The psychology of hate: How we deny human beings their humanity

From slavery to genocide, society has shown a terrifying ability to disregard the personhood of others. Here's why:

One of the most amazing court cases you probably have never heard of had come down to this. Standing Bear, the reluctant chief of the Ponca tribe, rose on May 2, 1879, to address a packed audience in a Nebraska courtroom. At issue was the existence of a mind that many were unable to see.

Standing Bear’s journey to this courtroom had been excruciating. The U.S. government had decided several years earlier to force the 752 Ponca Native Americans off their lands along the fertile Niobrara River and move them to the desolate Indian Territory, in what is now northern Oklahoma. Standing Bear surrendered everything he owned, assembled his tribe, and began marching a six-hundred-mile “trail of tears.” If the walk didn’t kill them (as it did Standing Bear’s daughter), then the parched Indian Territory would. Left with meager provisions and fields of parched rock to farm, nearly a third of the Poncas died within the first year. This included Standing Bear’s son. As his son lay dying, Standing Bear promised to return his son’s bones to the tribe’s burial grounds so that his son could walk the afterlife with his ancestors, according to their religion. Desperate, Standing Bear decided to go home.

Carrying his son’s bones in a bag clutched to his chest, Standing Bear and twenty-seven others began their return in the dead of winter. Word spread of the group’s travel as they approached the Omaha Indian reservation, midway through their journey. The Omahas welcomed them with open arms, but U.S. officials welcomed them with open handcuffs. General George Crook was ordered by government officials to return the beleaguered Poncas to the Indian Territory.

Crook couldn’t bear the thought. “I’ve been forced many times by orders from Washington to do most inhuman things in dealings with the Indians,” he said, “but now I’m ordered to do a more cruel thing than ever before.” Crook was an honorable man who could no more disobey direct orders than he could fly, so instead he stalled, encouraging a newspaper editor from Omaha to enlist lawyers who would then sue General Crook (as the U.S. government’s representative) on Standing Bear’s behalf. The suit? To have the U.S. government recognize Standing Bear as a person, as a human being.

The case lasted several days, during which the government lawyers attempted to portray the Poncas as savages, more like thoughtless animals or unfeeling objects than rational and emotional human beings. Perceiving the Poncas as mindless, after all, is what had made it possible for officials to treat them as property under the law rather than as persons. This perception was clear from the government attorney’s opening question: he asked Standing Bear how many people he had led on his march. “I just wanted to see if he could count,” the attorney explained.

After several days of testimony, the trial drew to a close. Judge Elmer Dundy knew that Standing Bear wanted to address the audience in his own words, as was customary in Ponca tradition, but direct statements at the end of a trial were not allowed under U.S. jurisprudence. Respecting Native American tradition and violating his own, Judge Dundy called the bailiff to his desk, whispered that “the court is now adjourned” to secretly end the official proceedings, and then allowed Standing Bear to rise and address the court.

So it had come down to this. At about ten p.m., at the end of a very long day, Standing Bear rose. Illiterate, uneducated, and with no time to prepare an address, he stood silent for a minute to survey the room. Finally, he spoke: “I see a great many of you here. I think a great many are my friends.” Then he tried to reveal that he was, in fact, much more than a mindless savage. He explained his tribe’s difficulties in the Indian Territory, stated that he had never tried to hurt a white person, and described how he had taken several U.S. soldiers into his own home over the years and nursed them back to health. Then, in a stunning moment that channeled Shylock’s monologue from “The Merchant of Venice,” Standing Bear held out his hand. “This hand is not the color of yours. But if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man.”

Standing Bear was a man intelligent enough to lead his tribe along a six-hundred-mile journey in the dead of winter and back again, a man who felt love so deeply that he carried his son’s bones around his neck to fulfill a promise. Yet he found himself pleading with people from far-off places who had failed almost completely to see his mind and instead viewed him as a piece of mindless property. Facing those unable to recognize a sentient mind before their eyes, Standing Bear had been forced to show his to them.

Standing Bear’s case is an extreme example of a surprisingly common failing of our sixth sense. Like closing your eyes and then concluding that nothing exists, failing to engage your ability to reason about the mind of another person not only leads to indifference about others, it can also lead to the sense that others are relatively mindless. Most extreme examples typically involve some kind of hatred or prejudice that distances people from one another. The Nazis, building on centuries of anti-Semitic stereotypes, depicted the Jews as greedy rats without conscience or as gluttonous pigs lacking self-control. The Hutus in Rwanda depicted the Tutsis as mindless cockroaches before killing them by the hundreds of thousands. Exceptions in these extreme cases typically came from those who actually knew the targets of prejudice directly. General Crook had interviewed Standing Bear and his tribesmen in his office; they’d told him directly of their pain and suffering, of their hopes and dreams, of their beliefs and memories. He did not think of the Poncas as mindless savages, and so was willing to orchestrate the legal case in which he was named as the defendant. From these examples, we begin to learn important lessons about what it takes to recognize the existence of a fully human mind in another person, as well as the consequences of failing to recognize one.

Of course, Standing Bear is neither the first nor the last human being to have his mind overlooked and underestimated. The cross-cultural psychologist Gustav Jahoda catalogued how Europeans since the time of the ancient Greeks viewed those living in relatively primitive cultures as lacking a mind in one of two ways: either lacking self-control and emotions, like an animal, or lacking reason and intellect, like a child. So foreign in appearance, language, and manner, “they” did not simply become otherpeople, they became lesser people. More specifically, they were seen as having lesser minds, diminished capacities to either reason or feel.

Similar evaluations play over the course of history like a broken record. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis while supporting a labor strike by sanitation workers whose rallying cry was “I am a man.” In the early 1990ss, California State Police commonly referred to crimes involving young black men as NHI—No Humans Involved. In 2010, thousands of immigrants protested extreme immigration laws in Arizona while carrying signs saying, “I am human.” When people around the planet demand human rights or claim they have been treated inhumanely, the central issue is their oppressors’ failure to recognize their mind. This may be why Article I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts a person’s mind front and center: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Apparently, it can be easy to forget that other people have minds with the same general capacities and experiences as your own. Once seen as lacking the ability to reason, to choose freely, or to feel, a person is considered something less than human.

The essence of dehumanization is, therefore, failing to recognize the fully human mind of another person. Those who fight against dehumanization typically deal with extreme cases that can make it seem like a relatively rare phenomenon. It is not. Subtle versions are all around us. Even your refrigerator may hold an artifact of one example. When the French began making champagne for the British, the champagne makers quickly learned that the Brits preferred much drier champagne than the French did. In fact, the French found this version to be unpalatable. They named this inferior champagne brut sauvage, poking fun at the seemingly unsophisticated Brits. The joke was eventually on the French: brut is now the most popular variety of champagne in the world.

Our sixth sense’s shortcomings in these cases arise partly from our failure to engage it when in the presence of someone so different or distant from ourselves. It may feed off prejudice and hatred, but it does not require either. Disengagement can come anytime there is a distance between two minds that needs to be bridged. For instance, when team owners in the National Football League proposed extending the season from an already punishing sixteen games to a grueling eighteen, Ray Lewis, one of the most fearsome players in the NFL, protested that the owners had overlooked the players’ experience and were thinking of them only as moneymakers. “[I know] the things that you have to go through just to keep your body [functioning]. We’re not automobiles. We’re not machines. We’re humans.” There’s no reason to think that any kind of prejudice or animosity was involved here. The owners may well have been focused on their own finances rather than on their players’ minds, a focus that would make it easy to overlook or underestimate their players’ pain.

Even doctors—those whose business is to treat others humanely— can remain disengaged from the minds of their patients, particularly when those patients are easily seen as different from the doctors themselves. Until the early 1990s, for instance, it was routine practice for infants to undergo surgery without anesthesia. Why? Because at the time, doctors did not believe that infants were able to experience pain, a fundamental capacity of the human mind. “How often we used to be reassured by more senior physicians that newborn infants cannot feel pain,” Dr. Mary Ellen Avery writes in the opening of “Pain in Neonates.”

“Oh yes, they cry when restrained and during procedures, but ‘that is different.’ ” Doctors have long understood infants as human beings in the biological sense, but only in the last twenty years have they understood them as human beings in the psychological sense.

Your sixth sense functions only when you engage it. When you do not, you may fail to recognize a fully human mind that is right before your eyes. It is comforting to imagine that such “mindblindness,” as psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen describes it, is just a chronic condition or personality trait for some people, a condition that neither you nor I have. Indeed, for some it is. This is a comforting story because it makes the inhumanity that can stem from dehumanization, from overlooking the mind of another person or being indifferent to it, seem like something that is likely to exist in other people, not in you. Although it is indeed true that the ability to read the minds of others exists along a spectrum with stable individual differences, I believe that the more useful knowledge comes from understanding the moment-to-moment, situational influences that can lead even the most social person—yes, even you and me—to treat others as mindless animals or objects. Engaging with the mind of another person depends not only on the type of person you are but also on the context you are in. None of the cases described in this chapter so far involve people with chronic and stable personality disorders. Instead, they all come from predictable contexts in which people’s sixth sense remained disengaged for one fundamental reason: distance.

For psychologists, distance is not just physical space. It is also psychological space, the degree to which you feel closely connected to someone else. You are describing psychological distance when you say that you feel “distant” from your spouse, “out of touch” with your kids’ lives, “worlds apart” from a neighbor’s politics, or “separated” from your employees. You don’t mean that you are physically distant from other people; you mean that you feel psychologically distant from them in some way. You’ve developed different beliefs than your spouse over time and have “grown apart,” your kids’ generation is so different from your own, or you work in a large corporation with more employees than you can name. These two features of social life—the magnitude of the gap between your own mind and others’ minds, and the motivation to reduce that gap—are critical for understanding when you engage your ability to think about other minds fully and when you do not.

Distance keeps your sixth sense disengaged for at least two reasons. First, your ability to understand the minds of others can be triggered by your physical senses. When you’re too far away in physical space, those triggers do not get pulled. Second, your ability to understand the minds of others is also engaged by your cognitive inferences. Too far away in psychological space—too different, too foreign, too other—and those triggers, again, do not get pulled. Understanding how these two triggers—your physical senses and your cognitive inferences—engage you with the mind of another person is essential for understanding the dehumanizing mistakes we can make when we remain disengaged.

Not long ago, I took my three sons camping and ended up in the emergency room. My oldest son was whittling an impossibly large branch with a ridiculously small pocketknife when the blade slipped and sliced into his hand. I had my back turned, tending our campfire, but when I heard him cry out, I instantly spun around to see him hopping up and down with blood dripping out of his hand, looking me squarely in the eyes with a mixture of pain and fear. In a split second I knew exactly what he had done, was wincing in pain right along with him, and was equally worried about what we were going to do. In that split second, our minds merged.

My brain came equipped with exactly the same operating system that yours did, one that allows our brains to synchronize with another’s automatically, under the right circumstances. There is no magical psychic connection in this; it follows three perfectly natural steps. First, you and another person have to be sharing attention, to be looking at or thinking about the same thing. As human beings, you and I are exceptionally good at this attention detection. When my son cut his hand, I instantly glanced at his face and could tell, from twenty feet away, that he had cut his palm rather than his wrist. I couldn’t measure the angle of a roof if I had an hour and a handful of protractors, but both you and I can sense the angle of a person’s eyes down to decimal points within a split second, and can therefore easily figure out what someone else is looking at. Once two or more people are focused on the same thing, their minds start to merge, because they are reacting to the same event. You are disgusted by vomit. So am I. Cute babies make you happy. Me, too. Slicing your hand with a knife hurts, a lot. I’m with you. Although we all like to think of ourselves as unique, by and large our brains respond to events very similarly. When two people are evaluating the same event, they are setting the stage for thinking and feeling the same way as well.

Second, once our eyes are attending to the same event, our faces and bodies may synchronize. “When we see a stroke aimed,” wrote Adam Smith in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” “and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our leg or our own arm.” When I saw that my son had cut his hand, I winced in pain just as if I had cut myself. A similar thing happens at my kids’ soccer games, where I have to keep the row in front of me clear, to allow room for empathy kicks. Other parents kick along with their kids, too. Almost any event can provoke such imitation. See someone yawn and it’s hard not to yawn yourself. Laugh and at least some in the room will laugh with you. The same is true of smiles and startles and frowns, all of which are contagious in crowds. Pay attention the next time you’re in a group and you’ll be startled by how often you catch yourself adopting similar gestures or postures, a similar pace of speech, or even a similar accent as others. It’s as if you’ve become a puppet on someone else’s strings.

Finally, once eyes and bodies are merged, our minds tend to merge as well. Thoughts and feelings come from what we’re looking at and how our bodies are reacting to it, so when two people are watching something and reacting similarly, they are likely to be feeling and thinking similarly as well. Adam Smith thought imitation reflected your understanding of another person’s experience—your body shows what you think another person feels. In fact, the reverse is also true: you feel what your body shows. When you see a pained expression on a friend’s face, your face may also contort into a pained expression, thereby making you feel a touch of pain yourself. Sit up straight and you’ll feel more proud of your accomplishments. Smile and you will feel happier. Even furrowing your brow, as if you are thinking harder, can lead you to actually think harder. This link from imitating another person’s actions to experiencing the other person’s emotions is a critical link for understanding the minds of others. If a researcher disables your ability to imitate another’s facial expression, such as by asking you to hold a pen pursed between your lips10 or by injecting your face with Botox,11 your ability to understand what another person is feeling drops significantly. Botox dulls your social senses right along with your wrinkles. Buyer beware.

Courtesy: Salon
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