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Last Updated: 12/15/2005
The Nuts and Bolts of Genocide
Kyoon Grace Mwuese

Four key concepts and responses at play combine and influence one another in a rolling manner to create fatal responses from man against other men. The first two concepts of social identity and ideology generate the two responses of mass killings and genocide. Interestingly, these responses serve in retrospect to again deepen the concepts. It all begins with human nature and the inherent need to socialize, to belong to groups, to foster cooperation, to attain corporate achievements and to create a sense of mutual responsibility.

A clear definition of the concepts mentioned immediately shows how they relate to one another and demand responses. The social identity theory states that people are motivated to behave in ways that maintain and boost their self esteem. Having high self esteem is typically a perception of oneself as attractive, competent, likable and morally good. These attributes make the person more attractive to the outside social world and make it more desirable for others to be in positive relationships with them.(1)

These identities are dynamic; they are the lenses through which we look at ourselves. They are constructs either of powerful individuals who wield enormous influence on society and demand others to buy into their own, certain other ideologies or are based on cultural, religious and historical peculiarities and experiences. Identities may also evolve as direct results of shared traumas, glories or threats.

Some individuals and societies define social identity by some collective disaster evoking sympathy. For instance, “The influence of a severe and humiliating calamity that directly affects all or most of a large group forges a link between the psychology of the individual and that of the group.”(2) Groups may find comfort and togetherness when they unite to mourn tragic occurrences such as the loss of loved ones and property during armed conflict. The Ibo, a tribe in the southeastern parts of Nigeria have built this form of social identity based on shared feelings of perceived marginalization by the other parts of the country. The civil war that followed the failed secessionist attempt was a response but served also to evoked sympathy from the international community who empathized with the “sufferings of the Ibo” subsequently they have built an identity as a special people, indispensable and resilient within their context, speaking tirelessly of someday gaining freedom from an oppressive state. In time, such individuals unconsciously develop shared feelings of resentment towards the ‘other’ group they view as unfair and threatening to their collective survival and these memories may be reignited and used by a manipulative political leader to distort the larger group’s perspective and convince them to take up arms for revenge.(4)

Also, social identification come through shared glories. Volkan, for instance, refers to the “chosen glory, the mental representation of a historical event that induces feelings of success and triumph.”(5) This brings groups together to celebrate victories, basking in the sense of heightened self esteem that comes with it. The picture pops to mind of former colonies and the celebration and pride that come with the attainment of independence, implying the liberty for a “people with its own identity,” a sense of “we-ness.” The reminder for such victory may also be the attachment to a symbolic object, an example in this case being national flags of independent former colonies. Here, the group may nurture such great mental attachment to whatever victory to the exclusion of all defeat, to the extent that they feel obligated to fight if necessary to keep the status attained even if it means mass killings and genocide. On a different level, glories may be a result of superiority complexes. For example, colonialists in Rwanda had built a social identity for the Tutsi based on the ideology of superiority in race to the Hutu. Tutsis were viewed as Hamites and Hutus as inferior Bantus. In response, this ingrained racism that had built feelings of frustration, hatred and alienation among the Hutus was reversed upon independence when the majority Hutus took to viewing the Tutsis as foreign invaders and not true Rwandans.(6) This psychosocial construct and racist ideology set the stage for hatred and preceded the genocide.

Again, social identity may spring from having shared enemies, that is, members of other groups perceived to be potential threats. “We-ness” immediately sets all others apart and makes them threats to the “we” status quo, creating borders and inaccessible walls. This can be seen even among children growing up who form neighborhood friendships and feel the group threatened as soon as another child moves into the neighborhood. Each one fears that the other may leave the group in favor of the new friend, or that the new kid joining the group may alter the tight-knit relationship they have held. The same gets replayed in adult group relations.

The control of resources has also been known to unite individuals and groups in remarkable ways while at the same time generating violence resulting in mass killings. Nigeria is a good example of a country so close to disintegration and yet held together by an interconnected web of resource dependence. About 80 percent of the country’s export revenue, on which the nation’s economy depends, comes from crude oil, a product found in the southerly parts of the country. This part of the country in turn depends on the other parts of the country and the central government for food and revenue, creating a mutual feeling of dependency that holds the country together. Psychologically, frustration mounts among secessionist-prone southern states while fear, distrust and even hatred are expressed by the north against the south which is constantly accused of greed and the evil mission of resource control. In the past, ambitious politicians have taken advantage of these divisions and identities to propagate ethno political ideologies and incite violent conflict in various parts of the country.(7)

A number of combined of factors may also inform social identities. For example, the Jewish nation constructs identity around inseparable variables of religious, cultural, ethnic and other historical commonalities, such as the persecution they were subjected to by the Nazi regime and elsewhere in the world. This is a case of multiple identities. However they have evolved, identities create a sense of ‘safety’ on the individual seeking to identify with the larger group; it is a pathway to self discovery within a complex social order so as not to be left outside the circle (imaginary or real)

However, as we humans progress and interact with other cultures or acquire new status, our identity constructs and ways of looking at ourselves may be influenced or change altogether. The role of ideology then becomes prominent. Ideology has been said to be a relatively coherent system of values, beliefs, or ideas shared by some social group and often taken for granted as natural or inherently true.(8) Ideology has the potential to shape political systems, cultural norms and religious affinities; it holds the promise of hope, freedom and other forms of utopia. People flock to the lure of such promise and define social identity on its terms, then develop the desire or commitment to protect it at all cost.

Indeed some ideology is positive: For instance, the need to protect democracy, human rights, liberty and nationalism. But given the wrong incentive, ideology can become the psychological motivation for mass killing and genocide; it provides justification for social divisions and paints rosy pictures of one group while demonizing another in a bid to elevate the former. Negative ideology deepens discrimination, hostility and prejudice created by social identities - polarization of the good “us” and the bad “other”; the psychology of “enemy imaging,” of other groups; and constructing the other party as totally untrustworthy; adopting these positions exaggerates the grounds for fear, places constraints on communication, intermarriage and other relationships that build just societies. In the long run this culminates in individuals making mental justifications for killing or destroying the unworthy ‘other’ who probably deserves to die.

Ideology shapes social identity, helping people find meaning in life sometimes by any available means, including putting and keeping down others as a way to stay afloat. A part of the superior white vs. inferior black construct (racism) was also the Nazi ideology of preserving the ‘pure’ Aryan race, leading to the mass killings of 6 million Jews between 1941 and 1945. Also, the protracted Northern Ireland conflict that hinged on political ideology, strengthened ethno-social identities, and polarized the country along religious lines is another powerful illustration of the role of ideology in propagating mass killings. The protestant ideologies constructed the Catholic sect as “evil and unchristian,” an emotional state of mind coupled with “fear of domination by Rome.” The attitude strengthened hate campaigns and ultimately lead partisans from both sides - on one hand Protestants seeking legal, political and economic links to the United Kingdom, on the other hand Catholics vying for nationalistic ends, aimed at reunifying Ireland under a Dublin government - to “take up arms to fight for (in defense of) their respective beliefs.”(9) This reinforces the social identity theory.

The roles of both social identity and ideology in the perpetration of mass killings and genocide become clear as each case resulted in mass violence. As much as each concept seems to require the other to generate a response to violence on the scale of genocide, it is imperative to note that other factors combine to enable mass killings and genocide.

A combination of social identity, ideology and power are a good mix for spawning mass killings and genocide. In the case of the Nazi regime, Adolf Hitler’s position of power was instrumental in eliminating all opposition and enabled him to launch an ambitious program of world domination and elimination of the Jews, paralleling ideas he advanced in his book, Mein Kampf.(10) The same can be said about such powerful and ideological leaders as Pol Pot in Cambodia.

Illiteracy and ideology also combine to speed up the race towards genocide. Usually a series of events serve to create anxiety in the members of the in-group who, crippled by fear and perceived threats from the out group (further exaggerated by political and religious leaders, educational systems, books and manipulative media), become convinced of the need to take up arms in what may be justified as “self defense.”

This is enhanced by lack of education, poor critical thinking skills and wholehearted devotion to warped minded leaders who uphold negative ideologies on the part of ill informed followers. Possibly these actions come out of a sheer desire to identify with the larger group and not appear to be the odd one out.(11) This educational vulnerability and unquestioning obedience is taken advantage of by political and religious leaders to spark off violent reactions leading to mass killings and genocide.

Once these highly respected authority figures convince a loyal following by providing some justification for the killings or some form of legitimization, even the meekest of persons can take up arms. The large numbers of illiterate youth mobilized for combat by leaders with political objectives during religious riots in northern Nigeria are an example(12) indicating that such other factors as negative political ambition and religious fanaticism may combine with social identity and ideology to enable mass killings and genocide.

Kyoon Grace Mwuese holds a Master's degree in International Peace Studies from the University for Peace.