Polarization and Dehumanization

Polarization and Dehumanization

By Veronika Tait

Current tensions between liberals and conservatives are high. The past two decades have shown large shifts away from ideological overlaps between the left and right. Seventy-three percent of surveyed adults said that Republican and Democratic voters “not only disagree over plans and policies, but also cannot agree on the ‘basic facts.’” We increasingly perceive those in the opposite political party as having more extreme views than they do. This perception is especially distorted when we consume media that is partisan opinion commentary such as Breitbart News or Daily Kos.

Our rhetoric has become more polarized. Stanford economist Matthew Gentzkow and his team developed a machine-learning algorithm that analyzed 530,000 phrases spoken from 1872 to 2009 by Republicans and Democrats. Through the first 135 years of data, the machine had a 55% accuracy rate. It began improving dramatically around 1994, and by 2008, as rhetoric became more partisan, the computer could state with 83% accuracy whether the speaker was a Democrat or Republican.

Unfortunately, we’re not just seeing differences in policy. The belief that members of the opposite party are immoral or unintelligent has grown faster than that of ideological polarization. An increasing number of people view the other party as a threat to the nation’s wellbeing compared to two decades ago, and the majority of people believe the other party to be “closed-minded.”

As speech becomes more partisan, as ideologies continue to diverge, clearer lines are drawn between “us” and “them.” A recent analysis of rhetoric from leading primetime shows Fox News and MSNBC found frequent uses of terms or phrases indicative of strong antipathy such as “hate,” “dislike,” “can’t stand,” and “despise.” This was especially the case for Fox News, where the word “hate” was used five times as often. Typically, in the context of “they” referring to Democrats, liberals, political elites, and the media. The researchers showed the words of antipathy have increased, especially since the beginning of Trump’s presidency.

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The more we view the “other side” as our enemy, the easier it is to dehumanize and justify violence against them. Researchers found “that voters routinely rate their own party as more human than members of the opposition party, and this tendency was especially pronounced among strongly identified partisans.” Another survey asked participants if their opponents “lack the traits to be considered fully human—they behave like animals.” The proportion of those who agreed rose from around 18 percent to 35 percent Between 2017 and 2020.

Dehumanization is a form of moral disengagement that justifies what would otherwise be considered unethical or inhumane by depriving a person of human qualities. As researcher Brené Brown said in a recent podcast,

Most of us believe that people’s basic human rights should not be violated. We believe that, as a collective . . . crimes like murder, rape, [and] torture are wrong. Successful dehumanizing, however, creates moral exclusion; groups targeted based on their identity, gender ideology, skin color, ethnicity, religion, [and] age are depicted as less than, criminal, or even evil. The targeted group eventually falls out of the scope of who is naturally protected by our moral code. This is moral exclusion. This is dehumanization at its core.

If the other side is “evil,” if they are the “enemy,” then we feel justified in belittling, battling, crushing, owning, harming, and destroying. Unfortunately, dehumanizing language has now transformed into violent acts against one another. The number of hate crimes in the United States has reached its highest level in more than a decade.  For example, right-wing extremist Patrick Crusius killed 20 people in an El Paso Walmart in August of 2019. In his manifesto, he stated, “[T]his attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,’” echoing words Trump had said in prior campaign rallies.

We humans are good at creating Us vs. Them, even when the indicators of who our tribe is are trivial. Thankfully, the barriers we create to exclude one another can shift as we work to expand our in-group. In one series of experiments, soccer fans were reminded of their love for their team then passed by a person in distress who wore either a shirt supporting the same soccer team, a shirt supporting a rival team, or a plain shirt. Participants helped those wearing a shirt in support of the same team the most, then someone in a plain shirt, and helped those wearing a shirt supporting the rival team the least. Researchers found that by simply reminding participants of their love for soccer in general increased helping rates toward the rival team.

We are all human. We are all on the same team, not rivals to destroy. We share global enemies such as racism, police brutality, the coronavirus, poverty, homelessness, lack of health care, and climate change, to name a few. We need unity, collective action, and focused leadership if we’re going to tackle any of these problems. We need patience and compassion towards one another to fight for the common good and resist the enticement of polarization.

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Let us work each day to recognize who we are morally excluding. Let’s acknowledge who is outside of our outstretched arms and strive to continually widen our reach to understand those from a different political party, religion, sexual orientation, gender, and nationality.

A great example of all-compassing compassion is pastor Gregory Boyle, who started an organization dedicated to helping and reforming teenagers involved in gangs.  He said, “Compassion isn't just about feeling the pain of others; it's about bringing them in toward yourself. If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased. 'Be compassionate as God is compassionate,' means the dismantling of barriers that exclude.”

About the Author: Veronika  Tait earned her PhD in social psychology at Brigham Young University  and currently teaches courses as an adjunct professor. She has published  peer-reviewed research on decision making and rationality, though her  new interests include empathy, altruism, and post-traumatic growth. She  is the author of the blog "Pulling Through" on Psychology Today, where  she advocates for compassion and evidence-based practices.