I don't remember where I heard about it originally, but I've had the book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (by Philip Zimbardo) on my wishlist for a little while. Yesterday I was able to pick it up at the library and I'm reading it now. I have a feeling there may be several blog posts that come out of this book.
The author is the creator of the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (wherein students were randomly assigned as prisoners or guards and during which things went terribly wrong). So he has a long and varied history of studying human behavior.
I'm only on page 11 but he already describes something that is all too apropos:
When a power elite wants to destroy an enemy nation, it turns to propaganda experts to fashion a program of hate. What does it take for the citizens of one society to hate the citizens of another society to the degree that they want to segregate them, torment them, even kill them? It requires a "hostile imagination," a psychological construction embedded deeply in their minds by propaganda that transforms those others into "The Enemy." That image is a soldier's most powerful motive, one that loads his rifle with ammunition of hate and fear. The image of a dreaded enemy threatening one's personal well-being and the society's national security emboldens mothers and fathers to send sons to war and empowers governments to rearrange priorities to turn plowshares into swords of destruction.
It is all done with words and images. To modify an old adage: Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can sometimes kill you. The process begins with creating stereotyped conceptions of the other, dehumanized perceptions of the other, the other as worthless, the other as all-powerful, the other as demonic, the other as an abstract monster, the other as a fundamental threat to our cherished values and beliefs. With public fear notched up and the enemy threat imminent, reasonable people act irrationally, independent people act in mindless conformity, and peaceful people act as warriors. Dramatic visual images of the enemy on posters, television, magazine covers, movies, and the Internet imprint on the recesses of the limbic system, the primitive brain, with the powerful emotions of fear and hate. [The Lucifer Effect p11 - emphasis mine]
I read that and I can't help but think of what's happened in our country since 2001. How much blind hatred has been stirred up against an entire people because of the actions of a few? How many ways have we willingly allowed the feelings of fear, suspicion, and vulnerability be used as reason to change our society without factual basis?
It certainly has happened and is happening against anyone with a Middle-Eastern skin tone or practicing Islam. But it's also spilling over into the rest of our societal interactions as well. Has this not been the exact effect we've been seeing in political debates? It's always how the "other side" is trying to destroy everything we hold near and dear. Political ads are designed to instill fear and anger about what the "other side" is doing. Carefully designed to get you to react emotionally rather than intellectually. Because an intellectual position can be discussed and reconsidered; attempting to discuss an emotional position makes you "one of them."
As a society we're being pitted against each other. It bothers me how much outright propaganda we allow because even when you know it to be nonsense and predatory it still achieves its goal of creating a new baseline of emotion. A new baseline of suspicion, fear, and anger. And making those emotions normal is only going to lead to trouble.