Open any major newspaper to see the latest atrocity committed against innocent people somewhere in the world. These acts have become so common that we aren’t even shocked by them anymore. Apathy is a convenient non-reaction by folks who believe that these things simply happen in life, and you can’t spend your life worrying about it. One might consider the apathetic response to be a psychological coping mechanism for dealing with something that either you don’t understand or something that seems too overwhelming to rectify. We might call these responses sins of omission.

At the same time, there are more sinister responses to be found in situations where inhumanity has become normalized. Rather than turning a blind eye, people indirectly influence the mood preceding the commission of atrocities. They may not be the ones who actually pull the trigger, so-to-speak, but they are complicit in their efforts to influence those who do pull the trigger. They provoke anger and rage against their targets while leaving the dirty work for whoever takes the bait and runs with it. I’m sure you have seen this happen recently.

A favorite tool used by these instigators is a technique called depersonalization. It involves removing the personhood or humanity from targeted individuals or groups through coercive means. White supremacists, for example, are skilled at manipulating people to turn on people of color by referring to them using inaccurate, belittling, and derogatory terms. The gap between tolerance and intolerance, prejudice and discrimination, and life and death becomes smaller after each depersonalization incident. It moves beyond name-calling and manufactured insults into the obstruction of personal rights.

As you observe this phenomenon, you will see that although the behavior is usually initiated by a single person, it quickly attracts company. Sometimes it happens by chance and other times it is induced by the original perpetrator who recognizes the potential power found by recruiting a number of like-minded aggressors. We observe the same patterns of destruction in every pillar of human society including families, schools, and governments. It is confirmation that predatory instincts have not been entirely left behind during the evolution of mankind. I certainly hope there is no going back.

Image by possan (Flickr: DSC_4132) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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