Doubling down on the dehumanization

Doubling down on the dehumanization

by digby

This is a headline on the official White House web site:

MS-13 is a violent, criminal gang. But they are not animals. Calling human beings animals has a long pedigree among genocidal maniacs.

Vox had a good explainer:

This type of language “justifies or even mandates violence,” Nour Kteily, who studies the psychology of dehumanization and its consequences at Northwestern, told me then (check out a feature on Kteily’s work here). He feared it also “communicates that message more broadly to the most fervent of the white supremacists who number among the president’s supporters.”

Just to be clear: Trump’s off-the-cuff remark won’t immediately lead to a worst-case scenario. But it’s worth remembering that dehumanization is already disturbingly prevalent in America. We don’t need anyone — especially Trump — stoking it further. And “dehumanization today [toward certain groups] has been anything but subtle,” Kteily said.

Dehumanization is a mental loophole that allows us to dismiss other people’s feelings and experiences

If you think of murder and torture as universally taboo, then dehumanization of the “other” is a psychological loophole that can justify those acts.

Look back at some of the most tragic episodes in human history and you will find words and images that stripped people of their basic human traits. During the Nazi era, the film The Eternal Jew depicted Jews as rats. During the Rwandan genocide, Hutu officials called Tutsis “cockroaches” that needed to be cleared out.

In the wake of World War II, psychologists wanted to understand how the genocide had happened. In the 1970s, Stanley Milgram’s infamous electroshock experiment showed how quickly people cave to authority. Also in that decade, there was Philip Zimbardo’s “prison experiment,” which showed how easily people in positions of power can abuse others.

At Stanford in 1975, Albert Bandura showed that when participants overhear an experimenter call another study subject “an animal,” they’re more likely to give that subject a painful shock.

From these experiments and others that followed, it became clear that “it’s extremely easy to turn down someone’s ability to see someone else in their full humanity,” Adam Waytz, a psychologist at Northwestern University, told me in 2017.

Dehumanizing sentiment already exists in America. Encouraging it will likely make the country a more hostile place.

In Kteily’s studies, participants — typically groups of mostly white Americans — are shown this (scientifically inaccurate) image of a human ancestor slowly learning how to stand on two legs and become fully human.

And then they are told to rate members of different groups — such as Muslims, Americans, and Swedes — on how evolved they are on a scale of 0 to 100.

You’d hope people would rate all groups at 100 — perfectly human, right?

They don’t. Mexican immigrants and Muslims are routinely dehumanized in these studies, scoring, on average, well below 90.

Last year, a psychological survey of the alt-right — an ideological group that supports white nationalism — found even higher levels of dehumanization for many of these groups. On average, the alt-righters in the survey rated Muslims at a 55.4 (again, out of 100), Democrats at 60.4, black people at 64.7, Mexicans at 67.7, journalists at 58.6, Jews at 73, and feminists at 57. These groups appear as subhumans to those taking the survey. And what about white people? They were scored at a noble 91.8.

This is concerning not only because you have one human rating another as “less than” but also because a willingness to dehumanize is correlated with anti-immigrant actions and behaviors.

“Individuals who dehumanized Mexican immigrants to a greater extent were more likely to cast them in threatening terms, withhold sympathy from them, and support measures designed to send and keep them out, such as surveillance, detention, expulsion, and building a wall between the United States and Mexico,” Kteily and a co-author wrote in a 2017 paper.

And that’s only part of the problem.

In his studies, Kteily also looked at what happens when people feel like they’re being dehumanized. And here, the research predicts a vicious cycle.

“Those who dehumanize are more likely to support hostile policies, and those who are dehumanized feel less integrated into society and are more likely to support exactly the type of aggressive responses ... that may accentuate existing dehumanizing perceptions,” he wrote in the 2017 paper.

As the vicious cycle intensifies, the whole country becomes a more hostile, less safe place for everyone.

There's more at the link.

I think we all know that there are plenty of Americans who think this way. But to have it institutionalized on the White House website in language that sounds like a throwback to he 19th century is a very bad sign.