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Dehumanization and terrorism

Most people would agree that terrorism is no good. The word itself is rich with moralized connotations. It is true that some have argued that terrorism might sometimes be justified, but in popular discourse, terrorism is typically deemed obviously horrible.

What are the consequences of branding some action an act of terrorism, or of branding some group a terrorist group? Note, in connection with this question, the ratcheting up of rhetoric surrounding ‘cyberterrorism,’ with many government officials now listing it as a major ongoing threat (e.g., here and here).

A recent study by Adam Feltz and Edward Cokely of the Michigan Institute of Technology found that describing a group of people as ‘terrorist’ had far-reaching results. In general, participants in their study were less willing to “understand the group’s grievances,” less willing to “negotiate with the group.” Further, participants in their study found violence directed towards a group described as terrorist more permissible, and perceived such a group as less rational when compared to a group not described as terrorist.

One interesting feature of this behavioural profile is its similarity to behavioural profiles associated with dehumanization. It is sadly quite easy to implicitly characterize other people as less than human, and there is evidence that doing so leads to anti-social behaviour, and can lead to justification of wrongdoing towards the dehumanized (for a recent review of dehumanization literature, see here). It might be that categorizing a group as ‘terrorist’ engages the dehumanization process known to negatively influence social perception of out-group members.

One might wonder why this matters. In my life, I interact with a diverse range of people. Many of them are not exactly like me – they don’t look like me, aren’t from where I’m from, don’t speak with my particular accent, and so on. If it is relatively easy for me to implicitly dehumanize them, then it is relatively easy for me to take a stance towards them according to which they are worth less than me. On this stance, I might view them as less rational, less warm, less worthy of kindness or less deserving of my time or help. The same is arguably true of my behaviour directed at various political groups. I don’t want to collaborate with, or offer aid to, terrorist groups. But I also don’t want to dehumanize groups of people who have been inappropriately labelled ‘terrorist’ by one of the powers-that-be. So it is important to be aware of the ways labels such as terrorist subtly influence the way we perceive other groups of people, and also of the way we perceive people we implicitly associate with such groups.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. Interesting. But you didn’t say anything about the descriptive content of “dehumanization”. Do you think there is a sense (i.e. lack of basic concern for others, lack of empathy, lack of evaluative ratonality on the whole) in which rapists, terrorists, sect leaders and the likes make them very different from ordinary human beings? If yes, should we treat them as sick people or just as people who are beyond evil?

  2. Hi Andrews,

    Thanks for your comment. The article I linked to on dehumanisation gives some background. Very roughly, when we dehumanise another person or group, we in some sense ‘demote’ them. This involves a bunch of dispositions to treat and think about such a person/group in a different way — we think of them as less rational and less warm, we are less concerned about their pain and suffering (we empathise less), we are more likely to see that person/group as an opponent and so to act aggressively towards them.

    Regarding your question: short of evidence of serious cognitive or neural differences, I wouldn’t think terrorists/rapists/sect leaders are very different from ordinary human beings. That is to say, ordinary human beings are quite capable of being all of those things.

  3. Okay so terrorists, sect leaders, rapists and folks are humans. Sounds good. Now is there a moral claim there on how we as moral agents should judge them, or on how institutions of justice should deal with them (putting aside the claim that both should in principle treat them as fairly as any other human being?) Or are you simply raising some concern on the reactive attitudes we have to them as witnesses of their misdeeds?

    If the latter is what you are mostly interested in, it seems an almost trivial fact that people should react with anger when they see injustic and with fear when they see danger. Insofar as terrorists and sect leaders are dangerous and perpetrate injustice (they harm people, try to grow in number and pervert values by encouraging harm and injustice) there is no surprise that people should by angry and afraid. The only no trivial thing here seems to be that, when people let their fear and anger grow to an unnecessary extent, they become hateful, sometimes to the point that they are no longer able to react appropriately. But I thought we’ve known this since Aristotle?

  4. Hi Andrews,

    The post was closer to the latter issue you raise in your first paragraph. But I wouldn’t put things in terms of reactive attitudes. And witnessing misdeeds has little to do with it. The research towards which I’m gesturing has more to do with how our categorisation of people influences our thought about them and behaviour towards them (whether or not the categorisation is accurate or appropriate).

  5. Okay, so you are gesturing toward an empirical study that tells us that beliefs about people grounded in our evaluative attitudes toward them affects our behaviour to them. Sounds good. Which conclusion do you draw from this? Do you think we ought to do something special to ensure that we don’t overreact? Do you think we should pay special attention to the institutions of justice? Or that we should consider new strategies for dealing with, for instance, terrorism?

  6. Joshua wrote; “a study […] found that describing a group of people as ‘terrorist’ had far-reaching results. In general, participants in their study were less willing to “understand the group’s grievances,” less willing to “negotiate with the group.””

    Sure. And my reaction to a charity that politely inquires as to whether or not I would like to help them is different from my reaction to one that chases me down on the street and steals my wallet, even though the value of their charitable services may be exactly the same. And the difference in my reaction is perfectly reasonable and morally ok, too – because irrespective of the ends there are things you are not supposed to do to people*, and one of them is chase them down and steal their wallet.

    Pedophiles (and other paraphiliacs whose proclivities involve damaging people), cult leaders and terrorists are subject to particular opprobrium because what they do involves putting their causes (sexual, moral, or political as the case may be) above the rights of others. That’s why we don’t like ’em. But the two big dangers I see with the way we deal with these groups are (1) false positives and (2) inattentiveness to important details and boundary issues. The first is pretty self-explanatory, I think. The second is that (to me at least) there’s a world of difference between a cult leader like FA von Hayek or Peter Singer and a cult leader like Jim Jones. (Trolling a bit here – but you get the point… one person’s intellectual hero is another’s cult leader.) And there’s a morally relevant difference between a celibate and non-celibate paraphiliacs. And there seems to be a difference between current terrorists and reformed terrorists, as political developments from South Africa to Northern Ireland amply illustrate. (The reformed terrorist may be similar to the celibate paraphiliac – both are sort of to be admired (in an uncomfortable sort of way) for abstaining from something evil. Maybe.

    But I don’t think that the fact we are observed to have little empathy for people who put their interests above our rights is something that we need to apologise for, or change. We just need to use the usual legal safeguards to insure against (1) and be sane enough to be careful about (2).

    *Governments, who steal from people’s wallets every time folks get paid, play by different rules than you or I. (Which is also sorta reasonable, to most of us.)

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