The Dangers of Dehumanisation, Or, Why Trump’s Rhetoric Is More Than Just Wrong.


Dehumanisation is a kind of deception—of the self, of others, or both—that paints other people as less than human, so as not to have to think about them and/or feel guilty for overlooking or abusing them.

It’s easier to dehumanise a person or group if they’re already marked out as different, perhaps by gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or disability, or even a different manner of speaking or dressing. For example, it’s all too common to witness people in uniform, such as waiters, cleaners, bus drivers, and police officers, being treated as mere automatons without human attributes such as feelings or families.

In April 2011, riots broke out in Bristol, England over the opening of a new supermarket. During the riots, one Benjamin Cyster dropped a five stone concrete block from the top of a building onto an advancing line of police officers. The block caught PC Nicholas Fry square on the shoulder, crushing him to the ground. Instead of expressing anguish or remorse, Cyster continued rioting, and even exclaimed, “I want to find that copper I hit on the head. I want to do it again.”

Diane Davies, a 62-year-old grandmother of nine from Anglesey in Wales, was holidaying in one of the most exclusive areas of Barbados. One day, in broad daylight, she was brutally raped by a complete stranger. One year on, in November 2011, she decided to talk about her ordeal in a national newspaper. She felt certain that she would have been killed, had she not remembered reading that a victim of attempted rape should talk to the rapist so that he might see her as a person rather than an object of gratification. “So I told him I was a 61-year-old grandmother with four children and nine grandchildren and felt he slightly softened. I think talking to him saved my life.” Similarly, in the UK Brexit referendum, areas that voted for Remain tended to have a much higher level of immigration than areas than voted for Leave.

Unfortunately, dehumanisation is not limited to thugs and rapists, and may also be used by politicians and other so-called decent, middle class people. For example, it is commonly used by healthcare professionals to cope with distress at loss, grief, disease, and death, with patients referred to by their diagnosis rather than their name (“the stroke in bed number 6”, “the fractured hip in the ER”…), or just being thought of in terms of a long line of faceless ‘patients’.

One notable politician who regularly engages in dehumanisation is, of course, Donald Trump. He tends to divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them’, splitting off the American “we” from “these people”; and to refer to minority groups by using the definite article ‘the’, as in, “I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks”, or “I love the Muslims.” Other, less subtle, ways in which Trump dehumanises people is by stereotyping, belittling, or even objectifying them. Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition, he said, “You’re not going to support me, because I don’t want your money. You want to control your own politician.” Of Mexicans, he said, “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Of women, he said, “You know, it really doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful, piece of ass.” Of grief-stricken Gold Star mother Ghazala Khan, who stood by her husband Khizr as he criticized Trump, he said, “She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.” He has questioned the competence of a federal judge on the grounds of his Mexican heritage; called his opponent Hillary Clinton a criminal who should be jailed or perhaps even killed; and even questioned the citizenship, and hence the legitimacy, of America’s first black president.

Dehumanisation is more than just wrong. It quickly becomes normalised, serving to undermine morality and the rule of law, and incite and endorse discrimination and violence. In the early 1970s, psychologist Philip Zimbardo set up a mock prison with hidden cameras and microphones in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology building. The researchers selected 24 undergraduates, mostly white, middle class men, and randomly assigned them to the roles of either prisoner or guard. The ‘prisoners’ were to remain in the mock prison round the clock, while the ‘guards’ were to ‘work’ in three-men teams over eight-hour shifts. The experiment had been scheduled to run for 14 days, but had to be stopped after just six days owing to the aggressive and abusive behaviour of the ‘guards’ and the extreme adverse psychological reactions of the ‘prisoners’. Even Zimbardo, who had been acting as the prison warden, overlooked the dehumanising behaviour of the guards until a graduate student voiced objections. In his book, The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo wrote candidly that, ‘Only a few people were able to resist the situational temptations to yield to power and dominance while maintaining some semblance of morality and decency; obviously I was not among that noble class.’

Dehumanisation is often witnessed during times of crisis or war. If certain people or groups can be seen as less than human, they become dispensable, and any atrocity can be justified. Josef Goebbels, the Minister of ‘Public Enlightenment and Propaganda’ in Hitler’s Nazi regime, exploited all contemporary methods of propaganda to inflame anti-Jewish sentiment. By pinning the blame for all the economic and social ills of the time on the Jewish people and then lampooning them as an ‘inferior race’, he prepared the ground for the progressive elimination of their rights and freedoms and, one thing leading to the next, for the mass genocide of the Holocaust.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the EmotionsHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, and other books.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook


The Lamb & Flag pub in Oxford

The ego defence of displacement plays a role in scapegoating, in which uncomfortable feelings such as anger and guilt are displaced and projected onto another, often more vulnerable, person or group. The scapegoated person is then persecuted, providing the person doing the scapegoating not only with a conduit for his uncomfortable feelings, but also with pleasurable feelings of piety and self-righteous indignation. The creation of a villain necessarily implies that of a hero, even if both are purely fictional. A good example of a scapegoat is Marie Antoinette, Queen of Louis XVI of France, whom the French people called L’Autre-chienne – a pun playing on Autrichienne (Austrian woman) and Autre chienne (other bitch) – and accused of being profligate and promiscuous. When Marie Antoinette came to France to marry the then Dauphin [1], the country had already been near bankrupted by the reckless spending of Louis XV, and the young foreign princess quickly became the target of the people’s mounting ire.

A more recent example of a scapegoat is the former Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. In November 2011, Berlusconi quickly became the fall guy for the panic engulfing the Euro Zone, with forces both within and without Italy contriving and ultimately succeeding in having his government deposed in favour of an unelected cabinet of technocrats. Berlusconi’s roguish behaviour in both private and public matters could hardly have helped his case; even so, it did seem rather irrational to lay the blame for an international financial crisis onto the shoulders of a single person, albeit a hapless Prime Minister of Italy. As one commentator very succinctly put it, ‘Don’t turn a scoundrel into a scapegoat.’

A ‘scapegoat’ usually implies a person or group, but the mechanism of scapegoating can also apply to non-human entities, whether objects, animals, or daemons. Conversely, human scapegoats are to varying degrees dehumanized, objectified, and totemized; some, such as witches in mediaeval Europe, are quite literally daemonized. The dehumanization of the scapegoat makes the scapegoating more potent and less guilt inducing, and may even lend it a sort of pre-ordained, cosmic inevitability.

The term ‘scapegoat’ has its origin in the Old Testament, more specifically, in Chapter 16 of the Book of Leviticus, according to which God instructed Moses and Aaron to sacrifice two goats every year. The first goat was to be killed and its blood sprinkled upon the Ark of the Covenant. The High Priest was then to lay his hands upon the head of the second goat and confess the sins of the people. Unlike the first goat, this lucky second goat was not to be killed, but to be released into the wilderness together with its burden of sin, which is why it came to be known as a, or the, scapegoat. The altar that stands in the sanctuary of every church is a symbolic remnant and reminder of this sacrificial practice, with the ultimate object of sacrifice being, of course, Jesus himself. Upon seeing Jesus for the first time, John the Baptist is said to have exclaimed, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29). And in Christian imagery, Jesus is often depicted as the victorious Lamb of God of the Book of Revelation, with one leg hooked around a banner with a red cross – whence the name of one of Oxford’s most celebrated public houses, The Lamb & Flag. The sacrifice prescribed in the Book of Leviticus prefigures that of Jesus, who played the role of the first goat in his human crucifixion, and the role of the second goat, the scapegoat, in his divine resurrection.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

[1] The Dauphin of France or, strictly, Dauphin of Viennois, was the title carried by the heir apparent of the throne of France, and is roughly equivalent to the English Prince of Wales or Spanish Prince of Asturias.

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