Archive for December 2008

Psychology of dehumanizing the vulnerable

CNN recently posted an article of a study done by Harvard’s psychiatrist Robert Lifton on the mass psychology of people made to impose suffering on a targeted population.

Among the findings is that the atmosphere leading to such situations usually involves society reeling from actual or perceived political and economic turmoil, a vulnerable population targeted for blame, and demogages promising that things will be better if that blamed population somehow disappears.

Lifton found that people involved in carrying out orders that impose suffering on a targeted population are ordinary people, who are manipulated into participating in the hardship-imposing scheme and who might otherwise think of themselves as incapable of harming others. Experts found, however, that it is actually easy to convince ordinary people to harm others, because many do not stop to consider what they are doing.

Planners use familiar tools to execute their plan. Group identity is one of the foundations of such plans. According to pscyhologist Ervin Staub, the world is divided into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Similarities in nationality, religion, race, etc. form a sense of ‘us.’ Those that are not like ‘us’ are ‘them.’

Moreover, Staub concludes that because “[p]eople tend to believe the world is a just place,” the targeted group “is seen as though they did something to deserve the suffering.”

This ‘us’ and ‘them’ polarization enables people to distance themselves from others, and ultimately to dehumanize them. According to the research, dehumanization is a powerful psychological tool used. “Dehumanization blurs your vision. You look at these people and you do not see them as human.”

As I was reading the above article, I couldn’t but consider its relevance to the current status of the undocumented immigrant population in this country. Although it is not fair to equate anti-immigrant sentiment with the atrocities analyzed in the study, I do see some similar features.

Many undocumented immigrants entered this country when the application of our laws was far more permissive than today. They came a long time ago, established families and ties to this country. Now that our laws are more stringent and their application more brutal, millions of families are devastated; kids are regularly separated from their parents, and spouses from each other. However, many current immigrants came in ways no different than millions of others whose descendents are lawful US citizens. Yet, they are often the scapegoats for troubles in the U.S. There are those who blame economic hardship on the undocumented population, demogages promising things will get better once those all of ‘them’ are deported, so that we, or ‘us,’ will live happily ever-after.

There ought to be a way to resolve the immigration crisis other than destroying happy families whose members are otherwise good people. Of course, the usual response is, “that is the law; we are only enforcing the law” but I believe that is not in itself a sufficient answer. Historically, many atrocities have been justified with such reasoning, e.g. the foot soldiers were only carrying out orders. Therefore, that is not always a complete justification. When suffering is imposed on otherwise good people who have not violated a moral code, the situation needs to be reassessed, even if the scheme imposing the suffering happens to fit the law at the time.

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