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Dehumanization: Psychological Symbolism and Deindividuation to Commit Violence

 


By

David Nollmeyer

Dehumanization is a term that is used to denote a psychological process where one’s opponent is viewed as less than human and not deserving of moral and legal consideration. This activity results in strained relationships between the two parties with hatred and alienation towards conflict. Exclusion is often the result of the Dehumanization process (Maiese 2005). Social scientists cite dehumanization as support for war. Democracies often present enemy soldiers as less than human to gain electoral support. Dictatorships will dehumanize to prevent oppositions from forming. The definition and diagnostic of Dehumanization are not professionally described to some but the results are easily quantifiable (Srobl 2000).

Psychology describes the formation of this enemy image. This is the use of the stereotype. The need for group identity is often an unmet need in the formation of these images. There is an exclusive disjunctive contrast in the formation of enemy images. Concrete actions of opponents are thought to reflect fundamentally evil traits or motives. Communication between the two parties becomes problematic or non-existent lacking in commonality. Circuitous thinking and irrational loops of thought are used to handicap thinking that supports obtaining victory at all costs to punish or destroy the enemy (Pruitt & Rubin 1994).

One of the consequences of the axiology of dehumanization is that the oppressed must learn not to become the oppressors. In the connection the tactics used by oppressors to create the lesser of two evils to justify a replication of their psychopathy will not be directly addressed here. Paulo Freire has philosophically pursued the axiological and historical context of dehumanization (Freire 1993):

Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.

             Freire discusses a great humanistic task of the oppressed to liberate themselves and their oppressors. The oppressors “cannot find the power the strength to liberate the oppressed or themselves”. The false charity of the oppressors is only used to continue the oppression. The unjust social order that arises manifests itself as the dispensers of false generosity “become desperate at the slightest threat to its source”. Freire also give an assessment that “They will not gain this liberation by chance but through the praxis of their quest for it, through their recognition of the necessity to fight for it.” (Freire 1993).

            An emerging concept that is integrated with dehumanization is deindividuation. “Deindividuation theory is a social psychological account of the individual in the crowd. Deindividuation is a psychological state of decreased self-evaluation, causing anti-normative and disinhibited behavior.” (Postmes 2001). This theory is related to anomie in degree. A historical briefing will help clarify its role which is emergent without a large amount of empirical study.

            Gustave Le Bon 1895-1995 wrote in his book “The Crowd” of how an individual in a crowd becomes psychological transformed. Le bon posits a “psychological crowd.” Within this dimension the collective mind takes control of the individual.  Anonymity, suggestibility, and contagion contribute to this transformation. This individual is irrational, fickle, and suggestible. The submerged person is capable of being a mindless puppet controlled by the leader, and performing any act whether heroic or atrocious. Le bon’s theory has been criticized as being a cross between psychology and politics (Nye 1975).

            Social psychology revisited Le Bon’s work in the 1950s. The unaccountability of pertaining to a crowd was considered a consequence of reduced inner restraints and increasing behavior that is inhibited. Other contextual factors were also incorporated as reductions of responsibility, arousal, sensory overload, a lack of contextual structure or predictability, and altered consciousness due to drugs or alcohol (Zimbardo 1969).

            Deindividuation theory also states that the loss of personal identity is not replaced by a collective mind that guides one’s action. Postmes writes that “the loss of individuality leads to a total loss of control, and releases a person from internalized moral restraints to produce emotional, impulsive, irrational, regressive and intense behavior.” (Postmes 2001).

            In the 1980s self-awareness has become one of the underpinnings of submergence in the group as the support for deindividuation. This replaced the feature of anonymity and accountability in the group. Self-awareness is directed to one being the object of one’s attention (Diener 1980, Prentice-Dunn & Rogers 1982). The synthesis of all historical and contemporary theories concur that deindividuation brings about anti-normative and disinhibited behavior (Postmes & Spears 1998).

            The current diagnostics of deindividuation theory are not closed or will ever be. In lieu the theory sheds increasing light on the manipulation of behavior and the killing off of conscience. "Classical and contemporary views agree, however, on the main thrust of the deindividuation hypothesis: The psychological state of deindividuation brings about anti-normative and disinhibited behavior. "(Postmes & Spears, 1998).


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