Dehumanising Identity in a Globalised World

Photo by  Jadon Kelly

Photo by Jadon Kelly

In a world troubled by seemingly intractable and overwhelming challenges, virtually every global, national, and regional conflict is organised around group-based difference. The practice of “othering” supports territorial disputes, sectarian violence, military conflict, the spread of disease, hunger and food insecurity, and even climate change. How can we understand this trend and do we have the tools to counter it?  

Former US President Barack Obama explains the concept of “othering” in a 2016 interview with The Atlantic:  

 “I believe that overall, humanity has become less violent, more tolerant, healthier, better fed, more empathetic, more able to manage difference. But it’s hugely uneven. And what has been clear throughout the 20th and 21st centuries is that the progress we make in social order and taming our baser impulses and steadying our fears can be reversed very quickly. Social order starts breaking down if people are under profound stress. Then the default position is tribe—us/them, a hostility toward the unfamiliar or the unknown.” 

“Right now, across the globe, you’re seeing places that are undergoing severe stress because of globalization, because of the collision of cultures brought about by the Internet and social media, because of scarcities—some of which will be attributable to climate change over the next several decades—because of population growth. And in those places, the default position for a lot of folks is to organize tightly in the tribe and to push back or strike out against those who are different.”

This attitude is particularly true in the face of economic adversity and societal change.

 A 2016 poll conducted by GlobeScan shows how across 20,000 people in 18 countries, ‘more than half (51%) see themselves more as global citizens than citizens of their country’, against 43% who identify nationally. For people belonging in emerging countries, the poll shows the opposite trend.

The tipping point for this was the 2009 financial crash which hit developed economies harder than others. It would make sense for the economic crisis to promote insularity and a retreat from global identity.

Even more thought-provoking data: Germany saw a decline in ‘global feelings’. Just 30% of those polled identify first as ‘global’ rather than German citizens which was the lowest percentage that GlobeScan has recorded since 2001. That may have something to do with Europe’s ongoing migration crisis. GlobeScan asked the subjects on their views on intermarriage, immigration, and specifically, the Syrian refugee crisis. Of the Germans surveyed, only 34% said they approve of marriage between people of different backgrounds.

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Data from a 2017 PewResearch analysis shows how these sentiments translate in the growingly anxious European population. The recent surge of refugees into Europe has featured prominently in the anti-immigrant rhetoric of right-wing parties across the continent and in the heated debate over the UK’s decision to exit the European Union. At the same time, attacks in Paris and Brussels have fueled public fears about terrorism. As the poll shows, the refugee crisis and the threat of terrorism are very much related to one another in the minds of many Europeans. In 8 of the 10 European nations surveyed, more than half believe that incoming refugees increase the likelihood of terrorism in their country. Yet, terrorism is not the only concern people have about refugees. Many are also worried that they will be an economic burden. More than half in 5 nations say refugees will take away jobs and social benefits. Hungarians, Poles, Greeks, Italians and French identify this as their greatest concern. 

For some Europeans, negative attitudes toward Muslims are tied to a belief that Muslims do not wish to participate in broader society. In every country polled, the dominant view is that Muslims want to be distinct from the rest of society rather than adopt the nation’s customs and way of life. More than 6 in 10 hold this view in Greece, Hungary, Spain, Italy and Germany. This belief is particularly consequential, given how language, customs and traditions are fundamentally tied to national identity.

When societies experience big and rapid change, a frequent response is for people to narrowly define who qualifies as a full member of society. ‘Othering’ is not about liking or disliking someone. It is based on the conscious or unconscious assumption that a certain identified group pose a threat to the favoured group. It is largely driven by politicians and the media, as opposed to personal contact. Overwhelmingly, people don’t know those they are ‘othering’. For example, 15 EU countries that were surveyed showed that an average of 63% knew little to nothing about Islam and its practices.

Of course, the attributes of who gets defined as ‘other’ differs from place to place, and can be based upon race, religion, nationality or language. It is not these attributes themselves that are the problem, but how they are made salient or manipulated. While anxiety over change may be a product of our subconscious biases, its real-life implications and translation into ‘othering’ are dangerous, especially when the sentiment is leveraged by government officials or media corporations. The worrying aspect of ‘othering ‘is its translation into societal power structure: how it is used to divide and dehumanise groups, and capture and reshape government and institutions.

David Smith, author of Less Than Human, explains that dehumanisation is the psychological process of demonising the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment. Dehumanising means having less guilt to harm a group of people, but it goes against our wiring as members of a social species to actually harm, kill, torture, or degrade other humans. Dehumanisation is a way of subverting those inhibitions. Once we start framing the other side as morally inferior, less-than, or even dangerous, the conflict becomes catered to the “Us vs. Them” mentality. This can fuel innumerous acts of discrimination, hatred, violence. When the attitude grows even more extreme, a zero-sum thinking develops as parties come to believe that they must either secure their own victory or face defeat.  History has shown us that this brings out the worst in human behaviour, including the righteous belief to commit war crimes, human rights violations and genocide.

Dehumanising often starts with language. 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. In 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.

It’s frightening to think about how fears and perceptions of threat can be manipulated to justify ill-treatment and violence against certain people. Even more so when we witness so many elected officials playing to an audience, as they understand that adding fuel to the fire has political benefits. In recent times, dehumanisation is correlated with support for strict immigration policies such as the so-called Muslim Ban in the United States, as well as the constant reference to immigrants being called “aliens”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, data also shows that blatant dehumanisation of Muslims and Mexican immigrants was strongly correlated with support for Donald Trump. In the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Professors Kteily and Bruneau concluded that the data is “consistent with the idea that support for some of the Republican candidates (and Trump in particular) comes not despite their dehumanising rhetoric but in part because of it.” Furthermore, a team from the University of North Texas recently produced a study that showed a 226% increase in reported hate incidents in counties that hosted a 2016 Trump campaign rally over comparable counties that did not host such a rally.

There is more bad news. In the recent mass shooting in a Texan shopping centre in El Paso, the shooter told the police that he was targeting Mexicans. According to the FBI, the attack comes amid a five-year upward trend in reported hate crimes in the United States. The spike is marked by shocking killings, including the deaths of 9 members of a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, 49 people killed at a Latino gay nightclub called “Pulse” in Orlando in 2016, a counter protest at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October 2018 that left 11 worshippers killed during Shabbat service.

What can we do to counter these dangerous trends? The rhetoric we use and the stories we tell are not necessarily about facts but circle around values, fears and group identity. Many of the hate crimes are highly influenced by public discourse, leadership and the media which perpetuate fear and bring about a collective sense of anxiety about other people. As it is socially and culturally constructed, we have the power to re-shape the discourse.

John Powell, Director of UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute, explained that sharing our survival story by reaching out, empathising and expanding the boundaries of our “circle of human concern” is a powerful narrative. He goes on to question who “we” are and what people are included. For too long, “we” only included a small minority and excluded groups like indigenous peoples, blacks, immigrants, people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ community, and others. Powell argued that stories about who “we” are remain critical to reimagining a more inclusive whole. He goes on to say that socially, “we” stories have been exclusionary, highlighting only the triumphs and suffering of a small group, with everyone else lumped into the secondary role of “other.”[1]

Canada is a particularly positive example of inclusiveness. While the country is far from perfect, Canada has institutionally reminded its multi-racial, multi-ethnic population to “Keep your identity” and use religion and ethnic heritages to connect with one another. As a result, the right-wing supporters in the country has yet to receive more than 10% support in its rhetoric.  We cannot deny existential anxieties in the human condition. These anxieties can be moved into directions of fear and anger or toward empathy and collective solidarity. In periods of turbulent upheaval and instability, demagogue cause may have greater power, but whether a society falls victim to it depends upon the choices of political leaders and the stories they tell.