The Language of Enmity

By Christopher Ross | 1986-04-01 12:00:00

Our ability to communicate well about disarmament is not so much a test of our intelligence and commitment as of our compassion for those whom we would like to persuade. Just how can we communicate the wider vision within which the end of war will be inevitable? Such a question calls for a response at many levels, including the philosophical, the spiritual, and the organizational. Here I will only outline the contribution that social psychology can make toward communicating that vision. This has been addressed by Psychologists for Social Responsibility over the past two years; the present article is partly an integration of that work.

The nuclear arms race is one manner of dealing with the conflict of human beings. Knowing the psychological processes of conflict situations can increase our compassion and patience and refine our way of speaking about the human condition that is involved in the arms race. One social psychological process in this situation is selective perception. Our impressions of a person are often determined more by our own needs and attitudes than by the person's actual features.

The Diabolical Other

After all, when confronted with conflicts or upsetting differences, we selectively perceive the good in ourselves and the bad in the other until "Other" looks the way an enemy should look. We "paste our perceptions" onto the other person and thus avoid the disturbing aspects of the original conflict. This process of selective perception has been called by Ralph White "the creation of the diabolical image of the enemy," and can be witnessed most clearly in the creation of Russia as "the enemy" and the U.S. as "the good guy." Thus through the projection of bad traits onto the other side, the actions of "the good guy" become morally defensible.

This brings us to the second social psychological process notable in conflict situations--polarization, which is the result of selective perception. All that is good is gathered at one pole and all that is bad at the other. The enemy takes on all the unenviable traits. In his book, Antics with Semantics, Sydney J. Harris pointed out: We are enthusiastic about what we believe in, while they are aggressive. We are resourceful and creative; they are cunning and deceitful; we are popular because people believe in what is right; they are popular because they manipulate public opinion.

Lest we feel self-righteous at the reference to the superpowers, it should be stressed that this same selective perception and polarization can occur among any differing groups, including rival members of the peace community.

The ally/enemy polarity usually contains within it two components: The good/bad split and the virile/weak split. Seen in this way, allies are both moral and courageous, while the enemy is immoral and personally inadequate.

Life is uncomfortable and unpleasant when through the lens of selective perception we see a dreadful enemy across from us. Our collective existence, however, progresses from unpleasantness to danger because the process does not stop with polarization and stereotyping. Individuals and groups tend to act on the basis of these stereotypes, choosing to ignore more complex information about the "Other."

In general, people attribute the cause of an individual's behavior to an internal trait of that person. The situation becomes more perilous when a double standard is used. We explain the actions of our side as resulting from the external situation, no matter how insidious we appear to the other side. Thus the stationing of cruise missiles by the Western allies is explained in terms of the external threat in the Soviet Union's deployment of SS20s. But we explain the Soviet deployment as arising from sinister intentions.

Besides these commonplace types of distortions, additional social psychological processes occur when a simple conflict and the creation of an enemy lead to war. Three other dynamics have been described recently by Gary Landrus: authorization, routinization, and dehumanization. The first two, authorization and routinization, work through the institutions of state power--particularly the army. The third, dehumanization, permeates our culture--especially in the media of print, TV, film, and the spoken word.

Authorization proceeds by redefining a situation in such a way that standard moral principles are held not to apply, and participants are encouraged to consider themselves absolved from making personal moral choices. Abdication of this moral responsibility is in turn redefined as patriotism or courage, and refusal to abdicate responsibility is reframed as selfishness, treachery, cowardice, or subversive resistance.

Obedient Torturers

The subtle power of this process was demonstrated by Stanley Milgram, who found that subjects recruited from various segments of society, both educated and uneducated, would obey when ordered to administer painful, dangerous electric shocks to fellow human beings in the name of scientific experiment. Science provided the authorization for their actions. There are two aspects of this process: First, personal morality is replaced by the presumption that the supreme virtue is obedience. Second, the individual feels free to renounce personal responsibility for the consequences of his action. He or she is ordered to shock another human being by a prestigious scientist in a white lab coat, who reassures the subject, "Don't worry; I'll be responsible for what happens." The person then gives up thinking. However, the Nuremberg war crimes trials demonstrated at the end of World War II that society (when its conscience is awakened) does consider obedience an excuse for immorality.

Routinization proceeds by repeating a certain action so often that it is performed without critical thought, apparently automatically. This has two purposes: First, it decreases the need to make decisions, including moral ones. Second, the individual, by focusing on the details of the job rather than its meaning, is distracted from thinking about the implications of his actions. We acquire habits of routinization in school and on many jobs. Of course, routinization is the main purpose of military training, as revealed in such films as "An Officer and a Gentleman."

Dehumanization, on the other hand, is stereotyping in which selective perception and distortion rob other human beings of their humanity. I say it is actually impossible for a sentient human being to kill another living, aware human being. Kelman claims, "To the extent that victims are dehumanized, principles of humanity no longer apply to them, and moral restraints against killing them are more readily overcome." Landrus takes the argument further, commenting, "Massacres only become possible when people are deprived of their personal identity, and when the value of their community--or their being together--is obscured or denied."

Many forces have to operate to sustain dehumanization, and they have to operate at many levels in a constant, reinforcing fashion. Children's war toys help set the stage for a lifetime media bombardment of murderous adventure; racist jokes enforce our inherent fear of the unknown, while stereotyping people exaggerates our separateness from others who are different and keep us from being confused--or enriched--by their positive qualities.

How is it Possible to Wage War?

How, though, is it possible for humans to wage war? We are contemplating, in point of fact, a war that may destroy our own species. David Bakan has introduced two terms when describing the social process that makes nuclear conflict possible. He calls them ultra-realism and ultra-mythicism.

Ultra-realism is the process by which ideas are given the same status as natural objects. For example, such abstract concepts as "the iron curtain" and the "window of vulnerability" become concrete entities. (Personally I spent years puzzling how it was that the iron curtain did not rust, since I knew it rained in East Germany.) When such mystifying concepts are seen as real, then any real experiences are open to suggestion. The vagueness involved allows us to stop thinking about the consequences of the situation. The real thinking we'll leave to the experts. We can now see the consequences of delegating our thinking to others.

Ultra-mythicism is imagining oneself or others as part of a grand cosmic drama. When ultra-mythicism is going on, one does not see Russia and the United States as nations with both pluses and minuses, but rather as actors in the great fight between the "evil empire" and the "free world." This can be clearly noted in President Reagan's ultra-mythical, inspiring speech of March 8, 1983: "What I am describing now is a plan...for the long term -- the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left others."

How do we respond to these powerful social forces? What is required is a new context. Individuals must awaken to the dangers of nuclear peril, the dehumanization of individual beings, and the orchestration of political will.

Social psychology can help us turn on the light which exposes the subtle ways we make enemies out of differences and wars out of fear. Awareness of these processes can increase our patience, our compassion for all human beings, and our capacity to define a domain of possibility within which to live and move--a domain that can be called, "The End of War is Inevitable."

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1986

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1986, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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