The Root Of All Cruelty?
Dehumanisation has the function of decommissioning our moral sentiments by excluding others from our circle of moral obligations. We can then kill, oppress, and enslave them with impunity. Taking the life of a dehumanised person becomes of no greater consequence than crushing an insect under one’s boot. Examples include Jews in the eyes of Nazis that finally led to the Holocaust, Tutsis in the eyes of Hutus in the Rwandan genocide, and presently, the Rohingyas in the eyes of the Buddhist Burmese. Dehumanisation is actually an extension of a less intense process of developing an “enemy image” of the opponent. It is not uncommon that initial cultural and political differences are exploited by extreme elements or politicians. These adversarial attitudes and perceptions develop, and parties begin to attribute negative traits to their opponents. They may come to view the opponent as an evil enemy, deficient in moral virtue, or as dangerous and warlike. 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. At times, laws are even promulgated to justifiably disadvantage or marginalise political or cultural opponents. New goals to punish or destroy the opponent arise, and protracted conflict strains relationships and makes it difficult for parties to recognise that they are part of a shared human community. The more severe the conflict, the more the psychological distance between groups will widen. Eventually, this can result in moral exclusion. During the course of protracted conflict, feelings of anger, fear, and distrust shape the way that the parties perceive each other. Dehumanisation often paves the way for human rights violations, war crimes, and genocide. Credit: Michelle Maiese.
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