To dehumanize someone does not actually change this person’s status as human. In fact, dehumanization can happen without someone’s knowledge or consent. When a person marginalizes someone, it provides this person with an internal excuse or justification to continue such behavior. To Martin Luther King Jr. this was the root of the problem during the civil rights movement. The majority of white Americans who could sympathize with the plight of African Americans placed themselves as bystanders and saw African Americans as separate from themselves. To the bystanders, this was a problem that would eventually work itself out. Kolvenbach, however, urges against these feelings. Under the Jesuit tradition, all humans are seen with dignity. In this way, Kolvenbach urging Jesuits to promote the service of all people speaks to King’s mission. Regardless of distance, race, or social standing, every person deserves to be treated with dignity.
Although the equal treatment of all humans seems like a reasonable idea to promote, Kolvenbach and King are both considered radical. They are radical in that they challenge long-standing traditions and social norms. Even Kolvenbach, who addresses other Jesuits, was met with contention. Once set in their ways, people can be hard to move. It is here that seeing victims of injustice as separate from us or unworthy of just treatment is particularly dangerous. Traditions of injustice leave the oppressors in the majority. In this way, inactivity can be excused. Change is seen as trouble as opposed to solution and those who stand on the sidelines can neither be blamed for acting in malice nor for rousing conflict.
King and Kolvenbach clearly state that such passive behavior will not be tolerated. King powerfully writes, “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” Such “lukewarm acceptance” is exactly what we see from Huck Finn in his interactions with Jim. In comparison to the other white characters in the story, Huck treats Jim with a respect that others would never consider. In reality, however, Huck never really sees or treats Jim as a human being. Huck certainly enjoys Jim, but Jim’s desire for freedom, as Jane Smiley points out in “Say It Ain’t So, Huck”, is never taken seriously by Huck. Huck never does any explicit harm to Jim, but he also does not strive to bring justice to Jim. Huck turns into a bystander, bearing witness to the injustice done unto Jim. While Tom turns the freeing of Jim into a game, Huck does not quite agree, but does not go so far as to stop Tom’s careless use of a man’s life as a game. Huck believes that Jim should not be sent to New Orleans, but is unwilling to act in rebellion to free him.
Both Huck and Tom are much like the “white moderates” that King condemns for their inaction. They both essentially agree with Jim’s plight, but shy away from truly helping him, which would stir up trouble. They stop short of being radically humane. They, like the “white moderates”, believe that Jim’s time will eventually come. They do not know and cannot understand what it is like to be owned as Jim is. In denying Jim’s qualification as human, the inactivity of Huck and Tom, however, is excused.
The bystander effect is not a distant concept for modern society. People easily distance themselves from contentious situations, therefore removing victims from their plane of responsibility. This is, in some ways, a dehumanization of the victim. By choosing to stand back and refuse action, the bystander, in any scenario, claims that the victim is unworthy of justice.