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According to Baron and Richardson (1994), dehumanization occurs when an individual views another person in negative ways, which leads to the belief that they are undeserving of the respect and kindness usually afforded to another person. It is as if that individual is compared to being nonhuman (Haslam, Kashima, Loughnan, Shi, & Suitner 2008). In comparing groups under the same situation, Esses, Veenvliet, Hodson, and Mihic (2008) state that, for example, if group B is seen as failing to uphold values belonging to group A, then group B must be immoral and less than human. This results in group B being less deserving of humane treatment. The fate of the members of group B is less relevant to group A, and their interests may be ignored. The implication is then that dehumanization of a target increases aggressive behavior because dehumanized group members have no moral standards applied to them (Castano & Giner-Sorolla, 2006). Bandura (2002) adds that strangers can be more easily depersonalized than acquaintances because of a lack of moral obligation to try and comprehend a stranger.
There are three different ways in which people are dehumanized. Haslam, et al. (2008) points out that people can be compared to animals, in which uniquely human attributes are denied and the person is described as being coarse, uncultured, amoral, irrational, and childlike. Bandura (2002) adds that attributing demonic or bestial qualities to a person also makes them less than human. A second way in which people are dehumanized is by comparing a person to a machine (i.e., "mechanistic dehumanization"), in which human attributes are removed, and the person is perceived to be unfeeling, cold, passive, rigid, and lacking individuality (Haslam, et al., 2008). By doing this, the person is denied of emotionality and desires (Haslam, et al., 2008). Controlling or manipulative interpersonal relationships have been identified as one antecedent of mechanistic dehumanization (Moller & Deci, 2010).
The third way that a person can be dehumanized is by perceiving the other person as being the enemy. Esses, et al. (2008) state that the enemy is constructed to exemplify manipulation and is described as being opportunistic, evil, immoral, and motivated by greed. The enemy is shown to take advantage of the weak, which in turn justifies any action taken against the enemy (Esses, et al., 2008). Esses, et al. (2008) go on to describe the barbarian image, which includes the perceptions of a ruthless, crude, and unsophisticated individual that is willing to cheat to reach glory.
The consequence of constructing these dehumanizing forms is the inequality that is brought on as a result. It can be seen that those who support the existence of social dominance view the world as a competitive place where only the toughest survive and are willing to discriminate against other groups in order to reach or uphold group dominance. What this does is legitimize entitlement and the dehumanization of others (Esses, et al., 2008).
In order to combat dehumanization, it is essential to do the opposite of what it takes to instill dehumanization. Moshman (2007) states that in dehumanization, individuals are interpreted as containing elements of a subhuman, nonhuman, or anti-human group. In order to not view others in those terms, then the two groups must unite and be intimate with one another so as to see the humanistic qualities that each possess. The reason for this is because it is difficult to mistreat humanized people without risking personal distress (Bandura, 2002).
Another way to counteract possible conflict is to keep both groups separate. Moshman (2007) states that there is no need to try to dehumanize another group provided that that group stays in one location, and the other group stays in another. The only problem with this suggestion is that no matter how hard it can be tried, there is bound to be trouble. This is because human groups often get in each other’s way and fail to meet each other’s expectations (Moshman, 2007).
Example / Application - Real-Life
The situation in Abu Ghraib left a black mark in the history of the United States. While there have existed cases like it, the Abu Ghraib scandal became a national story because of the implications that the United States was condoning the use of torture to maintain control of the prison. Zimbardo (2008) states that the military police (MPs) at Abu Ghraib placed bags over the prisoner’s heads, which relegated them to being anonymous. The prisoners were treated as strangers, which resulted in the lack or moral obligation to care for the prisoners. Zimbardo (2008) also pointed out that the detainees were forced to suffer through abusive acts, of which include the following: physical violence, forcing the male detainees to masturbate on camera, putting dog collars on detainees, using military dogs to frighten detainees, forcibly arranging naked male detainees into piles, obligating the men to wear women’s pink panties either as underwear or as caps, and threatening male and female detainees with rape (Zimbardo, 2008). The MPs forced the prisoners to internalize the meaning of being an animal because the prisoners were pushed to act as if they were amoral, uncultured, and irrational. Even Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, believed that the detainees in Abu Ghraib should be treated “like dogs” (Zimbardo, 2008). To make matters worst, the MPs took pictures of dead prisoners to keep as souvenirs and trophies of accomplishment (Zimbardo, 2008) The MPs in Abu Ghraib destroyed whatever sense of humanity the detainees had by making them non-human. It was implanted in the minds of the MPs that the detainees had no moral standards applied to them, so it became easier to aggress against them.
Dehumanization could not have been used to prevent violent behavior because it was the catalyst that potentially leads to violence. Now, could there have been an absence of dehumanization within the MPs? No, because as Zimbardo (2008) explains, the conditions of the prison were unbearable, with the MPs working 12 hour shifts in the hot weather of Iraq. The facilities were not maintained, there were ongoing shootings everyday, and there was utter chaos with the lack of both organization and leadership (Zimbardo, 2008). The MPs were in a foreign land where they were not given instruction on how to deal with running the prison. Eventually, the MPs were going to make an enemy out of someone. It was just easier to pick on the incarcerated that they had.
Example / Application - Columbine
The Columbine tragedy was one of the worst school shootings in American history. One of the underlying factors was that Eric Harris had a grand superiority complex, once stating that he felt like God (Toppo, 2009, para.13 and 22). So, not only did he not see the victims as humans, but Harris saw himself as superior to everyone. He did not believe that the victims deserved to live because he was, in his eyes, the ultimate decider of their fate. It is evident that Harris dehumanized the victims that he attacked and killed because he assumed the role of containing the highest moral standard, while his victims had no moral values. It became easier for him to take out his aggression on those that he perceived to not have his morality. There are three instances where this holds to be true. Toppo (2009, para. 2) reported that Harris and Klebold bragged about picking on freshmen and fags. During the shooting, Harris and Klebold taunted Isaiah Shoels with derogatory racial comments before killing him (Columbine High School massacre, n.d., para 28). Valeen Schnurr was shot when she vowed her belief in God (Chen, 2009, para. 13).
Harris and Klebold also viewed their victims as non human, with it seeming as if the two were playing a video game. When John Savage, an acquaintance of Klebold, asked Harris and Klebold what they were doing, Klebold responded by saying that they were just killing people (Columbine High School massacre, n.d., para. 32). James (2009, para. 23) stated that Harris and Klebold randomly fired at students, to the point where they grew bored of the situation. This got to the point where Klebold joked that they should have started knifing people because it would be more fun (Columbine High School massacre, n.d., para. 34). Toppo (2009, para. 42) revealed that Harris and Klebold’s original plan was to pick off survivors with their weapons who had survived the bomb explosion of the building. All the previous examples point out that Harris and Klebold did not see the humanity in their victims. The victims were the (non human) instrument to Harris’ and Klebold’s road to infamy. Dehumanization could not have been used to prevent this tragedy.
Bandura, A. (2002). Selective moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency. Journal of Moral Education, 31(2), 101-119. doi:10.1080/0305724022014322.
Baron, R.A. & Richardson, D.R. (1994). Human Aggression. United States: Plenum Publishing Corporation.
Castano, E., & Giner-Sorolla, R. (2006). Not quite human: Infrahumanization in response to collective responsibility for intergroup killing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 804-818. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1684.
Chen, S. (2009). Debunking the myths of Columbine, 10 years later. Retrieved May 3, 2010 from cnn.com: http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/04/20/columbine.myths/
Columbine High School massacre. (n.d.). Retrieved May 3, 2010 from wikipedia.com: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbine_High_School_massacre
Esses, V., Veenvliet, S., Hodson, G., & Mihic, L. (2008). Justice, morality, and the dehumanization of refugees. Social Justice Research, 21(1), 4-25. doi:10.1007/s11211-007-0058-4.
Haslam, N., Kashima, Y., Loughnan, S., Shi, J., & Suitner, C. (2008). Subhuman, inhuman, and superhuman: Contrasting humans with nonhumans in three cultures. Social Cognition, 26(2), 248-258. doi:10.1521/soco.2008.26.2.248.
James, S.D. (2009). Surviving Columbine: what we got wrong. Retrieved May 3, 2010 from abcnews.go.com: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/MindMoodNews/story?id=7363898&page=1
Moller, A. C., & Deci, E. L. (2010). Interpersonal control, dehumanization, and violence: A self-determination theory perspective. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 13, 41-53.
Moshman, D. (2007). Us and them: Identity and genocide. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 7(2), 115-135. Retrieved from PsycINFO database.
Toppo, G. (2009). 10 years later, the real story behind Columbine. Retrieved May 3, 2010 from usatoday.com: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-04-13-columbine-myths_N.htm
Zimbardo, P. (2008). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. United States: Random House Publishing Group.
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