Why do people demonize each other?
During the difficult times we are living in, not just because of COVID-19 but also because we are going through necessary and long avoided change, people are projecting their pain and fears onto each other. We humans have long been challenged by our vulnerabilities, real and imagined. Fear is an important emotion that can be life affirming when embraced in a healthy way and destructive when not.
For our early ancestors, fear was a daily painful reality. Today many of us would like to get beyond fear but that is not necessarily the answer since fear offers us important information. Although we can see fear as having value, many are increasingly recognizing that demonizing others is also a problem and are looking for more constructive ways for us to work together.
However, our ancestors did not have had the same perspective. Here are some of the reasons we have learned to demonize each other:
- survival. This is the oldest reason. Our ancestors did not have all the mechanisms for survival that we have, so demonizing others justified the taking of scarce or otherwise unavailable resources.
- to maintain the social glue. If certain behaviors were necessary for the survival of the group, then those behaviors were supported and others shunned. Demonizing certain behaviors created group standards that enforced a social code. This is how we invented “the status quo.” Interestingly, according to research, our brains give us error signal when we act contrary to the group, so demonizing behaviors is a very effective method of social control.
- to protect health. In the past, humans had no protection against disease, no sanitation, no antibiotics, and very little medication. If an individual was a perceived health threat, they could easily be demonized and cast out of the group. People had little knowledge about the causes and cures of health problems in the past and sometimes superstition and suspicion were enough to justify ostracizing someone.
- to protect blood lines. Safety was an important consideration for our ancestors. You were safer with people you knew including in your family.
- to support an economic advantage. Demonizing someone or a group weakens their social status and claim to resources and supports opening the door for exploitation. Many old cities and their monuments were built on slave labor.
- habit. Our ancestors had very little information about causes and effects. Often they explained their problems by pointing to forces outside of themselves. Sometimes they were right. Nonetheless, demonizing can become a bad habit. It is also very difficult to break if it becomes a way of life for a social group.
In spite of all of our knowledge and sophistication these days, are we really that much different from our ancestors? In some ways, I think we are, but often we can revert to old habits when under pressure.We are all concerned about our survival, health, and well-being. The demands on our resources are greater now with so many people living at a time of ecological challenges.
We have however becoming more aware of our interdependence, which will encourage us to reduce the demonization of others and that is good. Diversity and education have helped us see that others are not really so different from us, and I hope we continue to extend our idea of the group to include all of us including sensitive people.
Image: Max Letek- Unsplash