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Pro-Trump Capitol riot violence underscores bipartisan danger of dehumanizing language

Dehumanization is more than just disagreement or incivility — it is the express denial of humanity. And it's on the rise across America.
Image: Supporters of President Donald Trump protest inside the Capitol
It remains to be seen whether we will remember Jan. 6, 2021 as the end of an ugly episode in our history or an early skirmish in a prolonged period of political violence. Roberto Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images

It is not news anymore that the United States is deeply polarized along partisan lines. In recent decades, ours has become a body politic consumed by fear and loathing, willing to attribute nefarious motives to an anonymous “other side” capable of horrible, unethical behavior — and able to justify virtually any tactic in thwarting our political foes. Partisan hyper-polarization has spawned demonization and distrust.

In recent decades, ours has become a body politic consumed by fear and loathing.

But, as the 2020 election approached, what had been a simmer of partisan antagonism approached a boil. Before the election, more than 80 percent of likely voters were somewhat or very concerned about election-related violence, according to a UMass Poll. Sixteen percent even indicated they considered purchasing a gun in anticipation of the election and its aftermath. This anxiety was understandable. After Election Day, as Republican politicians issued and endorsed delusional or disingenuous claims of widespread election fraud, melees erupted at protests, and officials and campaign workers found themselves the target of threats and intimidation in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, Michigan, Arizona, and elsewhere.

That all culminated in the shocking, but unsurprising, deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol that desecrated the seat of our democracy and threatened the lives of our elected representatives. It remains to be seen whether we will remember that surreal day as the end of an ugly episode in our history or an early skirmish in a prolonged period of political violence. Amid warnings of plans for armed protests, three of four Americans say they fear more violence surrounding President-elect Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration, according to a CBS News-YouGov poll.

We wish to offer a somber caution regarding the persistence of one very troubling manifestation of America’s deep political divide, and a call that we all demand more from ourselves and, especially, our leaders.

Dehumanization, the practice of believing that groups or individuals lack (either figuratively or literally) certain human qualities, is something we have been studying among Democrats and Republicans since 2014. Dehumanization is more than just disagreement or incivility, it is the express denial of humanity (for example, calling Kamala Harris a “monster” or using the term “DemoRATS”). And is associated with a host of consequences, including acceptance of violence against its targets.

Years ago, we noticed a rise in rhetoric characterizing a wide range of political and social groups (e.g., Muslims, immigrants) as subhuman, animals, invaders, garbage, pestilence, and monsters, among other things. Our research has shown that voters routinely rate their own party as more human than members of the opposition party, and this tendency was especially pronounced among strongly identified partisans.

The 2020 UMass Poll found that 85 percent of partisans rated those in their party as “more evolved” than those in the opposing party. Over the course of President Donald Trump’s first term, political polarization has only intensified, and so has the tendency to dehumanize the political opposition. In subsequent national YouGov surveys supported in part by Democracy Fund, we asked partisans whether their opponents “lack the traits to be considered fully human - they behave like animals.” Between 2017 and 2020, the proportion of partisans who agreed rose from around 18 percent to 35 percent. As our evidence of partisan dehumanization has accumulated, we have grown increasingly concerned about its implications for our democracy and society.

One of the darker implications of the growth of these dehumanizing attitudes is that they can facilitate and be used to justify violence against their targets. In a national survey conducted in February 2020, we found that the 24 percent of partisans who believe the other party “behaves like animals” were significantly more supportive of immediate partisan violence, violence if one’s party loses the 2020 presidential election and sending threats to opposing leaders and citizens. (In a September survey, 25 percent of partisans endorsed post-election violence if their party lost.) For these reasons, many social media platforms have recently moved to restrict dehumanizing speech. Research has also shown that dehumanization is a self-reinforcing process — when our opponents dehumanize us, we are more likely to dehumanize them in return, in a vicious cycle.

The good news is that leaders, the media, and citizens can reduce dehumanizing and threatening attitudes, simply by speaking out against them. In September 2019, we conducted an experiment testing the effects of pacifying messages in a national YouGov survey. We asked a randomly selected set of respondents to read a message from either Joe Biden or Trump, either disavowing violence or reminding us of our common American identity. Some respondents did not read any message at all. We found that both types of messages, when coming from Biden, significantly reduced endorsements of partisan dehumanization and violence, even among Republicans.

Unfortunately, when coming from Trump, these messages did not have the same effect. Especially in light of recent events, we believe that pacifying messages only work when they emanate from political figures who have not released a consistent stream of enflaming messages.

Most importantly, these messages were most effective for people who are strongly attached to their party. Strong partisanship generally increases dehumanizing and violent attitudes, but when a leader like Biden calls for peace, that effect diminishes. In other words, anti-violence rhetoric can calm even radical partisans.

It doesn’t all rest on our leaders. These messages can also work when they come from regular citizens. When we asked respondents to read similar messages from a nondescript Twitter account, dehumanizing and violent attitudes significantly decreased. Every American has the power to calm their fellow citizens, simply by speaking out against dehumanization and violence. It is critical for citizens to learn to recognize dehumanizing language as distinct from disagreement and to understand the role they can play in mitigating it.

But there’s no escaping the importance of leadership. As Biden said in the aftermath of the Capitol riots, “the words of a president matter, no matter how good or bad that president is. At their best the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite.”