The Individual Psychology of Group Hate: and Why It Matters

Previously posted on Daily Kos. I remember having a debate on the death penalty back when I was in grade school.  The overwhelming consensus of these admittedly young and inexperienced thinkers was that the death sentence was appropriate for guilty offenders (I assume we were talking about punishments for murder, but I don’t really remember).  Someone brought up the fact that not all of those found guilty and executed by the state were, in fact, guilty.  Again, the vast majority of people seemed to feel that although the court-sanctioned death of an innocent was unfortunate, it was just the price you had to pay in order to insure that the guilty received proper punishment.

That always bugged me, the idea that punishment was more important than innocence.  An article I read yesterday by Willa Michener, “The Individual Psychology of Group Hate” in The Journal of Hate Studies, explained with terrifying evidence, logic, and clarity why human beings have so little compunction about punishing the innocent along with the guilty (or even in place of them).  This behavior is called “third-party revenge” or “vicarious revenge” and sometimes “vicarious retribution.” Prof. Michener’s examples hit me like a gut punch, because the first of them I had never been able to get out of my mind, and the other two were so completely (and successfully) downplayed by a complicit media that I don’t even remember hearing about them.  In Michener’s article, after looking at some transcripts of Howard Stern’s radio show from 9/11 in which callers demand mass lynching of Muslims, the nuclear annihilation of Afghanistan, and to “kill all their babies” (which actually don’t sound that different from some of the stuff Ted Cruz has said recently), the author goes on to note

Four days later, Balbir Singh Sodi was shot to death as he planted flowers outside his filling station in Mesa, Arizona. News accounts stated blandly that Frank Roque killed him in revenge for the attacks of September 11 (Gallegus, 2001). They did not explain why Roque had targeted a person who was not a perpetrator of the 9/11 crimes. It was assumed that readers would already know that people take revenge against innocents who belong to the same group as a guilty person. It was pointed out that Roque got his victim’s group membership wrong, since Balbir Singh Sodhi was neither Muslim nor Arab. On the same day, a Pakistani Muslim was shot to death in Dallas, Texas, and an Egyptian Christian was killed in San Gabriel, California (Mozingo, 2001; Vaishnav, 2001).  [Michener 16]

I had heard about Mr. Sodi’s death in Arizona, and been very disturbed by it, but how did I miss the other two? (Answer: they got very little coverage in the media).  The present relevance of this seems almost too obvious to explain, as we struggle to distinguish group guilt from individual guilt.  The idea that “If one did it, then they all did it, or at least any of them might do it, cause ‘That’s how they are ‘” (Michener 17), is the unstated but near universal assumption made by an awful lot of Americans. With every radical Islamic terrorist attack, Muslims are called upon to denounce their fanatical co-religionists (which they repeatedly have, although it is rarely reported in the MSM)—the only thing that will show their critics that an individual American Muslim is truly against the terrorists is going to fight them in Syria or Afghanistan.  This point is often explicitly made against Syrian refugees: if they are truly the victims of ISIS violence, then why aren’t they back in Syria dying and fighting in the war against their victimizers? Giving up your life in the struggle is probably the only way most Muslim Americans could convince these critics of their sincerity and—from the perspective of these Real Americans back home—that would be a win-win—not only do Muslims (especially young males) disappear from American society, but Real Americans can get your stuff (never underestimate the naked greed beneath the naked hate), which—at least in their minds—has been unfairly kept from them.

Michener continues—after an analysis of many cultures, anecdotes, and even chimpanzees—he explains how

we are in a better position [now] to explain third-party revenge. The explanation requires two steps. The first is that the initial offense by members of another group causes ingroup members to see the entire alien group as “enemy.” Respect and empathy are inhibited or withdrawn towards individual enemies. The second step is that the emotions of reciprocity are engaged: hurt and fury and vindictiveness. These are emotions that had their evolutionary origin in encounters between individuals and small factions (de Waal, 1982). Oddly, the attack on innocent and helpless members of another group is accompanied by an emotion of moral self-righteousness (Lickel et al., 2006). The oddness consists in the conflict with ordinary moral codes that are applied within the group. Some cultures have noticed the oddness and proscribed third-party revenge, or directed that it cannot be used against children, or against women, or against unarmed persons caught unaware. Nevertheless, the impulse towards it, righteousness and all, can often be detected in people from these cultures (de Zayas, 1986; Ignatieff, 1997).  [Michener 34]

Michener also explains the “if we attack them, they must be enemies” phenomenon, as well as how we tend to look at criminals within our own group as individuals, and thus not extended the perceived guilt to anyone outside the perpetrator. All of this is demonstrated through copious evidence and scholarly citation (it is an academic article, not a popular one, but more than worth the effort). Chillingly, these inherited traits, in  the proper environment (think  hate radio and Fox News), can lead to what Michener terms the Kristallnacht effect, which can be summarized as “we did it / they deserved it / hit them again.” After reading Michener’s article, I realize that a self-justifying escalation of self-righteous violence, with all its attendant self-justifying savagery on the innocent and helpless,  no longer seems like a distant historical curiosity, but rather something that is deeply embedded in human nature and a horrifying possibility in the near future.

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