In the hands of repressive and authoritarian regimes from Hitler’s Germany to the modern-day Islamic Republic of Iran, propaganda is a powerful tool to shape the views of the populace and achieve the goals of the state. As part of The Sardari Project, Iran’s ongoing collaboration with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, propaganda expert Renee Hobbs and our correspondent Arash Azizi consider the many and dangerous forms propaganda has taken over the course of the last century.
Dividing the world into “people like us” and “those others” can seem pretty harmless. It’s easy to dislike someone whom you perceive to be not part of your region, community or tribe. People that we define as “others” sometimes have different customs and different ways of talking, dressing, and eating. But when people think of others as though they are “less than” or inferior to themselves, they begin on a slippery slope of dangerous thinking that has been called dehumanization.
Dehumanization has long been used as a psychological technique to desensitize soldiers to killing. It has been used to justify war, genocide, slavery, and imprisonment. Through language, government policies, and military actions, people can be cast as, and then treated like, objects, insects, animals, or aliens, to be feared, hated, controlled, treated with cruelty or even killed.
Propaganda is an important tool of dehumanization, and it has been used against minority groups for millennia. It is a key technique in inciting genocide. When used by a nation or state, dehumanization has often been directed against racial, ethnic, or religious minorities.
Through language and storytelling that creates heroes, villains, and victims, particular groups can be identified as Insiders who deserve the benefits of society or Outsiders who threaten the moral order. By being designated as Outsiders, the latter become easy to ignore. Their complaints and needs can be dismissed. Insiders can easily ignore the individual human needs of Outsiders. Policies that exclude or marginalize Outsiders can be justified. When people are systematically denied basic dignity, compassion, and empathy, senseless and inhumane violence can occur without opposition from the general society.
You don’t have to look far to find examples of dehumanization as a prelude to violence. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Burma, Syria and other countries, tribal loyalties have been inflamed by propaganda in ways that produce so-called “hot cognition”: a term that describes irrational feelings of fear, anger, and hatred toward “the other” that can come to dominate people’s thinking and influence their actions.
When a whole culture is saturated in dehumanizing language, people can become trapped. Belief in the inferiority of the disfavored group can become a litmus test or sacred value that people are required to accept. Dehumanizing others limits your own freedom. Why? To be part of the Insider community, people may be expected to affirm their allegiance to a belief in the inferiority of the other. Conformity to these views is expected. Excluding, demeaning, and even harming members of disfavored Outsider groups can be a mechanism for coercing people to assent to views they do not hold.
To understand the warning signs of dehumanization, it is essential to understand the history of Nazi Germany and the genocide of European Jews that took place during World War II. After becoming the German chancellor in 1933, Adolf Hitler suspended the democratic institutions of that society. He killed or imprisoned his political enemies. Then he used propaganda to justify invading other countries and embarked on a campaign to exclude Jews from the “national community.” He established military and government policies that culminated in violence on a truly vast scale, with more than six million Jewish men, women and children killed through systematic, bureaucratic and state-sponsored murders in what came to be known as the Holocaust. By the time Nazi Germany was finally defeated in 1945, millions of others including Roma, Slavs, gay people, people with disabilities, Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) and others had been killed.
How did this campaign of terror begin? When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Adolf Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, orchestrated a campaign to control all forms of communication and cultural expression in the Third Reich. They ensured that news and journalism, art and culture, and popular entertainment all served their purpose: to cultivate hatred, communicate Nazi power, and promote a racist ideology. Propaganda messages in newspapers, magazines and on the radio repeated that there could be no political or social conflict in this new national community. “Racially pure" Germans had to make sacrifices for the sake of national unity. Through these efforts, a sense of national pride and greatness could be restored.
The Nazis believed that Germans were "racially superior" and they wanted to create a “racially pure” state. Jews – even those who were citizens of Germany – were considered outside of, and an alien threat to, the so-called German racial community. The Third Reich used laws and policies to begin constructing Jews as Outsiders and undesirables. German law stripped Jews of their citizenship and prohibited them from marrying or having sexual relations with persons of “German or related blood”. The laws defined a Jew not by religion but by heritage, or race. Casting Jews as racial Outsiders, the Nazi propaganda machine blamed Jews for many of Germany’s problems. For example, Hitler cited “Communist Jews” around the world as the greatest threat to the security of the nation. Until the fall of 1941, much of the Nazis’ policy toward Germany Jews had been to pressure them to leave the country through harsh legislation, income deprivation and violence. During the Holocaust, Nazi propagandists portrayed Jews as an existential threat to Germany and Western civilization. The Nazi plan was for the global annihilation of all Jewish people. Nazi propaganda played an integral role in advancing the persecution and ultimately the destruction of Europe’s Jews. It incited hatred and fostered a climate of indifference to their fate.
The Nazis were groundbreaking in their use of propaganda, which proved to be highly successful in its time. Their innovations and techniques are worth studying as they have shaped the work of subsequent generations of propagandists bent on dehumanizing groups of people in order to foment and instrumentalize group-targeted enmity and violence. Although every situation is unique, and nothing like the Holocaust is occurring today, one can see elements of the Nazi propaganda blueprint in situations that have occurred following the Second World War. A recent example is Burma (also known as Myanmar) in southeast Asia, where the military has deployed dehumanizing propaganda as part of its genocidal campaign against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority.
When a military regime took power in Burma in 1962, one of its goals was to dominate the country through social control. While the military-run government enacted discriminatory laws, it simultaneously restricted free expression. Its leaders took over or closed independent publications. The regime thus controlled the news, and pushed a narrative that argued that only through extreme isolation from the rest of the world could Burma become self-reliant and fight against the dangers of foreigners and foreign influence. Anyone who expressed independent political ideas of any kind risked imprisonment. The regime also controlled what was shared about the Rohingya and other minority groups.
Burmese government officials now label Rohingya Muslims who have lived in western Burma for over 1,000 years “illegal immigrants”. A citizenship law passed in 1982 limited the granting of full citizenship to specific ethnic groups, which did not include the Rohingya. The Rohingya were thus slowly forced from having the status of citizens to being cast as Outsiders.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of a national hero, entered politics and ran for election in 1990. Her party won 90 percent of the seats, but the military junta refused to step down and she was placed under house arrest for much of the next 20 years. A newly elected democratic government launched a program of reform in 2011 and in 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won another landslide electoral victory. She has since been serving as “state counsellor” or de facto head of the government. Reforms during this period introduced new ways to communicate via mobile phone technology and social media. This increased access came at a cost: there were now more ways for hate speech directed at the Rohingya to circulate online, and it did.
Hate speech directed at the Rohingya came from a few main sources and is often focused on dehumanizing Rohingya Muslims, claiming that they aren’t native to Burma and are less than human. Ultra-nationalist monk-led groups view the Rohingya as a threat to the country’s Buddhist identity. These publications often include racist language and promote violence against the Rohingya. At the same time, the Burmese government used state-run media and state-sanctioned social media channels to convey an official message of discrimination against the Rohingya. To further incite hatred, the military created a large-scale disinformation campaign designed to provoke a sense of victimhood among the general populace. On Facebook, they set up fan sites for Burmese pop stars, models and other celebrities.
This discrimination, persecution and dehumanization of the Rohingya people fueled acts of violence that have intensified in recent years. In August 2017, attacks on the Rohingya community by the Burmese military and others killed thousands and included rape, torture, arson, arbitrary arrest and detention. More than 700,000 Rohingya were forcibly displaced in what the military called a “clearance operation” – and what the US Holocaust Memorial Museum has determined to be genocide. In 2019, the world was shocked when Aung San Suu Kyi defended the military's actions in remarks before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
The Rohingya remain in a perilous situation. The small number who remain in Burma face continued persecution. Burmese authorities have not guaranteed the safety of those who return and have not committed to restoring their rights. Those in refugee camps are too often denied employment, education, proper medical care, and legal identities. Burmese leaders have largely denied any persecution of the Rohingya, and the community remains at risk of genocide today.
Hatred doesn’t lead to genocide overnight. It happens by degrees. Experts note that the disintegration of the political and social institutions of a group of people happens gradually, as their culture, language, traditions, and economic existence are threatened, followed by their personal security, liberty, health, and dignity. Only then does annihilation occur.
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