BBC’s A History of Hate podcast explains how to turn ordinary people into bloodthirsty monsters.
Most people think that only the most cold-blooded individuals could carry out genocide.
But that is not true.
More often than not, you will find that the perpetrators of the worst crimes are ordinary people, just like me and you. With a bit of manipulation and a lot of hate, anyone can transform into a beast. This holds in the Rwandan Genocide, the Bosnian Genocide, the Islamic State, amongst many other instances.
Those in power deploy several techniques to manipulate and trick us into hatred. And we can only stop tragedies from happening again by being vigilant about these techniques.
Technique 1: Propaganda
Propaganda from different sources continually shapes our thinking, perhaps more so today than ever. Propaganda no longer looks like the old Soviet communist poster, but rather it comes in the form of historical myths and storytelling. Propaganda is also no longer printed on a piece of paper; instead, it spreads like wildfire on Facebook or YouTube. That is increasingly a challenge that today's generation has to handle.
In Myanmar, the Rohingya ethnic cleansing was reported to be incited on Facebook. Military personnel who turned Facebook users created a series of pages with seemingly nothing connected to the Rohingya. But there, the military started spreading stories about how Buddhist women were raped by Muslim men. People were told that the Rohingya are terrorists, and the Muslims are taking over their world by having too many children.
So when Myanmar's military began their operations against the Rohingya, they were backed by local Buddhist mobs who burned villages and killed civilians alongside the military. The propaganda is working. Despite the crimes committed by the military, few in Myanmar held much sympathy towards the Rohingya people (at least until the military coup took place).
Technique 2: Groupthink and peer pressure
Groupthink comes in different forms: the brotherhood inside the military, the bond between the same ethnicity, or even nationalism against neighboring countries. They all attempt to achieve the same purpose of pressuring people into doing as the group does. And the group, when manipulated by those in power, is not always kind and logical.
For child soldiers, groupthink is a major problem. Minors often participate in conflicts because of peer pressure. In Syria, it has been reported that some children felt a sense of "duty" to join up with their friends in the opposition armed forces. Once they joined, the children were asked to prove themselves as part of the group by looting, raping, and murdering.
It’s not only children. Under peer pressure, even strong-minded individuals, such as religious leaders, may crumble and take part in the harshest act to conform to society’s expectations. In the 1994 Rwandan genocide, many Tutsi died at the hands of Catholic priests and nuns who participated in the genocide.
Technique 3: Dehumanization
Along with groupthink, a common tool used by the manipulator is dehumanization. It's difficult for most to murder a human being. But what if you are just killing an ant? Or a cockroach?
Dehumanization has created tragedy after tragedy. Germans who arrived in Namibia viewed the Herero and the Nama people as lesser humans. So it was acceptable to put them into concentration camps so their indigenous lands could be confiscated. Similarly, Jews were viewed as rats, and so it was also okay to send them into labs and gas chambers.
But “cockroach” remains the most famous example. They are annoying, creepy, dirty, and there are simply too many of them running around. So when your opponents became cockroaches, it is only natural that you should be killing them. In Rwanda, almost one million Tutsi “cockroaches” were killed in just 100 days. In Hong Kong, police are taught to call protestors "cockroaches". Clearly, that's how they are treating protesters too - with excessive force in an unapologetic way.
Technique 4: Regulation and legislation
One last tool that the authorities could use to manipulate people is by using legislation to incite and justify hatred. The anti-Semitic laws enacted by the German Nazis serve as a good warning.
Few Germans realized what was going to happen when the Nazis passed a series of anti-Semitic laws. As early as 1934, Jewish students were excluded from exams in medicines, dentistry, pharmacy, and law. The number of Jewish students enrolled in German schools was limited to 1.5% of total enrollment. The Jews were forced to live in ghettos and later, in concentration camps. All of these were enacted through legislation that cited the Jew’s negative impact on German society.
Most Germans remained silent or passive during this time. Some believed in the propaganda from the Nazis. Most lost touch with their Jewish friends or neighbours. When the acts of terror came, it was far easier for the Germans to just keep their eyes close, since they don’t have anyone that they need to stand up for. The Germans believed that an Aryan-only society was, indeed, better.
A History of Hate, the Podcast
BBC’s A History of Hate brings the listener back to four tragedies in the last century to dissect what went wrong and how hate drove ordinary people to carry out unbelievably cruel acts. From an outsider's view, the ethnic cleansings in both Bosnia and Rwanda, the war crimes committed by the Americans in Vietnam, and the apartheid in South Africa were both obviously wrong and unforgivable. But yet, they happened nevertheless. Why, and how?
The series is presented by Allan Little, who has won several journalism awards, including Amnesty International Reporter of the Year in 1992 and a Sony Documentary Gold Award in 2000.
You can listen to the podcast series here.
This article is part of the Can We Really Live Together? series.