Dehumanization 101

Two things are more or less bound to happen once a group of people dehumanizes another one, beyond their exploitation.

One: they simply become objects, as opposed to human beings, and therefore their any human trait becomes inconceivable, simply out of bound. Take this, for instance:

Which of course, is highly reminiscent of this:

In both cases, the photos are posed like vacations photos. The bodies are mere props in the background of a kind “we’re having so much fun” photo.

The top photo portrays an Israeli soldier, with Palestinian prisoners in the background, the one below is one of the infamous Abu Ghraib photos.

The dehumanization is so complete that, in both cases, the soldiers posing for the photo were shocked when confronted with the dehumanizing nature of the picture. Take the Israeli soldier:

“A former Israeli soldier who posed for pictures with Palestinian detainees and posted them on her Facebook page defended her actions today, as more images emerged of Israeli service personel posing alongside blindfolded detainees and dead bodies.

“I still don’t understand what I did wrong,” Eden Abergil told Israeli army radio. Abergil, a reserve officer with the Israeli army who completed compulsory military service last year, provoked outrage over photographs in which she posed next to handcuffed, blindfolded Palestinians.

She told army radio: “There’s no violence or intention to humiliate anyone in the pictures. I just had my picture taken with them in the background. I did it out of excitement, to remember the experience. It wasn’t a political statement or any kind of statement. It was about remembering my experiences in the army and that’s it.””

There is no intention to humiliate not because of empathy but because these people are no longer seen as human beings. Similar excuses were used by the soldiers portrayed on the Abu Ghraib photos.

And when people are no longer seen as human but as beasts of burden, then, atrocious mistreatment is almost guaranteed to follow:

“Doctors have removed 13 nails and five needles from a Sri Lankan maid who said her employers in Saudi Arabia had hammered them into her.

LG Ariyawathi, who returned home from Saudi Arabia on Saturday and was hospitalised in severe pain, said the family she worked for had punished her by heating the nails and needles and sticking them into her.

X-rays showed she had 24 nails and needles in her body, said Dr Keerthi Satharasinghe, of Kamburupitiya hospital. The nails ranged in length from 2.5 to 5cm (one to two inches), and the needles were about 2.5cm. They were removed from Ariyawathi’s legs and forehead.

“The surgery is successful and she is recovering now,” Satharasinghe said after a three-hour procedure. He said six more needles in her hands could not be removed because the operation might damage her nerves and arteries, but they would not be harmful to her.

Ariyawathi, 49, has described the abuse meted out by her employers. “They did not allow me even to rest. The woman at the house had heated the nails and then the man inserted them into my body,” she was quoted as saying by the Lakbima newspaper.

She said she went to Saudi Arabia in March and was paid only two months’ salary, with her employer withholding the rest to buy an air ticket to send her home.

About 1.5 million Sri Lankans work abroad, many as maids or drivers, to earn more than they can in their own country. Nearly 400,000 work in Saudi Arabia.”

The story of exploitation and state of quasi-slavery of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia is not new.

In all these cases, the ethnic differences between the dominant and subordinate groups make their dehumanization easier. Whether the dehumanized category become invisible objects or beasts of burden to be worked as hard as inhumanely possible, symbolic and physical degradation are logical outcomes.

Nationalism and Homophobia at the Eurovision

Radoslav Banga, Rom and proud to claim the heritage, will represent the Czech Republic at the Eurovision with a song "Supergypsy" that makes fun of all the stereotypes applied to Roms. His selection, according to Le Monde, has enraged the Czech neo-nazi who cannot stand the thought of a Rom representing the country (I told you before the Eurovision is all about nationalism). The song itself is really not that great but the video is a satirical accumulation of anti-Rom stereotypes:

But anti-Rom prejudice is not limited to the Czech Republic. Hungary has had its share of anti-Rom violence as the economy deteriorates and prejudice levels deepen:

The rise in prejudice is, of course, perceived not as a reaction to a deteriorating economy but as a logical reaction to an "objective" state of affairs: Roms commit a lot of crimes, everyone knows that. Why doesn’t the government do something about it, clamors the entire right wing (and not just the usual ethnocentric far right)? Once public opinion’s awareness is raised, any incident involving Roms will be labeled as Rom criminality, creating a cumulative record of ethnic anti-social behavior that can be pointed to as major social problem. It works even better when the scapegoated minority has a long history of being blamed for criminal behavior:

And here is a good demonstration of how one creates a criminal ethnic minority:

Furthermore, another good illustration of racial construction works in two steps: (1) define a lot of crime as "Gypsy crimes", but also (2) de-racialize crimes committed against Gypsies as not racial or ethnic hate crime, that is, eliminate the racial motive. What is left is a socially produced view of society where Gypsies commit a lot of crimes against the majority but are never victims of crime because of their ethnicity. This ethnic-based criminality of the majority against the minority is then nicely evacuated, leaving only one category of crimes and criminals.

Another issue that has arisen for the Eurovision is the question of homophobia mixed with extreme nationalism as activist groups plan on organizing a gay pride event corresponding to the Eurovision contest in Moscow (the last gay prides ended badly as nationalists beat up on the demonstrators that included Right Said Fred singer – remember him?). This year might not be very different as nationalism and religious extremism flourishes in Russia:

It remains to be seen whether international reputation matters to the notoriously-homophobic mayor of Moscow.

Banal Racism – Mexican Stereotypes Edition

>This Burger Kind ad distributed in Spain provoked the ire of the Mexican government:

BK ad

Aaah, the nice contrast between the tall, slender, muscular and handsome American cowboy (how ironic considering the rates of obesity in the US) and the short, fat, greasy, Mexican wrestler… who could possibly find this ethnocentric and racist. BK got the message and decided to modify the ad.

Book Review – One Thousand White Women

OTWW I only read Jim Fergus‘s One Thousand White Women because a friend whose opinion I value recommended it. Well, that was an inspired recommendation as I read the book over Thanksgiving weekend and could not put it down.

The premise of the novel is quite interesting. It is inspired with the historical fact that in 1654, a Cheyenne Chief suggested to the Army authorities that the Cheyennes be given one thousand white women to facilitate the assimilation of Cheyennes into white society through marriage with Cheyenne men. Indeed, the Cheyenne’s kinship structure is matrilineal. Therefore, the children born of these unions would be part of the white society. You can imagine the reception to such a request.

Fergus situates his story in 1875, imagining what would have happened if the US government had agreed to the Cheyenne Chief’s request. So, ok, the US government sends a first "batch" of women… but which women? Certainly not women from "decent" families, right?

The narrative structure of the novel is organized around the journals of May Dodd, one of the women who "volunteered" to be part of the program. May Dodd chose to participate so that she could get out of the asylum where her family had locked her up because she had moved in and had had children out of wedlock with a man from a lower social class than hers. May Dodd comes from a wealthy Chicago family. So, she is institutionalized on grounds of "promiscuity" (the use of psychiatry to "correct" deviant women… that is, those who won’t conform or challenge the patriarchal order is also an interesting aspect of Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Changeling ). It is in the asylum that she and other women (also locked up mostly for lack of conformity to the norms of upper class, Victorian, gender roles) receive the visit of government officials giving them the choice between "marrying a savage" or remaining locked up. For May Dodd, it’s not even a choice. She signs up for the program.

During the railroad trip West towards Fort Laramie, Nebraska, we discover the other women who came to the program through other accidents of life: the racist Southern Belle whose father lost his wealth after the civil war and was left at the altar by her disappointed suitor, the evangelist who thinks she’ll bring civilization (i.e., Christianity) to the savages, the traumatized girls who does not speak, the Irish criminal twins, the African American "princess" who will never again be a slave, etc. It is a very fascinating cast of characters, all with their live stories, their typical wounds inflicted by a patriarchal society. Their reactions to the new society they have to integrate make for a great (sometimes quite funny) read.

A large segment of the book is dedicated to the trip West, first to the Fort, then, to the Cheyenne camp. Another is dedicated to the progressive assimilation of these women into Cheyenne society, and their discovery that "savage life " is not what they thought it would be. Quite a bit of culture shock, and a gradual abandonment of ethnocentrism in favor of a more open view of their new culture.

As May Dodd states in her journals,

"Frankly, from the wat I have been treated by the so-called ‘civilized’ people in my life, I rather look forward to residency among the savages."

As for the last part of the book, it is the heartbreaking ending to the "experiment". Remember, this is a story of late 19th century Cheyennes dealing with the white society… it can’t end well. Broken promises and betrayals on both sides lead to a catastrophic conclusion.

Even though the reader knows it’s fiction, the story feels real. It is actually easy to forget that this is a story told by a woman, but written by a man. Fergus makes these journals very believable.

Like I said, the book is a page turner, with fascinating description of Cheyenne life from the point of view of someone completely unsocialized and unprepared to accept it. I also enjoyed the different threads created by the narratives of the other women and their adaptation into their new society. This enriches the story and gives it more density than just focusing on one character.

I have already ordered my copy of Jim Fergus’s other novel, The Wild Girl.

The US Through The Prism of the Election: God, Military and Family

Have I mentioned how much I value the brilliance of Ian Welsh? I know I have. Today, he has a piece on an outsider’s view of the electoral campaign and what it reveals of the American society and its values. It is a must-read, as always.

[Writers love triads, I remember Kevin Phillips arguing at a previous ASA meeting that three things are going to plague the United States for years to come: too many preachers, too much deficit, and too much oil dependency… right on all counts, of course. How interesting that the notion that the immense religiosity of the American society is actually dysfunctional never makes it to the mainstream public discourse. Indeed, anyone with access to the mainstream media making such a point would be vilified. But back to Welsh’s post.]

Reporting from the DNC, Welsh states

"I think the emphasis on family is partially because of the lack of a very effective safety net in the US. Just as in traditional societies, in the US you need one group of people you can rely on to help when everything goes bad. Since that’s not the government, who won’t do much when you get really sick, it has to be your family. Being willing to stick by family, through thick and thin, is the paramount virtue in a society where family, at the end of the day, is the only thing you’ve really got.

And then there’s religion. Kaine’s speech, which was "faith, faith, more faith!" really brought it home to me. Again, it is impossible to imagine in Canada or Britain, that a major politician would give such a speech. Religion is supposed to be separate from public life—believe what you want. Even Preston Manning, the old leader of the Reform Party in Canada had to do a Kennedy—had to declare that while he was against abortion due to his faith, that wouldn’t affect his actions as Prime Minister if elected. When Tony Blair, in England, declared Iraq was a mission from God for him, people rolled their eyes. Again, not considered legitimate. This is, I notice, slowly changing, but so far it is still mostly the case that religion is private, not public.

Then there’s the military. Both parties trooped veteran after veteran onto the stage, attempting to wrap themselves in military glory, or at least portray themselves as military friendly. Once again, this just isn’t the case in England, Canada or Australia. Oh sure, bows of deference to "supporting the troops" are made in all three countries, especially when there’s a war happening. But the glorification of the military and the huge emphasis on it simply does not exist, nor would it be considered acceptable. There is still strong separation of politics and the military, even veterans are not expected to use their military bona fides for crass partisan politics, or really, for politics at all. The military is strictly apolitical and unlike in the US, where it really isn’t most of the time, the separation is generally taken seriously. Harper, the Canadian prime minister most identified with US neocons, is the first PM to try and propagandize the Canadian military, but again, it is still nascent compared to the full blow militarism in the US."

This seems to be the real bipartisan consensus: no political speech without mentions of families as the central institution of society (a conservative premise, way to lose the framing of social issues, liberals), whichi is not correct, historically or culturally, but never mind. No big speech without mention of American exceptionalism rooted in religion. And no political speech without glorification of military and canonization of its members.

And, of course, the three are related: God, family and military go together in multiple ways. And all three, when put together, can be major sources of ethnocentrism and distrust, if not hate, of the "other", the "enemy", the "foreigner", and anyone not part of the family, as religious or military tribe.

This reliance on these three pillars can be especially dangerous for the level of political discourse when combined with Americans’ relative ignorance of the rest of the world and the ease with which these unknown "others" can be used to promote jingoistic tendencies: God is on our side as we send soldiers half the world away to protect our families HERE (if that makes any sense).

Lost in this rhetoric is the sense of common good beyond one’s family or tribe, which might translate into a strong welfare state (which a lot of people oppose because some "other" might get a free ride… the politics of resentment thrives on this), overall greater social solidarity (as opposed to gated communities) and generally less structural and interpersonal violence.

As they say, go read the whole thing.

The Olympics and Gender, Race, Global Stratification, and Nationalism

Rachel has a great and thought-provoking post over at her place on the Olympics through the prism of sociological theories, based on a student’s report using multicultural functionalism to analyze the events (why do we even bother with that perspective, every time, we find it so wanting it’s amazing that we still use it so centrally in basic sociology courses). Anyhoo, from Rachel’s post:

"In my student’s view, the Olympics were great because they brought all the people of the world together. Furthermore, everybody was competing on an equal playing field. He also felt that the spirit of the Olympic movement wiped out race, class, gender, and sexuality issues. In other words, the Olympics made all of these things moot, and nobody cared about any of these things when watching the Olympics."

The student did not make a mistake, this is truly how a functionalist would look at the Olympics… and miss most of the story there. It seems to me that functionalism operates more as blinders rather than as a sociological theory that opens one’s eyes to social dynamics at work.

Rachel then takes that view to task and to examine the Olympics from a more conflict perspective:

"Let’s start with gender. If you watched careful, there were a few occasions when I saw events for men labeled in a neutral way–i.e. the basketball finals– but events for women were labeled as women’s events–i.e. the women’s basketball finals. Isn’t it interesting that even though women participate in most sports at the Olympics, the men’s events are still central in most of those sports. I’ve also noticed that some countries have significantly fewer successful women athletes, and that is often related to the limited number of opportunities for women to compete in those countries. Think about those Kenyan and Ethiopian runners–it has only been recent that women in those countries have been recruited and trained to run like their male counterparts. (…)

What about Patriotism and ethnocentrism? As a very public sociologist noted in the thread last week, the US media listed the medal count as opposed to the gold medal count. China ran away with the gold medal count, but I guess it makes us look better to note that we won more over all medals. You could also see the bias in coverage. For the most part if the US wasn’t doing good in an even, then the coverage of that even was either non-existent or relegated to a sound bite."

And then, Rachel moves on to global stratification and immigration. As they say, go read the whole thing.

Basic Sociology – Group Behavior


Social groups have specific characteristics: (a) they consist of two or more people who (b) interact in an ordered fashion, (c) share specific values and norms, and (d) have at least some sense of unity and common goals.

Group conformity / obedience

One of the main influences that groups exercise over their members lies in their capacity to induce conformity – the process through which members modify their behavior to comply with the group’s norms or decisions. Research shows that group pressure does not have to be intense to produce conformity.

One such experiment was conducted by Solomon Asch (1956) to show the power of groups to influence behavior. Asch assembled 6 to 8 students, all accomplices except one, the subject of the experiment. The students were shown a line on card 1 and asked to pick the corresponding line on card 2 (see diagram).


It is obvious that the correct answer is A. Asch’s accomplices initially answered correctly but in further rounds of the experiment they started answering incorrectly. Asch wanted to see what the subject would do: would he provide the correct answer despite the group’s incorrect consensus or would he go along with the group?

One third of the subjects went along and provided the wrong answer and later admitted they knew it but did not want to be singled out. In other words, they were willing to compromise their judgment for the sake of going along with the group’s (wrong) answer.

Here is a video to illustrate this dynamic further:

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