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A host of dictionaries define something when we refer to a person as a person or thing of consequence(M/W). But the word in the following passage is used in a rather different context. What does something in the passage mean?

Despite abundant warnings that we shouldn’t measure ourselves against others, most of us still do. We’re not only meaning-seeking creatures but social ones as well, constantly making interpersonal comparisons to evaluate ourselves, improve our standing, and enhance our self-esteem. But the problem with social comparison is that it often backfires. When comparing ourselves to someone who’s doing better than we are, we often feel inadequate for not doing as well. This sometimes leads to what psychologists call malignant envy, the desire for someone to meet with misfortune (“I wish she didn’t have what she has”). Also, comparing ourselves with someone who’s doing worse than we are risks scorn, the abstraction of others into something undeserving of our beneficence (“She’s disgusting and beneath my notice”). Then again, comparing ourselves to others can also lead to benign envy, the longing to reproduce someone else’s accomplishments without wishing them ill (“I wish I had what she has”), which has been shown in some circumstances to inspire and motivate us to increase our efforts in spite of a recent failure.

The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self

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  • Can you clarify whether the emphasis (bold and italic) is present in the original or not? Google Books won’t let me see the page you’ve linked (it tells me I’ve reached the viewing limit for this book). Jan 25, 2023 at 2:07
  • By the way, I think the word choice here is doubtful. A mere comparison, even an unfavorable one, does not really dehumanize a person, not the way comparisons with certain animals or labeling them as parasites does. Reducing them to certain functions can dehumanize persons as well, something called objectification. But a mere comparison? Nah. Jan 25, 2023 at 16:13
  • Could you cut some of verbiage both before and after the sentence in Question, keeping only the parts that seem to you to matter? Jan 25, 2023 at 21:14

6 Answers 6

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The author uses the word something here, instead of someone, to stress that we see these "inferior" persons more as inanimate objects than as human individuals.

The link you provided opens a page with this sentence:

Also, comparing ourselves with someone who’s doing worse than we are risks scorn, the abstraction of others into something undeserving of our beneficence (“She’s disgusting and beneath my notice”).[21]

The phrase "the abstraction of others into something" makes even clearer the intention of the author.

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It's true that calling a person a 'thing' can be done to rob them of their humanity, as it is the humanitarian view that people are more important than objects. However, a person may be considered a 'thing' when they are counted alongside other things. For example, if your thoughts were occupied by thinking about your family, your home and your work, you might say "I have a lot of things on my mind", and this would be no insult to your family.

So I don't necessarily agree that the author of this text is using the term to suggest that malignant envy results in seeing people as inhuman or having no humanity, but perhaps just reduces their importance or worth so as to be comparable with other less important things.

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You quote Merriam-Webster’s definition of something as “a person or thing of consequence”. I note that this is their second definition, after “some indeterminate or unspecified thing”.

(I also note that it’s the first definition to use the word “person”, which I think may have been the source of some confusion. Except for the one about numbers, all of their definitions can be used of people—possibly dehumanising the person by calling them a “thing”, but not always.)

“A person or thing of consequence” is one possible usage of the word, but it’s quite situational. I’m not sure I can state a good rule for what situations it’s used in, but my guess would be that it’s when there’s no further clue as to what kind of thing is meant. Examples:

Why don’t you make something of yourself?

Meaning, “Why don’t you become a person of consequence?” (This is implying that your current status is inconsequential. You’re wasting opportunities.)

Wow! That was really something.

Meaning, “That was a thing of consequence. I just witnessed a significant and impactful example of its kind.” (Though this is generally a compliment, the non-specific nature of the statement means it might be “damning with faint praise”, when I don’t identify any particular feature as worthy of praise. Or it might just be irony, meaning the opposite.)

The #1 definition, “some indeterminate or unspecified thing”, is more common. (You can generally change it to “a thing” without any important difference in meaning.) That’s how it’s used in the passage you quote. Consistent with my attempt at a rule earlier, we know it’s not the “consequence” usage, because the passage tells us what kind of a thing is meant: one that is “undeserving of our beneficence”.

The remaining question is one that you don’t specifically ask: whether “something” versus “someone” is a meaningful choice by the writer. Others have written answers on this topic, so I won’t belabour it here.

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Using "something" for a person doesn't automatically carry a negative connotation.

For a phrase like "representing someone as something that they're not", you're not representing them as a different person, but rather you're representing their personality traits as something that's different from how they actually are.

"Something" is referring to the representation of them, which is a thing, not a person.

One could also potentially use "someone" instead of "something" above, although in this particular case, the double usage of "someone" may sound a bit unnatural.

* "be something that they're not" (with quotes) gives 11 million results in Google, while "be someone that they're not" gives 300 thousand, which suggests that "something" is a far more common usage in this context (I tried the same thing with Google Ngram Viewer, but it appears to have some issues with apostrophes).


As for the phrase in question:

"The abstraction of others into something undeserving of our beneficence" rather strongly suggests inferiority, but this isn't only because "something" is used. This is explicitly saying that people are being abstracted into, or treated as if they are, a "thing", which is dehumanising.

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The noun phrase "something undeserving of our beneficence" is what we're looking at here, rather that the word "something" per se.

In this context, it looks like the author is saying that the subject of the sentence considers other people to be so insignificant to them that they are not even thought of as people (hence "something" rather than "someone").

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The definition you quote is generally only intended when the word is used without qualification. E.g.

She's really something.

or

Isn't he something?

But in the quoted excerpt, the phrase is qualified with "undeserving of our beneficience". This entire phrase describes how we consider those people. And as pointed out by other answers, using "something" instead of "someone" emphasizes how little consideration we give to them, treating them as things rather than people.

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