Eric Trump, Kathy Griffin, and the Dehumanization of Politics

June 7, 2017

Categories: Politics

Eric Trump appeared on Sean Hannity last night and sharply criticized Democrats who opposed his father, saying “they’re not even people.”

Oh politics, how far we have fallen. Instead of pushing forward substantive policies and engaging in meaningful dialogue about important issues, we spend our time in an echo chamber of our own beliefs, viewing the other side as less than human.

Dehumanization is a psychological phenomenon that denies the humanity in certain groups of people. Historically, dehumanization has been used to target racial or ethnic groups. For example, certain racial groups are compared to animals such as apes, dogs, or pigs.

Dehumanization has been linked to moral disengagement. In most situations, we have a moral compass that connects us to other human beings and prevents us from engaging in aggressive or violent behavior toward others. In other words, we are morally engaged. This is why you don’t take a baseball bat and smash your neighbor’s face when you disagree with them.

But dehumanization breaks apart this process that connects us to others. Instead of seeing someone as a human being who has basic human rights and deserves respect (even if we don’t like them), we view them more as an animal or object. When we dehumanize others, we break the moral bond that connects us to each other. If we go too far down this road, we are willing to allow or even commit atrocious acts of aggression and violence.

In our history, whenever you see something horrific happen such as genocide, dig a little below the surface, and you will also find dehumanization and moral disengagement. For example, during the Rwandan genocide, the Hutus compared the Tutsis to cockroaches that needed to be exterminated.

After World War II, Americans were astonished that the Nazis could commit such terrible acts of violence toward the Jews. “How could this be?” they asked. So psychologists started to study these questions. In his famous electric shock experiment, Stanley Milgram showed that regular people were willing to administer deadly shocks to others just because the experimenter told them they had to do it. Philip Zimbardo had to end his Stanford Prison experiment early because the participants “acting” like jail guards were actually abusing the participants “acting” like prisoners. Albert Bandura found that when participants heard the experimenter describe another person as an animal, they were more likely to administer a painful shock.

The potential for dehumanization, moral disengagement, aggression, and violence is within each of us. It’s not something that “other people do.” That’s why I get upset when I see Kathy Griffin hold up a severed head of Donald Trump to get a laugh. And it’s why I’m concerned when I hear Eric Trump say that he believes Democrats “aren’t even people.”

Bottom line: If we have any desire to keep this world going and not turn our society into a real-life version of The Purge, we have to start viewing each other (even people we don’t like or disagree with) as human beings.


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