Shaun Tan, in his Monday column (“For More Objectification,” 11/1/11), shamelessly argued there is nothing wrong with objectification, and it is in fact good to be objectified. While his spirit is admirable, there was very little else in the article that is.
Throughout his column, Tan argues using a conception of objectification that is neither warranted nor correct. He easily blurs the lines between valuing and objectifying and incorrectly poses objectification as something necessary for other goods and beneficial to the individual.
To be clear, objectification is neither the act of appreciating a specific quality about someone nor associating with another for the purpose of a specific end. Rather, objectification, in this context, is to treat another person as an object and to reduce him to the value of his parts or ends.
For example, it is undeniable that we cannot be true friends with each and every one of our acquaintances, but it in no way follows that those acquaintances should be treated as objects. Tan argues that all relationships other than true friendships are really nothing more than interactions of use. All those who are not true friends are just means to the ends of money, knowledge, prestige, networking and more. Furthermore, he states that true friendship depends on objectification.
This characterization of human interactions is both depressing and demeaning. I do not see why someone must be an object if she is not one’s true friend. Sure, we associate with some people for a variety of reasons closely connected to specific ends, but does that give us the right to see them as anything less than another human being? If we hire a taxi to drive us from Phelps Gate to the train station, are we then allowed to treat the driver as an object and see him as subhuman? One could argue that we are treating the taxi driver as an object to the ends of our travel.
While this is true on a superficial level, we do not reduce the taxi driver to the status of object by using his services. Entering into a mutual contract with another human being does not render either party inhuman. The taxi driver is still a person worthy of basic respect, and we should regard him and treat him as such even if we are paying him to drive us somewhere.
Moreover, consent does not immediately make objectification acceptable. If a person consents to be sold into slavery, does that make her slavery acceptable? Absolutely not, and the type of free-rein libertarianism that would answer yes to this has no mind toward the preservation of society or the well-being of its constituent members. Consent has been created as a cheap substitute to measure the acceptability of actions when people can easily consent to any number of wrong things. Therefore, if objectification is wrong, it is wrong whether one consents to it or not.
Next, Tan argues that objectification is essentially synonymous to valuing a specific aspect of something. He believes that valuing someone for her intellect or for the music she creates is nothing more than objectifying her in relation to her extraordinary qualities.
Unfortunately, this point of view is oversimplified and sadly pessimistic. Praise and objectification are not the same thing.
We may recognize that Yo-Yo Ma is very talented, but that talent does not reduce his value as a human; rather, it complements that value. First and foremost, Yo-Yo Ma is a person, and recognizing his talent should not reduce his value as a human but rather exemplify his humanness. His ability to masterfully perform music for others elevates him as a human; it does not reduce his value to merely his talent.
Therefore, we do not need to objectify those with desirable traits. It is necessary and good to show each and every person the respect he deserves as a human being. From that basis of respect, we can then value others regarding their desirable characteristics, building them up in our regard rather than taking them down.
To force a reductionist spin upon human interactions and importance is unnecessary and degrading. It stems from a single-minded selfishness and a worldview in which people have no value or dignity. It is our responsibility as people, as members of the human race, to treat each other with basic respect, and therefore it is unequivocally wrong to treat anyone as an object.