Dehumanization Part 2

Dehumanization is actually an extension of a less intense process of developing an "enemy image" of the opponent. During the course of protracted conflict, feelings of angerfear, and distrust shape the way that the parties perceive each other. Adversarial attitudes and perceptions develop and parties begin to attribute negative traits to their opponent. They may come to view the opponent as an evil enemy, deficient in moral virtue, or as a dangerous, warlike monster.

An enemy image is a negative stereotype through which the opposing group is viewed as evil, in contrast to one's own side, which is seen as good. Such images can stem from a desire for group identity and a need to contrast the distinctive attributes and virtues of one's own group with the vices of the "outside" group.[1] In some cases, evil-ruler enemy images form. While ordinary group members are regarded as neutral, or perhaps even innocent, their leaders are viewed as hideous monsters.[2]

Enemy images are usually black and white. The negative actions of one's opponent are thought to reflect their fundamental evil nature, traits, or motives.[3] One's own faults, as well as the values and motivations behind the actions of one's opponent, are usually discounted, denied, or ignored. It becomes difficult to empathize or see where one's opponent is coming from. Meaningful communication is unlikely, and it becomes difficult to perceive any common ground.

Once formed, enemy images tend to resist change, and serve to perpetuate and intensify the conflict. Because the adversary has come to be viewed as a "diabolical enemy," the conflict is framed as a war between good and evil.[4] Once the parties have framed the conflict in this way, their positions become more rigid. In some cases, zero-sum thinking develops as parties come to believe that they must either secure their own victory, or face defeat. New goals to punish or destroy the opponent arise, and in some cases more militant leadership comes into power.

Enemy images are accentuated, according to psychologists, by the process of "projection," in which people "project" their own faults onto their opponents. This means that people or groups who tend to be aggressive or selfish are likely to attribute those traits to their opponents, but not to themselves. This improves one's own self-image and increases group cohesion, but it also escalates the conflict and makes it easier to dehumanize the other side.

Deindividuation facilitates dehumanization as well. This is the psychological process whereby a person is seen as a member of a category or group rather than as an individual. Because people who are deindividuated seem less than fully human, they are viewed as less protected by social norms against aggression than those who are individuated.[5] It then becomes easier to rationalize contentious moves or severe actions taken against one's opponents.

Dangers of Dehumanization

While deindividuation and the formation of enemy images are very common, they form a dangerous process that becomes especially damaging when it reaches the level of dehumanization.

Once certain groups are stigmatized as evil, morally inferior, and not fully human, the persecution of those groups becomes more psychologically acceptable. Restraints against aggression and violence begin to disappear. Not surprisingly, dehumanization increases the likelihood of violence and may cause a conflict to escalate out of control. Once a violence break over has occurred, it may seem even more acceptable for people to do things that they would have regarded as morally unthinkable before.

Parties may come to believe that destruction of the other side is necessary, and pursue an overwhelming victory that will cause one's opponent to simply disappear. This sort of into-the-sea framing can cause lasting damage to relationships between the conflicting parties, making it more difficult to solve their underlying problems and leading to the loss of more innocent lives.

Indeed, dehumanization often paves the way for human rights violationswar crimes, and genocide. For example, in WWII, the dehumanization of the Jews ultimately led to the destruction of millions of people.[6] Similar atrocities have occurred in Rwanda, Cambodia, and the former Yugoslavia.

It is thought that the psychological process of dehumanization might be mitigated or reversed through humanization efforts, the development of empathy, the establishment of personal relationships between conflicting parties, and the pursuit of common goals.


[1] Janice Gross Stein, "Image, Identity and Conflict Resolution," in Managing Global Chaos: Sources of and Responses to International Conflict, eds. Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela R. Aall. (Herndon, VA: USIP Press, 1996), 94.

[2] Jeffrey Z. Rubin and Dean G. Pruitt. Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement, 2nd Edition. (New York: McGraw Hill College Division, 1994), 99.

[3] Ibid., 103.

[4] Ibid., 100.

[5] Ibid., 104.

[6] Opotow, "Drawing the Line," 349.

By Michelle Maise

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Michelle Maiese is a graduate student of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder and is a part of the research staff at the Conflict Research Consortium. Michelle Maiese is a contributor to Beyond Intractability which is an online “encyclopedia” compiling easy-to-understand essays on almost 400 topics which explain the dynamics of conflict along with available options for promoting more constructive approaches.