Can reading literature help counteract the problem of dehumanization? My latest from Common Ground. Also published in Middle East Online, Global Arab Network, The Daily News, Bikya Masr and Palestine Note.
A basic fact of conflict is that people’s perceptions of each other matter. Viewing someone as subhuman or demonic, for example, reduces people’s inhibitions towards using violence against them. Likewise, negative images of the other escalate conflict through engendering fear, misunderstandings, blame and zero-sum thinking.
Research conducted by psychologist Albert Bandura has demonstrated that individuals inflict much harsher punishments on people whom they view negatively, as opposed to people whom they perceive in neutral or sympathetic terms. Importantly, his experiment also showed that subjects invested with positive qualities were least likely to be harmed.
Because how we imagine others is consequential, it is essential for conflict resolution practitioners to find creative ways to mitigate the destructive influence of negative stereotypes. One approach to tackling this problem was developed by American psychologist Gordon Allport who argued that qualitative contact between conflicting groups is a meaningful way to reduce hostility and prejudice as well as cultivate more positive attitudes between group members.
By qualitative contact, Allport meant direct interpersonal relations between participants of equal status who pursue common goals with the help of institutional support. Some great examples of contact theory put into practice are organisations like Seeds of Peace and bilingual Jewish-Arab schools in Israel such as Hand in Hand.
While personal contact is key to transforming threatening images of the enemy, unfortunately, it is not always a possibility. This is because people, particularly during times of conflict, may not be able to meet face-to-face. Obstacles to contact can include restrictions on travelling, legal concerns or physical danger. Moreover, even if people are able to meet, the contact itself may feel too threatening or emotionally taxing.
In such circumstances, the problem of perception needs to be addressed through other means. One such approach is engagement with literature—a type of vicarious contact theory. Continue reading