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Today We Travel To

Demonization

 

 
Activity Summary
  • Find a collective of people that are being demonized in your environment.
  • Research that collective and find one thing that you genuinely like about them - culture, music, folklore, dancing, cuisine, traditions, clothing, customs, etc...
  • Deliver an informative speech on that one thing you like without actively defending the collective or asking people to empathize with them or pity them.
  • Do not explain the purpose of the section.
 

Our group identity

Humans are tribal creatures. From an evolutionary perspective, human creatures need the support of a social structure to survive. Human babies have the longest dependent period from their parents from all species, and even after that, Homo Sapiens Sapiens is not particularly skilled at running, climbing, or swimming. None of our senses is spectacularly developed. We're drawn to seek our next of kin to form groups that can collectively provide much higher chances of survival - from hunting together bigger prey to efficiently dividing labor to finding potential mates.

 


When you fall into the trap of demonization, you can be as easily manipulated as the bulls in the Spanish corridas. (Photo: Francis Heylighen )
When you fall into the trap of demonization, you can be as easily manipulated as the bulls in the Spanish corridas. (Photo: Francis Heylighen )

In modern days, nothing really has changed. We still experience a strong desire "to belong" to some group. However, when taken to an extreme, this need of belonging turns into what anthropologists call "toxic tribalism" - an adherence so unconditional to one's own group that it becomes unconscious, dogmatic, and hostile against any other groups.

When something becomes unconscious or automatic, you're no longer in control of it. You're not examining critically whether what you're reading or being told makes any sense, as long as it matches the group identity. What is worse - your reactions become predictable. Thus, you become an easy target for manipulation  - much in the same way a bull can be made to run in any direction by waving in front of him something that he perceives as dangerous.

 

Demonization (Dehumanization)

Demonization is a commonly used technique to fan the flames of toxic tribalism and move populations to specific behaviors. It consists of attributing an extreme negative generalization to members of a different group. The different groups may be geographical (demonizing people in other countries or regions), ethnical (demonizing specific races), religious (demonizing members of a particular religion), etc. You can see many examples of dehumanization in the opening picture of this activity.

Sometimes the demonization starts with an easier target - such as a leader or a visible representative of the selected target group. In words of the Cato Institute:

"Once you start demonizing a president or leader of a country, you are permanently embedding ideologically-driven dehumanization into the heart and minds of Americans and justifying any future acts of violence against that country and her people."

 

Despite its bluntness, it's usually very effective due to the vivid images that it creates in the audience and because it creates a sense of threat against the groups that an individual holds so dear. Once enough fear or hate is instilled into him, he may be commanded to do things way beyond what he would willingly do in normal life, even up to the point of killing others or sacrificing his own life.

Hermann Göring, one of the most prominent leaders of the Nazi party, founder of the Gestapo, and the head of the German Air Force (the Luftwaffe), illustrated this perfectly with the following statement during the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials:

Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood.
After all, it is the country's leaders who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.
The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
 

 

Although demonization of other groups and their leaders has existed since the dawn of history, it has become widespread in recent times, aided by social media's virality. Amnesty International in 2016-2017 issued a report warning against the dangers of such tactics.

Why demonize?

People that use demonization of groups do so for basically two reasons:

  • To push their own agenda. For example, it's much easier to increase military spending if people perceive that their way of life is threatened. It's much easier to increase police departments' budgets if people believe that there's a massive influx of criminals. In fact, demonization is a scaringly cheap way of pushing agendas.
     
  • To move the focus of attention to a different point or to distract. For example, if your party has just been caught embezzling money, it's much easier to wade through the storm if all the party starts pointing the finger at some other issue.

 

Fighting toxic tribalism and dehumanization

Fighting toxic tribalism, dehumanization, and negative stereotyping, in general, is no easy task, especially if the former are done in a subtle and non-obvious way.

As this satirical short video illustrates, the so-called implicit stereotypes may kick in as a reaction to a social cue, even though the people involved may be aware of their existence and undesirability. 

One could think that tribalism can be fought by explicitly explaining the irrationality of the demonization or stereotyping and by actively asking people not to engage in it. Although that does have some effects, the research shows that the effects are very short-lived. This is one reason why in this project, your speech should not be asking people to stop doing this or that, nor trying to provide rational arguments for doing so.

There are several methods that research has shown to work against demonization and stereotyping in general.

Providing positive counter-examples

The first measure is exposure to people from the discriminated collective that are bearers of qualities contrary to what the stereotype implies ("counter stereotypic"). Given enough exposure,  the stereotype is greatly decreased. For example, if the stereotype is that "gypsies are thieves", a counter-stereotype would be talking about honorable Roma people or Roma people who have succeeded or exemplary behavior. 

The good news here is that counterstereotypes are effective even when they are merely imagined. This is merely an application of the widely known visualization technique - in which merely vividly imagining or thinking about a situation helps prepare you for it. In the same way, merely imagining honorable Roma people already decreases the strength of the stereotype.

Warning -  research also suggests that extreme counter-examples tend to have a boomerang effect, reinforcing the stereotype. A mechanism similar to "ah, but that must be the exception that confirms the rule" triggers in our brain, So if the stereotype is that "women are weak", for example, the counter-examples should be ordinary strong women, not extremes like Queen Elizabeth or Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc).

 

There's one more positive effect to presenting counter-examples to stereotypes. Studies show that when people are faced with counter-examples of their beliefs and process them, they become more flexible and creative thinkers.

 

Breaking the reinforcement loop

Social pressure and social norms (either real or perceived) can play a huge role in the formation and perpetuation of these stereotypes. Our beliefs are reinforced if we think a majority of the population shares them. In fact, Asch's conformity experiments show that social pressure can make us give up common sense and switch to ideas that are blatantly and visibly wrong. 

Research shows that when people become aware that others do not share their prejudices, the stereotyping decreases.  In fact, one of the goals of this project is precisely providing a testimony that says, "Hey, I'm here, and I think differently about these people. If you believe what the demonization is telling you, I'm here to clearly state that I don't share that opinion ". 

 

Examining critically external messages, and our own beliefs

We can make a huge step against toxic tribalism by scrutinizing, fact-checking, and never taking at face value any statements we receive, especially if they contain judgmental nuances or generalizations. This is an area that we will extensively work on in the Critical Thinking path.

Here's a short example of how demonization can subtly and slowly creep in. As a result of the COVID pandemic, many countries had to go into complete lockdown to prevent the virus from propagating exponentially. Can you sense the subtle differences in narrative and how the measure is portrayed in these two snippets from the NY Times?

Double Standards

 

Engaging in cooperative activities with representatives of the demonized groups.

Of course, working together or merely spending time together in a non-confrontational manner with representatives of the demonized groups greatly decreases the stereotyping with time. The ability to withhold judgment, work with different types of people, be flexible, creative, and have an open mind are all crucial characteristics of modern-day leaders, and we work on developing these traits in the Agora Leadership program.

 

The activity

In the meeting section "We Travel To..." you will need to do two things:

Research

1 Be attentive and observant to detect signs of demonization around you - either in social media, in friends' comments, TV, newspapers, etc., and to determine which is the collective being demonized. Maybe even you yourself engage in that kind of behavior?. It's important for this activity that the demonization must be happening in your context, not somewhere else or theoretically. If you live in Sweden, don't talk about how Africans are demonized in Spain. Probably you have much closer collectives.

In many countries, you won't need to make a lot of effort to do so. Russia and the US traditionally demonize each other in their respective spheres of influence. The same can be said about the political actors in the Middle East. China vs. Japan is another "traditional". In fact, it's easy to find on the Internet tongue-in-cheek (but also serious) maps  of "who hates what," such as this map of "hate in Europe":

Hatemap Europe

Most of the demonization is not explicit but subtle. A good practice for detecting it is to read/watch the popular opinion-makers (be that traditional media, popular blogs, influencers, etc.) and scrutinize the snippets that make you dislike, judge, or condemn someone. Anything that elicits in you a negative emotional reaction towards a group of people.

Club Speech

 

2 Once you've identified a demonized collective, your goal is to research that collective and present a 3 to 5-minute speech illustrating something positive about them that has drawn your attention. 

You'll be using two techniques in this speech:

  • Presenting one or two positive counter-examples.
  • Sending an implicit signal that the demonized beliefs are not shared. After all, by speaking positively of the discriminated collective, you'll be acting as living proof that there are people with other beliefs.

The speech should be entirely focused on the positive aspects that you have discovered. These can be anything you can find: from folklore to cuisine, from customs to architecture, from traditions to art, from a historical event to advances in science by members of that collective. The speech should be informative and factual, not persuasive. You're not trying to persuade anyone about anything - merely shed a positive light on an otherwise ostracized collective.

It's also critically important that you actually like what you're talking about. Don't talk about things that "are good in theory" or "everybody should like" - talk about the ones you personally do.

It's also important to make the speech about something intrinsic to the collective (in other words, about things that are the way they are because of the active choice or action of that particular collective).
For example, imagine that you want to speak about the Bulgarians. It's pointless to give a speech about how beautiful the mountains and lakes of Bulgaria are because - like every other nation in the world -  it's merely a historical coincidence that Bulgarians live geographically where they live, and the mountains and lakes would be equally beautiful regardless of whether Chinese, Japanese, Gypsies or other collectives had instead occupied that place (Of course, the reality is a bit more subtle - the geographical attributes do shape over time the culture, traditions, and even the way a collective perceives the world. However, for this project's purposes, and since this shaping takes over very long periods of time, we will assume it's not relevant). 
What you can do, however, is to talk about the relationship between the collective and its environment because that's entirely their choice. If a particular collective keeps the environment clean, values natural resources, has a sustainable development policy, etc. All of that is what preserves the beauty of the pre-existing mountain and lakes - that's a worthy topic for a speech.

 

As with all speeches, try to keep the subject focused. You don't have a whole hour to speak, so try to transmit one or two core points and elaborate on them. For example, instead of conveying the whole history and folklore of the gypsies in 5 minutes, focus on either one specific festival or one specific tradition, and illustrate it in detail.

The speech should not:

  • Mention that the collective is subject to demonization.
  • Discuss why you chose this particular collective over another.
  • Pity, sympathize with the collective, or dwell in their plight or difficulties. For example, if your chosen collective is immigrants or refugees, the subject of your speech cannot be how difficult it was for them to make it to your country or how terrible is the war in theirs.
  • Exhort the audience to like them or to do anything in particular. Remember - this is not a persuasive speech that ends with a call to action (Remember what research shows - you will only achieve the illusion of  having changed people's minds, but in fact, the old stereotypes would be back almost the moment they leave the room)

If you do any of the above, you will only create resistance that defeats the activity's goal.

Don't overdo it.  Remember the extreme-counterexample research above. If you try to go to the extreme of positivism, painting your collective of choice as the best in the world, or their music/cuisine/etc. as being exceptional and fill your speech with superlatives, you risk triggering a boomerang effect

The title of the speech should be based on "Today we travel to... ". For example:

  • Today we travel to Russia
  • Today we travel to California
  • Today we travel to the world of the gypsies.
  • etc

Evaluation

The project is evaluated according to the attached evaluation card.

Note to the evaluator: There's a fine line between talking about a collective and where and how it leaves and giving merely a "travelogue"-type speech where the speaker simply narrates a nice place he has been to.  A common confusion in this project - from speakers that don't read the full description - is to think that "Today we travel to..." is what the title literally says - going someplace nice and telling a story about that.  Clearly, this is not the case, and if you see that the delivered speech is of this kind, you should clearly indicate that it didn't meet the goals, explain why, and suggest that the speaker repeats the role in a future meeting.

On the other hand, since the speaker on purpose won't explicitly indicate the collective he's speaking about, sometimes it's difficult to tell if we're in the first situation. This is especially true in meetings where people from different cultures and countries participate: a particular collective may be discriminated against in the speaker's environment but not in yours. 

So the moment you decide to evaluate a "Today we travel to" speech (ideally, days the meeting), it's a good idea to contact the speaker and ask him about his collective of choice. This will also serve as a subtle reminder of the non-tourist nature of the speech.
 

 

 

Resources

 


Contributors to this page: agora , puspa.khanal , elisabetta.savino and admin .
Page last modified on Sunday April 11, 2021 00:47:05 CEST by agora.