Thursday, May 17, 2018

Dehumanization: A precursor to discrimination...and worse

Yesterday, we were subjected to this quote from Trump regarding deported immigrants: "They're not people. They're animals."

C'mon, you say. It's just words. However, words lead to actions. As a reminder:

Brian Resnick at Vox offers a useful explainer on the damage that dehumanizing language can inflict. His treatment is perhaps a bit on the mild side, but it should suffice.

There is ample evidence that once individuals are dehumanized, they are subject to more harm than those who are not dehumanized. There is actual experimental evidence to demonstrate this phenomenon. The Bandura experiment used a fairly mild dependent variable (electric shock levels), so we will keep that in mind going forward. That said, the main takeaway is when people are dehumanized (described as animals such as rodents, parasites, untermenschen, etc.), they become subjected to acts of aggression that they would not be subjected to otherwise. One of the subtly brilliant moves made by Milgram when he developed his obedience experiments was to introduce a level of deindividuation: the participant (i.e, the "teacher") was never referred to by his own name, but merely as Teacher. The confederate in the experiment (i.e., the "learner") was only referred to as Learner, and never by his own name. That level of deindividuation is clever in part because it adds a layer of superiority to the participant (Teacher) in terms of status over the confederate (Learner). That particular situation in a short period of time led to the participants ("teachers") believing that they had subjected another human being to potentially grave harm.

Again, to repeat, the experimental evidence involves relatively mild stimuli and relatively mild behavioral responses, and yet we can see how the conditions for atrocities can be created in the process. Influential people, such as national leaders or major media personalities who use dehumanizing language are in a position to invite their followers to approve of and potentially engage in human rights abuses. The historical record is littered with examples, as Joshua Raclaw duly notes in his tweet. One of the more alarming phenomena to emerge in the aftermath of the 2016 election was an apparent normative shift coupled with an attitudinal shift regarding those groups who were targeted by Trump during his campaign. In particular, once Trump was elected, and essentially an authority figure in waiting, a subset of American perceived that the norms had changed to allow abuse to those Trump targeted, and their explicit attitudes toward Trump's targets became more negative. I've noted before that a subset of the population is predisposed to harbor authoritarian attitudes and that there is evidence that individuals showing higher levels of authoritarianism (and especially authoritarian aggression) tend to show higher levels of approval for any of a number of human rights abuses - including violent treatment of prisoners and the use of torture. I have been involved in reporting some of that data, as have others. Given the uptick in violence perpetrated against disadvantaged groups in the US in the last year and a half, I would wager that what we are witnessing is an explicit endorsement by a major office-holder (arguably the most influential officeholder) to discriminate against and behave violently toward those deemed "unfit" by said officeholder. We have noted that same officeholder refer to some of those involved in racial violence last summer as "very fine people." To his authoritarian base, the message was clear - and it should serve as a clear warning to the rest of us. I usually tell my students that major human rights abuses do not happen overnight: they are cultivated over the course of years. It takes years of regular exposure to dehumanizing language (think radio talkshows beginning in the 1990s, cable outlets like Fox News, and emerging media outlets like InfoWars over the last decade or so) and the emergence of just the wrong leadership for those abuses to occur. Study a bit of history in addition to whatever data the social sciences provide. We are living at a particularly dangerous point in history.

No comments:

Post a Comment