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Why We Kill: Populism as a Path to Violence

A visitor at the Srebrenica Genocide memorial, one of the sites of atrocities during the Yugoslav war. Photo credit: Claire Noone.

Hutus and Tutsis, Serbs and Croats, Sunni and Shia, Israelis and Palestinians; these are groups that harbor such hatred toward each other that violence—even genocide—is likely to occur. That’s what political scientists used to believe. However, more recent scholarship suggests this is false. Groups that have longstanding animosity are not bound to harm each other; they need political leaders willing to fan the flames, who believe that encouraging violence against civilians will bring some benefit.

One of the most dramatic examples of manipulation by political leaders resulting in mass atrocities occurred in the 1990s in Yugoslavia. If I asked you to tell me about the war in Yugoslavia, you might say something like this: President Tito ruled the regions of Yugoslavia with an iron fist and did not allow the different ethnicities to fight. After he died, there was no strong leader to keep the peace, and the nations consumed by centuries of hatred toward each other fell back into their violent patterns.

But that’s not what happened.

According to political scientist Chip Gagnon, this theory is not supported by evidence. He writes that “ethnic hatreds are not the central, primary cause of the Yugoslav conflict.” Rather, the conflict was created by Serbian conservatives, led by Slobodan Milošević, who feared losing power to Serbian reformers. Milošević and his partners portrayed Serbs as victims and mounted a campaign based on “the survival of the Serbian people.” Political leaders succeeded in fanning the fires of fear and hatred solely for political and economic gain. What became the most brutal war in Europe since WWII started  because of intra-ethnic competition and not centuries-old hatreds. 

What was the result of our misconception of the Yugoslav war? We didn’t send in troops to stop the slaughter of civilians early enough because we thought we were dealing with an intractable conflict. However, by 1999, US President Bill Clinton had reversed his position in defense of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo:

“As long as people have existed, there have been problems among people who were different from one another, and there probably always will be. But you do not have systematic slaughter . . . unless some politician thinks it’s in his interest to foment that sort of hatred. That’s how these things happen. People with organized political and military power decide it is in their interest that they get something out of convincing the people they control or they influence to go kill other people and uproot them and dehumanize them . . . and if people make decisions to do these kinds of things, other people can make decisions to stop them.”

How do we let our political leaders get away with this?

Patricia Roberts-Miller, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Texas, would ask us to examine our own responsibility in allowing these kinds of leaders to emerge. In her book Demagoguery and Democracy she writes: 

“We don’t have demagoguery in our culture because a demagogue came to power; when demagoguery becomes the normal way of participating in public discourse, then it’s just a question of time until a demagogue arises.”

She defines demagoguery as being about identity.

“It says that complicated policy issues can be reduced to a binary of us (good) versus them (bad) . . . That polarized and factionalized way of approaching public discourse virtually guarantees demagogues.”

Demagoguery, she argues,

“isn’t [just] about what politicians do; it’s about how we, as citizens, argue, reason, and vote.”

So, do people create demagogues because of their inability to listen to each other, or do demagogues take advantage of people’s fears and in-group loyalties?

To get some perspective, I called two scholars whose work could (and did) help inform my thinking.

Brianna Smith, a political science doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, responded that “Probably both factors are at work.” She explained to me that people like simple solutions and rally behind them. Simple messages resonate with voters. They don’t want to hear that problems are complicated and solutions are messy. But she’s less supportive of attaching the word “demagogue” to some political leaders over others. “Trying to get people scared and angry and ready to get involved, these are tactics used by everyone.”

Philip Fernbach is a cognitive scientist at the University of Colorado. He and Steven Sloman recently published The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. I asked Fernbach specifically about the problem of political polarization. He explained that polarization may stem from overconfidence in our grasp of the issues. His research shows that people are constrained by the limited amount of information they can store in their brains. But this limitation doesn’t lead to humility; in fact, it’s the opposite. As Fernbach and Sloman write, “We are overconfident, sure we are right about the things we know little about.” This can make us ripe for manipulation.

What Can We Do About It?

Surely there’s a fix here. We aren’t destined to be ruled by our sometimes obstinate, prejudiced, and simplistic natures, easily manipulated by appeals to our emotions, and unwilling to hear others. Right?

Fernbach was not as optimistic as I would have liked (because I, like everyone else, like simple answers). He told me that “We cannot just educate ourselves out of this problem.”

But he did offer some ideas. Along with a call for humility, he suggests we try to explain our positions instead of advocating for them. Advocacy allows us to speak with a very shallow understanding of the issues, but when we try to explain our position we realize how little we really know.

Next, he suggests we focus on consequences and not values. We tend to demonize others when we focus solely on values. For example, if you believe that healthcare is a basic right, and I disagree, it’s not because I want people to die in the street. Instead, focus on the things that most of us can agree on: affordable, effective healthcare.

Finally, he advises us to approach people with curiosity. Ask them why they believe what they do. Don’t try to convince anyone they’re wrong, just listen. Remember that in most cases you are not an expert. Roberts-Miller would likely agree with this. She writes: “. . . we try to solve the problem of demagoguery in ways that worsen it: We call for purifying our public sphere of their demagogues, often in very demagogic ways.”

Brianna Smith told me that it’s possible to train ourselves out of the in-group/out-group mindset, but it has to start from birth. She told me that infants start to show a preference for one race over another at three months. However, children raised in racially diverse environments show much less preference for their own race.

Some of us are better at raising our dogs to be social than our children. She explained:

“If you have an aggressive dog, you socialize it. You don’t raise a dog around women only, for instance – it will be aggressive toward men. If you raise a kid around white people, they probably won’t grow up to be violent, but they’ll have a moment of uncertainty around people they see as different.”

Here’s a summary of what I heard, along with a few of my own suggestions for preventing yourself from being manipulated by populists or creating an atmosphere of intolerance that allows empowers them:

  1. Embrace the boring and complicated, and be skeptical of the bold and simple.
  2. Reject appeals to fear.
  3. Reject appeals to utopia. Keep in mind the adage “If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is.”
  4. Listen and ask questions; i.e., stop talking so much. 
  5. Seek out people you disagree with.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, expressed his aim for improvement in the coming year:

“This year, I will begin with the sin of certainty. The certainty that I have the truth and others do not. The certainty that I am right and others wrong. The certainty that I am good and others bad. The certainty that I love my country and others do not.”

Demagoguery is not inevitable. People of diverse nations, faiths, and political parties tolerate and even respect each other throughout the world. They marry and raise children, they govern and run businesses together. And many believe that they are stronger for it. More than any single policy prescription, our ability to listen to each other and work together will predict our strength and longevity as nations and countries. There’s much work to be done.