They Don’t Even See Us

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

When I wrote, in a recent post, that the rich and far-right-wing legislators “don’t even see us,” I was basing that statement on social science research, not mere opinion.

A paper published by the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research, located in the southern part of The Netherlands, found that people who have power over others tend to see the others as less than human, even perceiving them as objects or animals.

A position of power entails making difficult decisions for other people that may cause pain and suffering. Dehumanization helps to downplay this pain and suffering and thus to justify these decisions.

The paper, published in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations summarized the results of three studies. I’m working from an abstract here; the full paper is behind a paywall.

Study 1 shows that powerful people dehumanize an outgroup more. Study 2 replicates that powerful people dehumanize an outgroup more and shows that this is especially likely after making a tough decision that is painful for that outgroup. Study 3 replicates this in a medical context.

(This explains why so many physicians seem so uncaring when they have to administer painful treatments. They’re protecting themselves.)

I’m willing to assume that a substantial portion of the Congressional far right really thinks the most important thing they can do to save the country is cut government spending to reduce the budget deficit and thus the amount the Fed must borrow to pay its/our bills. I believe they got to this by means of heavy lobbying from the corporate class, particularly those who benefit from keeping our country in a state of permanent war.

I think they’re wrong, disastrously wrong, but I can see them more clearly if I tell myself they’re misinformed rather than evil, so that’s my choice.

That being the case, what this paper tells me is that they know the most vulnerable among us will be the most hurt by the Ryan budget plan they have voted to support, and that, to protect themselves from knowing on an emotional level what they propose, they see their prospective victims as less than human and therefor not deserving of care or sympathy.

I don’t see this as an excuse or justification. Instead, I view it as important information for us to use in countering their efforts. Among the things it suggests to me: That we have to be in their faces at every possible opportunity. And that we have to do it with dignity. That the more we look and behave like the people with whom they identify, the harder it will be to dehumanize us.

Laugh if you will, but I have this fantasy of an outpouring of working class people dressed up as white collar functionaries – business suits, white shirts, and ties for men and comparable outfits for women (all this stuff can be had from thrift shops – they won’t get close enough to us to see if our clothes are threadbare). We’d do the normal rally things, signs, songs, and chants, but we’d look like the kind of people they relate to. I think it would blow their minds. And I think it would be fun.

And what photo ops for the press corps. How could they resist?

On April 4, workers at 1,200 sites in the US rallied with the theme “We Are One.” About a hundred people turned out in the town of 18,000 where I went to rally. (The local reporter came early, stayed for a few minutes, counted 30 people and went with that number, but those of us who stayed the full 90 minutes know better.) Let’s say that even in the big cities no more than 100 people showed up – which is untrue, but not subject to challenge. That would mean 120,000 people nationwide — a massive rally, if we’d all been in one place. The media for the most part ignored us, although they went into spasms when 200 tea partiers showed up on the Mall in DC.

If we had dressed as though we worked on Wall Street “We Are One” would have been a phenomenon.

The only mistake we can make is to give up. The more we understand those we oppose, the more we force them to deal with us as people of consequence, and the more effective we can be.

Think about it.

Hat tip to Ian Leslie, aka Marbury.

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a Reply