Delegitimising and Dehumanising Representations

In contexts of intergroup conflict, social representations may categorise an outgroup primarily on the basis of negative traits in order to deny the humanity of the outgroup and to exclude it from dominant society. This process has been referred to as delegitimisation (Bar-Tal, 2000; Oren and Bar-Tal, 2007). In order for a group to be delegitimised, delegitimising social representations need to form and circulate in society. In theorising delegitimisation, Bar-Tal (2000) has identified a series of ways in which outgroups can be delegitimised:

dehumanisation refers to the attribution of subhuman traits to a group (e.g. demon, monster, Satan);

trait characterisation is the attribution of generally negative characteristics to a group (e.g. liar, aggressor), which elicit a negative evaluation of it;

outcasting constructs groups as violators of pivotal social norms (e.g. murderers, thieves);

political labelling entails the positioning of groups into socially stigmatised political categories (e.g. Nazi, imperialist).

This typology of delegitimisation sheds light on the kinds of social representation that need to emerge in order for a group to be successfully delegitimised. Social representations of outgroups may dehumanise them by anchoring them to animals or non-human entities or by objectifying them through the use of animalistic metaphors. Some political figures in the Western world have anchored Israel to infamous political groups such as the Nazis in order to delegitimise the Jewish State, and have implied that the Jews, despite their trauma during the Holocaust, themselves commit acts comparable to those committed by the Nazis.1 The process of delegitimisation typically positions the outgroup as posing some kind of threat to the ingroup, and as highlighted in Figure 4.1 (below), this threat can be symbolic, realistic or hybridised.

1  The Commentator of_parliament_claims_liberated_jews_perpetuate_atrocities_compares_mid_east_ conflict_to_holocaust
Threat imagery can be invoked in order to mobilise people against the delegitimised outgroup. Moreover, systematic, institutionalised delegitimisation usually encourages widespread belief in a battle between “good” (represented by the ingroup) and “evil” (epitomised by the delegitimised outgroup). There is a tendency to accentuate the positive characteristics of the ingroup vis-à-vis the negative characteristics of the outgroup, and this clash between “good” and “evil” may be brandished as the underlying cause of intergroup conflict (van Dijk, 1993). Clearly, delegitimisation often evokes cognitions and emotions which may be conducive to full-blown intergroup conflict (Oren and Bar-Tal, 2014). For instance, Bar-Tal (2000) argues that delegitimisation can arouse highly negative emotions of rejection, such as hatred, anger, fear and disgust, which collectively can lead to aggression, violence and even genocide. The Nazi persecution and systematic delegitimisation of the Jews, which culminated in the Holocaust, clearly exemplifies the devastating consequences that delegitimisation can have.

Dehumanisation is a social psychological process which is particularly applicable to cases of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. As Bar-Tal (2000) notes, dehumanisation refers to the attribution of subhuman traits to a group – it divests individuals of the quality of humanness and constructs them primarily as animalistic. There is a long-standing media tendency to represent Jews and, more recently, the State of Israel in a dehumanising manner. Jews and Israelis have been likened to animals in political rhetoric, institutional texts, visual representations and other media. This has undoubtedly contributed to the social acceptability of calling for the destruction of the State of Israel, as is the case in the Islamic Republic of Iran and in other countries.

Kelman (1976, p. 301) has argued that dehumanisation entails the denial of a person's individual and community identities. The denial of individual identity deprives him/her of their status “as an individual, independent and distinguishable from others, capable of making choices” while denial of the community identity denies their membership in “an interconnected network of individuals who care for each other” (Kelman, 1976, p. 301). It is easy to fi examples of how Israel and Jews are habitually dehumanised. Jews may be divested of their individual identity while their community identity is conversely accentuated, that is, as a malevolent network of individuals who collusively care for each other in their malicious goals. This dehumanising social representation deprives Jews and Israelis of their capacity to evoke outgroups' compassion, empathy and moral emotions (Bandura, Underwood and Fromson, 1975), which can have negative consequences for intergroup relations and, particularly, for the wellbeing of the dehumanised group.

Delegitimisation, dehumanisation and intergroup threat perceptions are principally social psychological phenomena, which serve intrapsychic, interpersonal and intergroup functions. In order to understand why individuals, groups and institutions may actively create, accept and disseminate delegitimising and dehumanising representations of Jews and Israel, it is necessary to draw upon a multi-level theory that bridges the intrapsychic, interpersonal and intergroup levels – namely, Identity Process Theory.

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