“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”
UNESCO Constitution (1945)
Violence against undocumented immigrants, as well as Latinx and Hispanic communities in the United States, is being driven by a years-long campaign of dehumanization by President Trump’s administration, as I recently examined in a series of essays (Part 1; Part 2). The pattern of rhetorical tricks and cognitive processes, which I laid out in those essays, contribute to an enemy image that conflates refugees, unauthorized immigrants, and Latinx people with violence, crime, and insidious danger. If we are going to halt or roll back this direct violence, we need to directly address the cultural violence – dehumanization – through strategies that can allow us to intervene with cultural peace – humanization. The truth is, the path of dehumanization is lubricated by human psychology, and people too easily slip down this slope into violence. Even so, trudging back up towards the humanization of a targeted group of people is not impossible.
My intention with this series of essays, “Living Action,” is to provide people with strategies and tactics for engaging constructively in our political life and transform our current crisis. This will begin with laying out some possible strategies for helping humanize a group of people who have been dehumanized based upon field-tested practices from the field of peace studies and conflict transformation. This particular piece will lay out the basic principles of humanization and start with the opportunity most readily available to most people: empathy in conversational interventions.
Humanizing the Dehumanized
“Humanization is a matter of recognizing the common humanity of one’s opponents and including them in one’s moral scope. Viewing an adversary as outside the community in which moral norms apply can reduce restraints against aggression and legitimize violence. It is [through] recognizing the human characteristics of one’s opponents can help to limit escalation and violence.”
Dehumanization and enemy images thrive in psychological environments without complicating or individualizing details, such as the personal stories of a vilified group of people. Humanization is the process by which we undermine this psychological environment, helping people recognize the nuanced, diverse humanity of people belonging to an out-group. After all, it is easy to feel a need to defend oneself against those “illegal aliens,” but it is much harder to justify violence against Ignacio and Maria Villatoro, the father and mother of four children, who chose to leave behind their home, and everything they had, in Guatemala to seek asylum in the U.S. after receiving a death threat from a local gang because staying felt like a death sentence for their children (Flores and Barajas, 2018). When we can picture a real person, with their desires and fears, their friends and family, or even their favorite food and hobbies, the out-group to which they belong will not easily remain the ambiguous, homogenous enemy image we imagined upon them.
As Maiese on “Beyond Intractability” lays out (2003), there are several basic, evidence-based methods for humanization, including empathy, dialogue, education, and media strategies. Let’s start by focusing in on the first part: building empathy.
Empathizing with the Enemy
Helping a person develop empathy for a group of people they have conflated into an enemy image can be challenging. After all, there is no way to *make* or *force* someone to experience empathy for another person. You can only open the door and invite them into a broader worldview. The primary strategy for creating these opportunities is to create situations where a person can perceive similarities between themselves and the members of another group. Helping make an out-group member’s needs and values available for the person to understand and connect with can be especially important, but even simple things people can identify with, such as hobbies, favorite foods, and traditions, play a powerful role in humanizing them by adding depth to the two-dimensional caricature image of the out-group.
A problem we often encounter when trying to encourage empathy, especially in digital realms like social media, is that people don’t bother to listen beyond the first sentence or read past the headline. In a conversation, this obstacle is effective summed up by Stephen Covey’s famous quote (1989):
Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms…
One way mediators and conflict transformation practitioners overcome this obstacle is through “empathic listening,” also known as “active listening” or “reflective listening” (Salem, 2003). This is a type of listening that you might already engage in intuitively from time to time, but focusing in on particular techniques that you can employ to help with this and practicing them can greatly improve your skill with this tool. Some of the key techniques are: attentiveness to content and emotions, care not to interrupt, paraphrasing to check for understanding, using open-ended questions (“What do you want?” instead of “Do you want X?”), and reflecting back the content and emotions expressed by the speaker (“You left your home because your children were threatened by a gang” or “It sounds like you were afraid for your children’s lives”). When we acknowledge what a person is saying and trying to express, as well as providing them the space to share their story rather than confirm or deny your own expectations, the speaker will feel listened to and we will ready ourselves to listen for understanding.
Of course, the first way this can be employed is simply by personally using active listening in a conversation with an individual belonging to an out-group, challenging your own preconceptions and ensuring that their story is heard. It doesn’t stop there though. After all, you may be thinking, “That is all well and good, but my uncle Frank or my friend Steve won’t listen, and that’s the real problem!” So how can we create chances for a person who holds an enemy image to engage in empathic listening? There are at least two ways to do this that come to mind.
The first is to engage in empathic listening with the person that holds a dehumanized view of another group of people. This can be helpful because often people that hold these views don’t feel “heard” or feel “persecuted” themselves, and acknowledging what they think and feel can help them avoid putting up their psychological defenses and be more likely to hear what there is to learn about another’s experience. For example:
SPEAKER: MS-13 is dangerous! They kill children and deal drugs in our schools. I have a right to protect my children!
LISTENER: I can understand being afraid for the safety of your children. It sounds like you’re worried that they might be attacked or hurt by someone.
SPEAKER: Yeah, I am. The world these days is so dangerous, and I just want to protect them.
LISTENER: That makes sense, wanting to protect them. What is it that makes you afraid that they might be harmed?
SPEAKER: Well, the other day on the news, I saw a story about how two girls were murdered at their school by MS-13.
LISTENER: When you saw that other children had been killed by them at school it made you concerned that the same thing could happen to your kids? Gang violence is definitely scary. What do you think about that other story the other day, the one about the family that had to leave behind their home in Guatemala because a gang threatened to kill their children?
SPEAKER: Hm? I didn’t see that one, what happened?
LISTENER: It was on CNN the other day. The father, Iganacio, was scared for his children’s safety after a local gang threatened to kill all of them, so him and his wife, Maria, decided that they’re only option was to flee and seek asylum in another country since the local police weren’t able to protect them there. Now, their family is facing a bad situation here too, as his children were taken away from him at the border and the government isn’t helping reunite them. I couldn’t help but realize that they too were just afraid and wanting to protect their family, you know? Here, I’ll send it to you so you can read it, too!
Now, obviously, the first time you try to use empathic listening to have a conversation like this, it probably won’t go this smoothly or get this far. It might take several conversations to move from acknowledging that person’s feelings and thoughts, to talking about how members of the out-group share similar concerns. That said, you might also be pleasantly surprised. When I first started using active listening techniques as a crisis counselor, I was skeptical about how effective they were, but quickly found that people opened up easily and became receptive to new ideas within even just a 20-minutes conversation.
Part of the reason this can be effective is that it provides a psychological backdoor around one of the most common defenses to empathy: the backfire effect. Often, when we hear someone say something we know to not be true, especially if it denigrates an entire group of people, we feel like we need to disprove their claim and that the most effective way to persuade them will be to present facts to the contrary. For example, if someone insists that “illegal immigrants” are dangerous and must be deported, your gut reaction might be to inform them that, statistically, both undocumented people and foreign-born residents are far less likely to commit crimes or violence than the native-born population, like themselves. The problem is that when we feel that our beliefs or our identity is threatened, we tend to “entrench” ourselves, and our belief in a false opinion can become even stronger (McRaney, 2011). Part of the reason this happens is that when we try to evaluate contradictory information, we naturally begin to prepare to defend ourselves and our beliefs, so we begin recalling all of the things that support our viewpoint, reinforcing it (Big Think, 2010). After all, particular anecdotes that this person remembers about an undocumented immigrant committing a violent crime are easily available in their memories, so why would they believe you?
This is where empathic listening comes in. Instead of instantly responding with counterarguments or contradictory facts, which would lead the person to feel threatened, you are engaging in a supportive dialogue where the person feels heard. In fact, this creates an opportunity for a person to perceive this discussion as a partnership where you are searching for the truth together, rather than as a competitive argument where you are their opponent (Galef, 2013). If done well, the speaker’s empathy will remain open, or even be opened up, by realizing you are a person who cares, making it possible for them to begin to see the humanity in others they had dehumanized
Admittedly, this takes effort and energy on the part of an empathic listener, and it’s understandable if you can’t bring this to every conversation. It’s for this reason I would advise people to first try some common active listening techniques with friends and family, in order to build up confidence and consistency in their listening skills. And while none of us probably have the time or energy to do this favor for every random stranger on the internet, if we each picked two or three people for which we are willing to do the emotional labor to help them regain their empathy, we could have a much larger impact together.
Earlier I mentioned there were two strategies I could easily think of that we might employ to help build empathy. The second will use these same skills of empathic listening, but instead of acting as the interlocutor in a two-person conversation, this strategy involves playing the role of a supportive in-group member.
Bridging Empathy for your In-Group
Intergroup Contact Theory predicts that when members of two different groups interact, under favorable conditions, the attitudes they hold towards each other’s out-groups will become more positive and prejudice will decrease (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2006). One intervention during intergroup contact that can help support positive outcomes involves in-group members who express support for intergroup contact and favorable reactions to out-group members. When we encounter someone belonging to another group, we are more likely to put those cognitive defenses up and not respond favorably to what they say, especially if we have thoroughly dehumanized them. If an in-group member reinforces a change towards increasingly positive attitudes though, that can circumvent these cognitive defenses.
Playing a role like this can allow you to once more employ empathic listening to help humanize an out-group. The most obvious way to do this occurs when you are with an in-group member – a family member, friend, colleague, etc. – and you two encounter someone who belongs to another group. If you employ empathic listening techniques towards the out-group member during the conversation, that fellow in-group member is more likely to be receptive to the humanizing elements of the conversation. This not limited to in-group encounters though, as emerging research for other forums of intergroup contact, such as television and online platforms, has shown promise when the conditions are adapted for the new setting (Hasler and Amichai-Hamburger, 2013).
An example of how this might play out could be when you and a family member are watching the news and a story about people who are residing in the U.S. without authorization comes up:
INTERVIEWER: What led you to leave Guatemala?
INTERVIEWEE: A gang had threatened to kill me and my family. If we stayed, it would have been a death sentence for my children.
LISTENER: I can’t imagine how terrifying that must have been, to have people threaten your children and not be able to do anything to protect them back home. What would you do if we had been threatened when I was a kid and you couldn’t help keep me safe?
LISTENER’S PARENT: I don’t know. I guess we’re pretty lucky to be so safe here.
Again, these moments are not likely to change things overnight, but they can begin to open up those that are close to you who have adopted a dehumanized enemy image to the process of humanization. You signal through these kinds of interactions that it is not the case that the entire in-group supports dehumanization in a way that does not immediately raise the person’s psychological guard, facilitating the potential for humanization. While these interactions might seem awkward or might make one feel anxious at first, you will probably find that they go more smoothly than your anxiety makes it seem and might be more effective than you expect.
Creating Opportunities for Intergroup Contact
If you are ready to take action beyond these more reactive approaches, a great way to help with humanization is by creating chances for in-group members to experience intergroup contact with a person from a dehumanized out-group. Intergroup contact is one of the most robust theories in the field of social psychology, and has been tested time and time again for over 50 years, with a 2006 meta-analysis of hundreds of studies having demonstrated that it is not only reliable as a method of reducing prejudice, but is also effective (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2006). It is important to realize though that the conditions under which contact takes place are vital to its success, as there is a risk of reinforcing prejudice if the contact situation is poorly executed.
Setting up intergroup contact is pretty simple; all you need to do is invite a friend from an in-group to a situation where you have also invited an out-group. Some examples might be to invite two friends to go volunteer at a charity with you, inviting an out-group friend to a family dinner, or having a group of people come together for coffee. You might worried about how you would manage a conversation about a conflict issue, such as Trump’s policy towards undocumented immigration, if you invite someone wearing a MAGA hat and an undocumented immigrant. The thing is, you don’t actually have to bring up the underlying conflict or tension in intergroup relations for intergroup contact to be effective.
The elements that are key to successful intergroup contact are: equal status, cooperation, common goals, and support from authorities or institutions (Everett and Onu, 2013). Equal status isn’t to imply both people should have the same socio-economic privilege or anything like that, but rather that the situation doesn’t place them in a hierarchy to each other, such as a boss and an employee. Cooperation as a condition is about ensuring people are not in a competitive situation but rather a cooperative one, such as placing them on the same team rather than opposing teams in a football match. Common, or superordinate, goals merely means that the goals of contact participants are shared or aligned, rather than in conflict (for example, working together to paint a room rather than on person wanting to paint a room and the other wanting to put up wallpaper). Lastly, support from authorities or institutions can be hard in the context of dehumanization, as there are authorities who are at least indirectly discouraging intergroup contact. That said, merely having the support of the person organizing the encounter, especially if they are someone who is a member of an in-group to both or who is respected by both, can ensure that this condition is at least somewhat achieved.
This is why getting a group of friends together can be so effective as an intergroup encounter. With a mutual friend inviting both person, that provides support for the contact. Friendship does not place people into formal hierarchies, but rather encourages interaction on a more equal ground. And whether the group of friends is volunteering to help at a homeless shelter or having a movie night together, the activity is cooperative and everyone shares the same goal – helping the homeless in the first case and having fun in the second.
This can even be done more formally, such as by organizing a workshop or a meet-and-greet. A quick search online can help you find many guides to organizing intergroup encounters, making it a lot easier to figure out how to structure it and avoid common pitfalls. Additionally, formal events make it easy to organize helpful follow-up activities, such as reflecting on the experience through reflective journaling or reflective, mediated dialogues.
Humanization through Empathy
Empathy is one of the most basic and immediately available tools we can all bring to bear on dehumanization. We can begin with improving our own understanding receptivity, by employing empathic listening with someone belonging to a dehumanized out-gorup. We can then bring that empathy and what we learn into our conversations and interactions with people who belong to the same in-group, such as family, friends, U.S. Citizens, or chess club members, helping them become more open to humanizing others. Lastly, we can even take pro-active steps to create opportunities for humanization.
It is easy to feel helpless when one of the most powerful people in the world is busy justifying violence against a group of people on TV every day, but if we all take the initiative to begin humanizing those that are being targeted for the people in our lives, we can make a meaningful difference. After all, the bulwarks against hate and violence are not what our laws say or what policies a politician pushes, as these are only side-effects of what those that support people in power allow to happen. If we can cultivate the empathy needed to act as levees against the tides of hate, we can prevent this flood from drowning us all and maybe even weather the storm that thunders all about us now.