectives who could pass as normal, and were thus an even greater threat. (McLaren, 107) Solidifying this connection between feeble-mindedness and criminality, she wrote, “every mental defective is a potential criminal” (McLaren, 40) In the words of the president of Ontario’s Provincial Association for the Care of the Feeble-Minded, T.H. Wills, the feeble-minded had to be viewed as a ‘moral cancer.” (McLaren, 108)
If the logic of eugenics was founded on the desire to improve the human race, individuals who fell below the basic threshold of humanity because of their presumed cognitive and moral defects were viewed as undesirable. Because they constituted a menace to the public and jeopardized the purity of the race, these individuals needed to be removed from society, hence the widespread institutionalization of individuals who were viewed as subhuman. Once incarcerated, many were subjected to forms of abuse and violence that further dehumanized them.
One of the most blatant violations of basic human rights can be found in the Canadian sterilization campaign, founded on the desire to prevent the birth of future unfit, subhuman individuals, and given legal sanction by the Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928. Again we find comparisons to animals in making the case for preventing these individuals from reproducing. For example, Agnes MacPhail, Canada’s first woman Member of Parliament, asked, “I just wonder how much longer we’re going to allow sub-normal people to produce their kind….You farmers- would you want the worse type of your cattle to be seed-bearers?’” (McLaren, 121).
While the prevention of mental deficiency was the primary target of sterilization campaigns, racism and assumptions about the inferiority and subhuman status of certain groups also informed this practice. In Alberta, Aboriginal patients who were presented to the Eugenics Board were more likely to be sterilized without their consent in comparison to Anglo-Saxon patients (Grekul, 2004, 375). In its final years, 25 per cent of sterilizations approved by the Alberta Board of Eugenics were performed on Indians and Métis (McLaren, 160).
In addition to being subjected to this gross form of bodily harm, institutionalized individuals were also victims of human experimentation, abuse, and horrific living conditions. In some instances, it was the presumption of their subhuman status (e.g. the view that they were impervious to cold and pain because of their mental deficiency) that justified these forms of inhumane treatment. In addition to separating individuals from the rest of society, many of the institutions erected during the eugenics movement became sites of extreme dehumanization.
Throughout the eugenics movement, the belief that certain individuals were subhuman was expressed in theories about mental deficiency, public and political discourse, and through concrete practices that routinely dehumanized them. Yet it is worth noting that the logic of subhumanization co-existed with other definitions and forms of discrimination that contradict the view of these groups as subhuman. As seen in the comparisons to plants and animals, the “unfit” were often characterized as beyond the realm of the human while simultaneously defined as under-developed, degenerate, abnormal humans. This reveals how many individuals targeted by negative eugenic practices were viewed in contradictory and paradoxical ways. For example, it was precisely because they were considered members of human communities that the feeble-minded were believed to pose a threat to society. Thus it is clear that to be designated as subhuman was simply one aspect of a damaged and devalued identity.
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