In-Groups and Out-Groups

The term "out-group" refers to anyone who is not in your own group. "Your group" can be any salient identity group: your nationality, your ethnicity, your race, your religion. In conflicts between groups of people, disputants usually view people outside their own group as less good, or in the case of the opposing group, as really bad. The term "enemy image" refers to the same thing. The opposing group is seen as the "enemy," who is inferior to one's own group in many ways.

For example, the enemy may be seen as stupid, selfish, deceitful, aggressive, hostile, or even evil. This perception remains, even if members of the out-group do nothing more selfish, deceitful, aggressive, or evil than do members of one's own group. However, when they are engaged in a serious conflict, people will normally project their own negative traits onto the other side, ignoring their own shortcomings or misdeeds, while emphasizing the same in the other.

Enemy images also involve "scapegoating." It is common for each side to decide that it is the other side (the "enemy") that is the source of all their problems. If only the enemy could be vanquished or eliminated, then those problems would go away.

The extreme form of this tendency is dehumanization, in which members of the opposing group are considered to be less than human. While such a view is unthinkable when people are not involved in a serious conflict, it is absolutely necessary to dehumanize an opponent if one intends to go to war against them. Otherwise, it becomes psychologically very difficult to kill people on the other side. If one is convinced that the other side is bent on one's own destruction, and is less human than one's own group, it is much easier to engage in war, human rights violations, or genocide against the opponent.

A grotesque example of this dehumanization was the Rwandan genocide. As described in a report from the U.S. Institute of Peace:[1]

"An organized campaign of violence was carried out, during which the Tutsi were referred to as "cockroaches" and "the enemy," and Rwandan radio broadcasters exhorted every Hutu to kill Tutsi, complaining that "graves are still only half full." In less than four months, between 500,000 and a million people were killed."[2]

Additional insights into enemy images are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Avoiding or Reversing Enemy Images

The best (perhaps the only) way to avoid enemy images is to keep the parties together, trying to work out their problems. In the case of intractable conflict, this rarely, if ever, happens. Once a conflict becomes escalated and polarized, enemy images are bound to be formed.

But they can be countered. Stereotype-breaking actions or de-escalating gestures are actions that one party can take to prove to their opponents that they are better in character than the enemy image suggests. For example, one party may visit the opponent personally, and be more reasonable, friendly, agreeable, or helpful than the opponent expected. When this happens, disputants are likely to revise their enemy image at least a little, concluding that some members of the opposition are reasonable people, or even that the opponents, in general, are more reasonable than they thought they were.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's first trip to Jerusalem was such an action. No one in Israel thought he would come at all, and when he did, he was much more reasonable and personable than most Israelis had expected. The same was true of the Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev's first visit to the United States. Gorbachev was very warm and friendly toward the American people, and they were captivated by him. This effectively broke down many people's stereotypes of Russians as hostile, cold, and aggressive, and replaced those images with one that was much more friendly and open.

Such overtures can be made by ordinary people too; you do not have to be a world leader to break down enemy images among the people with whom you come into contact. You must simply determine what the other side thinks of you or expects of you, and then do the opposite. If they expect you to be closed to new ideas, then express an interest in listening to new approaches to the problem. If they expect you to be selfish and aggressive, take a nonassertive stance and make a small concession that demonstrates good will and a willingness to cooperate with the other side (see de-escalation). The goal is to contradict the negative images that people usually have of their opponents, and to begin to replace these negative images with more positive ones.

Guy Burgess is a Founder and Co-Director of the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and has been working in the conflict resolution field, as a scholar and a practitioner, since 1979. His primary interests involve the study and management of intractable conflicts, public policy dispute resolution, and the dissemination of conflict resolution knowledge over the Internet. He is one of the primary authors and creators of the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, and is the Co-Director of CRInfo -- the Conflict Resolution Information Source. Dr. Burgess has edited and authored a number of books and articles, the most recent being The Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution (with Heidi Burgess, ABC-Clio 1999).