In ancient Greece, dehumanization of the enemy, especially during times of conflict, was often used as a method of crowd control.
The partition of India in 1947 sowed seeds of distrust and skepticism among Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and other minorities.
American slavery, most notably in the 19th and 20th century, labeled Black people as “subhuman” in order to justify their subjugation.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Asians, blamed for the spread of the virus, became targets of verbal and physical violence.
Today, millions of innocent Palestinians are categorized the same as terrorists and their deaths are treated as a necessity by the Israeli government and the media.
Examples of dehumanization are frequently found throughout history, especially in times of war or intense rivalry. They show how intense loyalty towards the group we identify with influences our perceptions of others.
Dehumanization is the psychological process in which an individual or group views their opponent as inferior and therefore undeserving of their empathy or sympathy. Prolonged conflict develops feelings of anger, mistrust and fear within a population towards another. The process of dehumanization can originate from a strong sense of collective pride towards an identity and the need to establish one’s own group as “virtuous” while assuming that the outsiders act in vice. Perpetual conflict and aggression from one party can also negatively affect the other in a manner where they develop inferiority towards their identity.
Amid systems of corruption and conflict, the weaponization of collective identity is used to persuade public opinion against the “out-group.” A person’s self-esteem and loyalty are often tied to the community they feel a sense of belonging to, and when a person feels as though they belong somewhere, they try to maintain that status and feeling for as long as possible. In some situations, they become distrustful of people outside of their inner circle and view them as inferior. For example, this can be an issue of monetary status between the wealthy and poor or an interaction between a person of privilege and a person of none.
Sure, if we look back on the time of our ancestors, viewing an outsider with distrust was a survival technique to maintain resources that would have otherwise been scarce or limited. Typically, we dehumanize the people that serve as a threat to our well-being or values but it can also simply serve as an excuse to air our biases against an individual or a group.
According to the Social Identity Theory, individuals apply their self-worth and loyalty to the communities to which they belong. Social identity is categorical. We often categorize people into two groups: one which we identify with and one with which we do not. This categorization of an “in-group” and an “out-group” creates a hierarchy in which one feels as though their own group is superior and always morally right. But these beliefs are precarious because they develop an unsympathetic understanding of anyone who falls in the “out-group.”
In extreme cases, this rationale leads to the dehumanization of people with whom we are in conflict to the point that they are viewed as unworthy of being understood from their perspective. Their inability to relate to us alienates them. As a result, dehumanization feels almost necessary in times of war in order to legitimize violence being subjected against the other. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Canadian Government nearly eradicated the culture, heritage and identity of Indigenous peoples through forced assimilation in residential schools. The idea that Indigenous peoples could not care for their land or maintain its resources without aid from settlers was simply an excuse to annex Indigenous claims to the land and push the Western agenda.
People who are affected by processes of dehumanization can also experience feelings of inferiority to their own identity, especially if they are situated in an environment where they are minorities. In the 1940s, psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark conducted a social experiment called the Doll Test which showed that Black children negatively viewed themselves as a result of growing up in a segregated and anti-Black environment. In this test, the participating children were given two dolls to reference. Both dolls were identical in every way, except for colour. The children were then asked a series of questions, ranging from, “Give me the doll you like the best” to “Give me the doll that looks bad.” The results of the experiment found that many of the Black children favoured the white doll.
The Doll Test is a demonstration of the consequences of racial segregation. Though this study was conducted almost 80 years ago, it still holds a lot of relevance for our world which is so influenced by Western beliefs and social standards even today.
Since the Clarks’ experiment, there have been many recreations of the Doll Test with children of other ethnicities and countries. All of them found that children are shaped by their environment, especially when their society is heavily influenced by colonial history. In 2022, CNA Insider published a video in which children of different ethnicities, aged 4-6, were given 3 dolls, identical except for colour, to reference. At one point, they were asked, “Which doll do you want to be like the most?”
Every child pointed at the white doll. One girl even commented, “I want to be born beige colour.”
Social experiments like the Doll Test show how racial prejudice and discrimination can instill a sense of inferiority in children when they do not conform or live up to Western standards.
Once certain groups are established as the enemy, a person’s pre-conceptualized understanding of another’s group identity becomes a difficult structure to change. When processes of dehumanization are in effect, the image of the enemy can appear unequivocal — people either fall within the scope of one’s definition of morality or they do not. It can endorse a continuous cycle which influences human rights violations, genocide, war crimes and attacks against the “enemy.”
However, the psychological process of dehumanization can be reversed through active efforts to consciously understand one another and establish personal relationships beyond conflict.