Dehumanizing or demonizing the other (Moral disengagement, part 7)

Photo of antisemitic Nazi propaganda

Antisemitic Nazi Propaganda. (Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. From WikiMedia Commons)

Dehumanizing or demonizing the other is a particularly common form of moral disengagement, especially during wartime or other types of conflict.

Another moral disengagement mechanism described by psychologist Albert Bandura, it refers to portraying your enemy as less than human, as some sort of vile creature.

During World War II, all factions in the conflict created posters of the enemy as a subhuman monster. In addition, propaganda and feature films of that era–as well as during the Cold War and the Vietnam War–stereotyped, sub-humanized, dehumanized, and demonized the enemy.

Consider this quote: “…[This nation is] aiming at the exclusive domination of the [world], lost in corruption, [characterized by] deep-rooted hatred towards us, hostile to liberty wherever it endeavors to show its head, and the eternal disturber of the peace of the world.”

Who do you think said that? To what nation was he referring?

The answer to the first question is Thomas Jefferson, in 1815, when he was President. The nation in question was Great Britain. Imagine what might have happened if weapons of mass destruction were available back then. Suppose Jefferson, as President, pushed Congress for a preemptive strike against Great Britain. Would a more peaceful world have been achieved?

Kathie Malley-Morrison, Professor of Psychology

Note: This post was adapted from my previously published article in Peace Psychology (a publication of the American Psychological Association), Spring, 2009.

This entry was posted in Moral disengagement and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Dehumanizing or demonizing the other (Moral disengagement, part 7)

  1. Ross Caputi says:

    Very few Americans realize how much demonization, dehumanization, and sub-humanization of the other pervades our culture. As a veteran I saw all of this directed at the Iraqi people in the media and amongst my fellow Marines. Iraqis were commonly referred to as hajis by Marines and soldiers, and the media justified our actions with a reformulated version of the “white man’s burden”. The media cited our duty to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq – which they assumed that the Iraqis were not capable of achieving themselves. They assumed that Iraqis would thank us for making their culture like our own, and they assumed that this would justify any “collateral damage” that we committed. Very few Americans recognized this as sub-humanization of Iraqis, but our lack of concern for their opinions cannot be explained any other way. We never asked them if they wanted us to invade and occupy their country, and we acted as if we knew what was best for them.

  2. kathiemm says:

    Thanks, Ross, for your insights.
    When an academic like me tries to make such points, we are often seen as naive and unable to understand the “realities” of the situation, the supposed necessity of killing and destroying in the name of national security or advancing democracy or both. By contrast, nobody can accuse you, who served in Iraq, of naivete. You are like the countless other servicemen who have become appalled at what they were being asked to do to forward the interests of the ruling elite–an elite that sees both the people who possess the desired assets and their own servicemen and women as expendable.

  3. Eric Gulliver says:

    I was very interested to see the image associated with this post. Beth asked why I was staring at it for so long. I was trying to connect the dots, as the Nazis were trying to propagandize, that the jews were pulling the strings of seemingly EVERY political ideology contrary to german facism. Knowing the power of images and of propaganda, it is easy to dismiss this as blatant racism. It is also part of dehumanizing the jews into a conspiracy of enemy networks and as such, able to be killed or destroyed without remorse. Not only is this racist, it is also insulting to the political ideologies it is using to make its argument – lumping anarcho-syndicalism in with Soviet State Socialism. It is almost anti-intellectual in a way, but then again, it almost seems like all such hateful arguments usually are…

  4. Pingback: “Peace on earth, goodwill towards men” | Engaging Peace

  5. Pingback: Humanizing the other (Moral engagement, part 8) | Engaging Peace

  6. Andrew says:

    Below is a link to an RTLM radio broadcast during the Rwanda Genocide in 1994. RTLM was the radio station chiefly responsible for spreading genocide propaganda in Rwanda. The broadcast plays alongside disturbing images depicting the effects of violence and hatred. This is a chilling example of what dehumanization is capable of achieving.

  7. kathiemm says:

    Many of you have heard and/or seen the story of the American soldiers peeing on the dead Iraqis–an action that has rightfully led to anger and recrimination. For a very thoughtful analysis of the dehumanization needed for such an action, go to:

  8. Mil says:

    Both the article form Abelardo Brenes and Michael Wessells “Psychological Contributions to Building Cultures of Peace” and the paper from Robert A. Rubenstein “Intervention and Culture: an Anthropological Approach to Peace Operations” discuss the importance of understanding multiple cultural perspectives in peace-building and peace-achieving.

    The first article explores how the Western school of psychology became the dominant one and what peace means to the global community. Due to the fact that English has status as the language of science and that over half of all psychologists are located in the United States and other industrialized and developed northern countries, the outlook on various issues such as mental health, family, society, peace and conflict is being heavily biased.

    Although this fact, in itself, does not have an ill intent, it nevertheless poses the twin risks of marginalization [of other cultures’ view of psychology] and imperialism. In their overview, the authors describe the steps that can be taken in order to enrich the field of peace psychology, and psychology in general. Because psychologists have a certain expertise and can comment on the “causes and dynamics of intolerance and the processes of building tolerance in the context of intergroup relations,” it should be one of the goals of psychologists from different cultural backgrounds to unite in an effort to create a more peaceful world.

    These cultural backgrounds, furthermore, need to be closely studied and understood in order for a peace operation to be successful. Rubenstein discussed how an intervention should occur in order to be successful. Analyzing the issues of legitimacy and the rights to intervene, Rubenstein also discusses a very important topic of temporal and spatial variations in cultural contexts. He provides the following example – that soldiers who are going into Arab countries are given basic rules of conduct (such as not looking at women without hijab or showing soles of their feet). However, no explanations are given as to why they should avoid such actions. When a culture is viewed as stable, interveners “base their work on oversimplified understandings of complex situations.” Because of these limited understandings, an illusion of population homogeneity arises in the mind of interveners. Both of these steps eventually lead to stereotype formations. At this point, interveners might not be able to understand the complex personality, the humanity of an individual, but instead treat him or her as a living impersonation of a given stereotype. From here, it is very easy to transition to dehumanization of an individual. For this reason, the culture (and preferably the language) of a country in which an intervention is taking place need to be learned before such process could occur. One must be culturally sensitive, yet keep in mind that human beings globally share a lot in common.

    A study conducted by Corgan, Malley-Morrison, & Castanheira in 2008 showed that the differences among the domestic (US) and international samples on the peace outlooks were only marginal. Even though the domestic sample was slightly more positive when answering the statement “I believe that world peace can be achieved,” both samples agreed on the way that it can be achieved. Positive interpersonal strategies (such as communication, understanding, and accepting the differences) as well as agreeing on global solutions (on the subjects of social justice and human rights) are the two most common ways to achieve peace described by both samples of participants. There are by far more in common between us as human beings than some link to think. The positive emotions and hopes that we experience are universal, so should be the right to experience them.

  9. JR says:

    As pointed out by both Professor Malley-Morrison and Ross, demonization and dehumanization are both alive and well in Iraq and Afghanistan. These Banduran moral disengagement methods not only aid the soldiers (from both sides) in coping with the destruction that they are committing but more importantly they encourage civilians (from both sides) to sit back and watch idly as they believe the benefit must outweigh the cost.

    As with Iraq, America is known for its participation in “just war”. A common misconception is that it is some new phenomenon that began when GW Bush took office. The truth is dehumanization, demonization and “just war” have been around for ages. Somalia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Panama…. the list goes on and on though it could be said that these conflicts were necessary to stop an existing genocide.

    I fear that America is once again gearing up for another “just war”. Slowly but surely the media has been painting Amajinadad as a tyrannical dictator who is massacring his own people. There may be an ounce of truth to this but until recently, the majority of americans didn’t even know who he was. I personally dislike the idea of any war, however, I am not so blind to believe that all war is preventable (no offense to those of you who do). The ugly truth is that there are evil power hungry people who are willing to kill anyone and everyone who gets in the way of their rise to the top. I believe that occasionally military action is necessary to stop these tyrants before they murder again. I only hope that the US will refrain from ever exerting it’s military might in order to become more powerful and focus it’s efforts on conflict resolution and the protection of human rights.

  10. Amanda says:

    I agree with JR about the long standing history of dehumanization and demonization in wars other than just the War on Terror. The idea of a “just war” is so controversial because morally there is no way to portray killing people as a positive action. However, there are evil people in the world who must be stopped sometimes with death, when no other means were successful. Hitler was not a man to be negotiated with about ending the murder of millions of Jews, and so were our military actions not justified in that case? Bandura’s moral disengagement was alive and well in Nazi Germany as they carried out the murder of millions of Jews who were viewed as subhuman and the cause of the world’s problems. While Nazi Germany was not the reason America became involved in World War II, but rather the attack on Pearl Harbor, can America’s actions in an attempt to stop Hitler not be justified? “Just war” is an oxymoron because there is no way to justify a war, but I believe that there are circumstances that warrant military action.
    This class has taught me the importance of understanding both sides of an argument, especially politically, regardless of what your personal views are. We must recognize that we are no different than other people and must stop demonizing entire countries based on the actions of a small group of people. The only way progress towards a more peaceful future can be made is through the acknowledgment of different beliefs and cultures and understanding them rather than denying them.

  11. Pingback: Oppression of the Neuroscientist – what is subhumanization? @bradleyvoytek « zombielaw

  12. Krassimir says:

    Why is the Cold War out?
    Scared ?
    It was the foundation and the fine
    tuning of it all.

  13. Pingback: The road to militarization: Paved in video games? | Engaging Peace

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * logo