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Monday, June 4, 2007

PSYCHOLOGY: Social psychology of evil

PSYCHOLOGY: Social psychology of evil

—Humair Hashmi

Dehumanisation is a psychological process of denuding others of their human qualities and casting them into inanimate modes, thus facilitating and justifying the process of use of brute force over them

Psychologists Smelser and others have described various situations, where acts performed by individuals or groups may be described as evil acts — for instance, situations in which a group exercises power over others when it is not legitimately empowered to do so. When that group exceeds the limits of power, and when its exercise of power becomes destructive for a large group of people or society in general, it becomes an evil act. Smelser’s description of evil neatly fits in with what has been, and is still, happening in our country and other parts of the globe. All socially conscious people must raise their voice of protest and must join hands to fight and curb such expression of evil.

Various psychological mechanisms of expression, acceptance, and support of evil have been observed and studied by social psychologist for the last fifty years or so. It would be worthwhile to note them here.

One such mechanism is what psychologists Bandura, Underwood, and Fromson have called “dehumanisation”. When others, particularly the out-group, are perceived and portrayed as devoid of feelings, sentiments, emotions, thoughts, and ideals, then such reactions are considered to be acts that dehumanise others. Thus by robbing other people of their humanity, it becomes easy to consider and treat them as “objects”, to be used, misused, or/and discarded, thus facilitating evil. Dehumanisation therefore is a psychological process of denuding others of their human qualities and casting them into inanimate modes, thus facilitating and justifying the process of use of brute force over them.

This process is frequently used in jails, where the inmates become numbers, are called by numbers rather than by names, and treated as objects rather than humans. A host of psychologists including Zimbardo and Gerrig have reported how this process of dehumanisation is carried out in some prisons in the United States. The process has also been dramatically illustrated and exposed by some psychiatrists belonging to the Anti — Psychiatry Movement.

Particular mention must be made in this regard of the pioneering work of Erving Goffman, a Canadian sociologist who worked in a mental asylum for a considerable period and based upon his observations showed that mental asylum adopted the process of turning a person into a nameless object. He describes how a person, soon as he enters an asylum, is separated from others. How his personal belongings such as clothes, watches, jewellery etc are taken away form him. And how he is not supposed to do anything, even eat or visit the toilet of his own will, but according to the will and persuasion of those in command. The inmate’s total will and ego are thus subjected to the commands of others.

This process, Goffman argues, turns the person from a human being into an object, easy to control and manipulate. It thus allows the jail authorities to denude a person of his human qualities, casting him into an inanimate mode and facilitating committing evil acts against him.

Another American psychologist D L Rosenhan wrote a similar account of an insider’s views of mental institutions. He, along with other people, joined a group of eight researchers, three females and five males, who approached some twelve mental asylums across the USA, and reported to the institutions that they hear voices. Apart from this false reporting, the researchers truthfully related all facts about themselves and their lives. Based upon these data the hospital staff categorised them as suffering from serious mental diseases; admitted them in hospitals and initiated the process of treatment of these “patients”.

This process of “treatment” started with what clinical psychologists call labelling, or more precisely re-labelling: attaching a label to a person reduces him from the place he occupies as a human being, and relegates him into a lower place or an object, in this case the label was schizophrenia. We use such terms frequently in our daily lives; “pagal”, “kafir”, “hippie”, etc, all descriptions of persons that reduce them to lower-than-human-status, thus dehumanising them. Some individuals or groups may adopt this process of labelling as a means for defaming and dehumanising other individuals, groups, and even some societies, thus targeting them for evil acts.

A somewhat different technique of dehumanisation is what is termed “compartmentalisation”: that is separating a person, a group or a society from human qualities and looking at them in a narrow, compartmentalised manner. Pigeonholing people, groups and societies only on the basis of negative traits is the technique of compartmentalisation. It helps to separate others from their positive aspects, particularly their humanity, and the process helps the protagonist to perceive and view others only in a dehumanised manner. Thus compartmentalisation is another technique of dehumanisation.

Diffusion is another technique facilitating dehumanisation. The process involves the socially visible individuals or groups such as the leaders, role models or the upper classes, adopting a dehumanised stance towards others and then through various channels of communication, spreading this stance towards other individuals, groups and classes in a society. Diffusion can best be understood as the “trickle-down effect” of an idea, an attitude, or a pattern of behaviour of the socially visible individuals or groups.

The mass-base for it may also be achieved by what is described as the “trickle-across effect”, when derogatory terms and expressions for an individual, a group or a society may be made a part and parcel of the popular vocabulary by the repeated diffusion process. The derogatory description of Jews in Germany in the nineteen thirties and forties; description and treatment of the progressives and the blacks in the USA in the fifties and sixties; the treatment meted out to the dissenters in the Peoples Republic of China during the so-called Cultural Revolution in the seventies and eighties; and the description of all Muslims across the globe as fundamentalists in the nineties and later, are all examples of the diffusion process resulting in the dehumanisation of individuals, groups, and societies.

The diffusion process creates general acceptance and thus provides a basis for guilt-free support of evil.

Humair Hashmi is a consulting psychologist who teaches at Imperial College Lahore


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