08 June 2015


The Lucifer Effect by Zimbardo, 2007, Excerpts

One of the worst things that we can do to our fellow human beings is deprive them of their humanity, render them worthless by exercising the psychological process of dehumanization. This occurs when the “others” are thought not to possess the same feelings, thoughts, values, and purposes in life that we do. The most extreme instance of this hostile imagination at work is of course when it leads to genocide, the plan of one people to eliminate from existence all those who are conceptualized as their enemy. War engenders cruelty and barbaric behavior against anyone considered the Enemy, as the dehumanized, demonic Other.

Dehumanization is the central construct in our understanding of “man’s inhumanity to man.” Dehumanization occurs when whenever some human beings consider other human beings to be excluded from the moral order of being a human person. The objects of this psychological process lose their human status in the eyes of their dehumanizers. Dehumanization is a central process in prejudice, racism, and discrimination. Dehumanization stigmatizes others, attributing them a “spoiled identity.”

The Stanford Prison Experiment created an environment of dehumanization just as real prisons do. It started with the loss of freedom and extended to the loss of privacy and finally to the loss of personal identity. It separated inmates for their past, their community, and their families and substituted for their moral reality a current reality that forced them to live with other prisoners in an anonymous cell with virtually no personal space. Tender, caring emotions were absent among both guards and prisoners after only a few days. External, coercive rules and arbitrary decisions by guards dictated their behavior. In our prison, as in all prisons, emotions were suppressed, inhibited, and distorted.

The Nazi genocide of the Jews began by first creating through propaganda films and posters a national perception of these fellow human beings as inferior forms of animal life, as vermin, as voracious rats. The many lynchings of black people by mobs of white in cities throughout the United States were likewise not considered crimes against humanity because of the stigmatization of them as only “niggers.” Behind the My Lai massacre of hundreds of innocent Vietnamese civilians by American soldiers was the dehumanizing “gooks” label the GIs had for all of those different-looking Asian people. Yesterday’s “gooks” have become today’s “hajjis” and “towel heads” in the Iraq War as a new corps of soldiers derogates these different-looking citizens and soldiers.

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