Why do people demonize each other?
People increasingly recognize that demonizing others is a problem. However, our ancestors may not have had the same perspective.
Here are some of the reasons our forbears demonized:
- 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 with so many people living at a time of ecological challenges.
We have however become more aware of our interdependence, which prevents us from the wholesale 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.
Photo Credit: Mental Notes