OPINION: When peaceful people become murderous mobs

Robert Labayen -- ExecuTips

Posted at Feb 18 2019 10:06 PM

And how you and I may actually incite hate crimes

I don’t think any of my readers will conspire to murder.

But I was shaken by this recent news footage: somewhere in the Philippines, a mob of protesting workers beats up a security guard. He was hit with fists, sticks, and stones while his body was being dragged. I don’t know if he died or survived.

Even in this civilized age, people are illegally executed by angry crowds in broad daylight and in public in many parts of the world. The disturbing thing is that the executioners are not armed personnel, not psychopaths, not hardened criminals, not neighborhood toughies, not drug-crazed addicts. They are decent, peace-loving people like you and me.

Believe it or not, there is evidence they can also get encouragement from social media posts. And we’ll go back to that in a while.

Some victims were offenders caught in the act. But many, so many, were not even guilty of any crime. Several were wrongly accused or were mistaken for other people!

They were burned alive or hanged in public or chained to a post or cut into pieces. In a Brazilian documentary, an eyewitness said he saw a woman using a spoon to scoop out the eyes of the dead victim. Apparently, extreme brutality is the signature of lynching.

How can “benign” people commit such horrible acts? What are the factors that come together in lynching and other hate crimes?

1. A sense of righteousness

In The Cognitive Neuroscience of Lynching, Dr. Sumaiya Shaikh noted that some culprits feel a “sense of righteousness” that “abates the post-kill guilt.” They think they’re doing the right thing to protect the safety or the norms of the community.

In Guaruja, Brazil in 2004, a rumor circulating on social media said that a woman had been kidnapping children to be used in her black magic rituals. When Maria Fabianne de Jesus, a 33-year-old housewife, gave a banana to a child in the street, a woman mistakenly identified her as the kidnapper. Soon, a hundred neighbors gathered around Maria. I saw in the video how a man dropped a huge block of concrete on her body while it was being kicked and dragged on the rocky street. She died later in the hospital.

In South Africa in the 1980s, those perceived as traitors to the black liberation movement were punished by igniting a kerosene-filled rubber tire around their neck.

We often blame psychopathy for murder. But only one percent of humankind are psychopaths. Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo commented in The Lucifer Effect that a much bigger number of killers are completely sane people justified by authority, peers, ideology or what they believe to be a good deed.

2. Dehumanization

When a person is labeled a “witch,” “child kidnapper,” or “traitor,” people may no longer treat them as humans. Name-calling is a technique for demonizing and dehumanizing people we don’t like. Non-humans are easier to kill.

When a person is vilified as a “rebel,” or “criminal,” or “enemy,” we can forget that they may also be a parent, a child and a sibling.

Philosopher David Livingstone Smith asserted in the book Less Than Human that cruelty prevails when we don't recognize the human dignity of the other being. Psychologist and best-selling author Paul Bloom has an opposite point of view. He believes the aggressor is satisfied when he sees the victim agonizing precisely because of their human sensations and emotions. 

For about 100 days in 1994, the Hutu government of Rwanda ordered ordinary citizens to kill every member of the Tutsi ethnic group. Nearly a million of these people described as “cockroaches” were butchered. Among their killers were their own neighbors, in-laws and close family friends they usually had dinner with!

And the manner by which they were slaughtered? You don’t have the stomach for it.

3. Moral Panic

Sociologist and criminologist Stanley Cohen said that moral panic begins when someone, something or some people are defined as a threat to social norms or community interests.

A few years ago in England, Bijan Ebrahimi was killed by neighbors upon mere suspicion that he was a pedophile.

After World War II in Poland, Christians became insecure about the return of the liberated Jews. Some people spread talk about alleged Jewish religious ceremonies that required the offering of Christian blood. In preemptive moves by Christians, more Jews were killed.

When slavery was abolished after the American Civil War, many whites couldn’t accept blacks as equals. Many African Americans were set on fire or hanged. The oppressors didn't seem to feel guilty about it. There were food stalls to serve the onlookers who even brought their children as though in a normal weekend stroll. The vicious photos of the dead were even circulated as souvenir photos.

Recently, American high school students mocked the participants of the Indigenous People’s March in Washington, D.C. “Build that wall,” they shouted. No one was killed but it is a very current early symptom of moral panic.

4. Hate Contagion

Can you actually be influenced to kill?

Many scientists have spoken about “emotional contagion” which is also described as “herd mentality” or the “hive effect.”

The theory suggests that people synchronize their emotions with the emotional expressions of those around them. In the book Instincts of Herd in Peace and War, Wilfred Trotter admitted that the biological basis for man’s tendency to be influenced by a crowd needed more study. But he cited the plausibility of Boris Sidis’ observation in The Psychology of Suggestion that a person’s irrationality, cruelty and lack of self-control can be triggered when he is part of a crowd in panic, a riot or lynching.

Sally Kohn was a Fox commentator before moving to CNN. In her book The Opposite of Hate, she wrote: “All hate is premised on a mindset of otherizing.” Man has a tendency to think “we are right and they are wrong.” The conviction may escalate to "we are good and they are evil."

She said that the supporters of Donald Trump chanted “Lock her up!” and “Hang her in the streets,” referring to Hillary Clinton. For their part, Trump-haters had their own mean tweets. Among them, “Laughing at all the Trump supporters in Gatlinburg as their homes burn to the ground tonight.” Another said, “maybe it’s ‘god’ punishing them for voting for Trump.”

Ms. Kohn’s book revealed that hate crimes in the US rose by 20 percent "fuelled in part by the contentious election." There were attacks on Jews, immigrants, and Muslims. There were also black teeners charged after their social media live stream showed them beating up a mentally disabled white man while they yelled "Fuck white people!" 

An analyst in Brazil counted that so many social media comments supported the lynchings because the victims “deserve to be punished.”

Social media is not evil. But it’s like a knife that can be used for both good and bad.

In a Huffington Post story about a school principal accused, but not yet proven to be a pedophile, these comments came out, among many others: “He needs to be taken out back and shot.” “I believe he should be shot without due process.” “I hope he gets raped every single day of his pathetic, miserable life.”

It’s so easy to spread hate and agitate people now that we are interconnected electronically practically every minute of the day. Hate spreads like digital wildfire.

A few weeks ago when a high school bully was exposed in the social media, I truly wanted to at least flick a finger on the nose of that boy. Judging by the flood of incensed comments, it was possible that he could get harassed on any street he walked by. Now I realize he deserves a second chance because he is just a child. Even adults make far worse mistakes and we forgive them.

5. Diffusion of responsibility and “deindividuation.”

When an attack is done by a group, participating individuals have a lower level of sensitivity to the suffering of the victim. They think they are not solely responsible anyway. Dr. Janice Harper, writer of Modern Lynchings: When Accusations are All it Takes, likens the low guilt level to a firing squad’s. “All will have pulled the trigger, but none will have fired the lethal shot.”

 What can we do to save lives?

We all have a right, maybe a duty, to express outrage over obvious wrongs. But now I know we have a responsibility after realizing how social media can spread hate and ignite passions. I advise my friends, “pause before you post.” We may know ourselves well, but we don’t know the mental health of the people we may provoke. Many mass shootings and hate crimes were committed by people who snapped after long periods of resentment, bitterness or disgust. Even otherwise peaceful people can get carried away when angry and fatal accidents may happen.

Trolling has become a pastime for many people. I don’t know how we can stop that. But we can decide to become good cyber citizens and not troll back. We can crusade until good cyber citizens outnumber the trollers because civilization must prevail.

After the battle for Marawi City in the Philippines, my creative communication division showed images of Christians and Muslims lovingly connecting with one another. We hoped to help communicate the thought that fighting should be limited to the extremists and the home defense forces while love continues among people who may have different cultures but the same humanity.

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References :

Crowd Psychology by Wikipedia Contributors

Instincts of Herd in Peace and War by Wilfred Trotter

Modern Lynchings: When Accusations are All it Takes by Dr. Janice Harper in Psychology Today website

The Cognitive Neuroscience of Lynching by Dr. Sumaiya Shaikh in The Wire website

The First Stone, documentary on lynching in Brazil

The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo

The Opposite of Hate by Sally Kohn

The Paedophile Hunter: The Psychology of Vigilantism by Will Gore in The Independent website

V for Vendetta V for Vigilante by S. David Bernstein in Psychology Today website

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Read more about ExecuTips on www.robertlabayen.com

About the Author:

Robert Labayen spent 22 years in advertising prior to joining ABS-CBN in 2004. He was VP-Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi and Executive Creative Director at J. Walter Thompson, two of the country's leading ad agencies. He is currently the Head of Creative Communications Management at ABS-CBN. His job involves inspiring people to be their best. He is a writer, painter and songwriter.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.