The Role of the Brain in Propaganda and Genocide
In his superb PBS documentary series, ''The Brain", Neuroscientist David Eagleman explores the role of our master organ in social connections, as well as genocide and propaganda. The origins of the latter are actually embodied in our desire to "seek out alliances" with friends, family and hopefully others who share our same interests, convictions and even political leanings. In Eagleman's words:
"It gives comfort to belong to a group"
The problem is that this same positive desire for bonding and alliance can be inverted to attack those with whom we disagree and also who may share none of our own attributes or beliefs. As Eagleman puts it:
"There's a flip side of this drive to come together. Because for every in group there are outsiders. And the consequences of that can be very dark. "
He then goes on to cite examples from history of "one group turning on another", including those who were defenseless and posed no threat. One of the starkest examples was the Jews in Nazi Germany. Defined first as an "out group" and then depicted via propaganda as vermin (rats) their fate was extermination in the 'Final Solution'. The same occurred to the Tutsis living in Rwanda who began to be depicted as 'cockroaches' by the dominant Hutus and ended up with over 800,000 slaughtered as a result.
Eagleman, after observing most of his (Jewish) family lines ended in the 1940s, asks:
"Under normal circumstances you wouldn't find it conscionable to go murder your neighbor. So what is it that provokes thousands of people to do exactly that? What is it about certain situations that short circuits the normal social functioning of the brain?"
He then goes to eastern Europe and picks up on the Bosnian Civil war over 1994-95 over which more than 100,000 Muslims were slaughtered by Serbians in actions known as "ethnic cleansing". One of the most horrific incidents occurred in Srebrenica where over 8,000 people were systematically killed.
The immediate cause was the expulsion of thousands of refugees by the UN command, from a safe center, delivering them right into the hands of their enemies waiting outside the gate. Women were then raped before being killed, men were instantly executed and children butchered on the spot. And this, as Eagleman notes, was "just the beginning of the largest genocide on European soil since the holocaust".
Eagleman interviews one of the Muslim survivors, Hasan Nuhanovic, who lived because he was a UN translator and part of a protected group. But his family (mother, brother, father) was sent out of the compound to meet their deaths.
The most horrific aspect? The mass murderers weren't strangers but neighbors with whom his family had previously shared a great deal: meals, outings family get -togethers. In Nuhanovic's words: "The mass murders were perpetrated by our neighbors, the very people we'd been living with for decades."
As he put it referring to the sudden switch: "They had been obeying 'don't kill' for many years, then it was suddenly 'Go and kill!'"
Genocides keep happening - Rwanda, Darfur, Nanking, Armenia ...and Eagleman's interest is in 'why?' Traditionally the question is asked through the lens of history or economics or politics but Eagleman is convinced (as I am) that "one more lens is needed": genocide needs to be understood as a neural phenomenon.
His research was predicated on the question; "Does our brain function differ - when we relate to someone - depending on which group they are in?"
After all, for every in group we belong to there's at least one group that we don't. That division can be based on anything: race, gender, wealth or religion.
Eagleman's experiment put 130 participants into a CT scanner and showed them six pictures in which one in particular gets stabbed (in a film) by a syringe needle. Each hand is labeled according to being a member of a putative group, e.g. Jew, atheist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Scientologist etc.
The stabbing scene activates the pain matrix in the brain- which occurs whenever we see someone else in pain - unless we are psychopaths.
In the experiment the question to be addressed was: Would the scanned subject care as much seeing a member of the outgroup getting stabbed as the in group?
The results? For each subject, on watching a member of his in group getting stabbed, there was a neural activity spike appearing on a graph. When one of his outgroups was stabled (e.g. for a Christian, an atheist) the response was essentially a flat line. No alarm, no connection.
A basic, single word label is enough to change your brain's pre-conscious response to a person in pain, in other words, how much you care about them.
He also adds it's not really about religion, since "even atheists care more about other atheists' hands getting stabbed than any others." Thus, it's not about religion but "which team you're on".
To understand how whole groups like the Bosnian Serbs can go off the rails and slaughter neighbors, one can study psychopaths - like Ted Bundy, Son of Sam, Charles Manson etc. What's with their brains that allows them to act that way? Well, Eagleman points to networks in the medial pre-frontal cortex that underlie social interactions. When we interact with other people this part of the brain becomes active. But in the brains of people with extreme psychopathy the area has much less activity.
Because the psychopath doesn't care about you - you're just an object to be manipulated.
So, Eagleman asks: "What accounts for genocide? Can it be due to armies of psychopaths? That can't be true because psychopaths occupy only a small percentage of humans."
But genocide can engage thousands, tens of thousands or millions. So - how does one get ordinary citizens to act as psychopaths?
Eagleman then refers to experiments conducted in the Netherlands involving pictures shown to subjects and their responses via the medial pre-frontal cortex. Subjects are shown stereotypical images of other people from different social groups. In many cases, for example, the medial pre-frontal cortex is almost inactive when the subjects look at homeless people. The researcher notes the pattern observed suggest a type of mental avoidance and not thinking about the imaged person.
"To a brain that responds this way, homeless people are dehumanized, They're viewed more like objects and that can enable us to not care. "
And as the Netherlands brain researcher adds: "If you don't diagnose this person as another human being than the normal moral rules may not apply."
Thus, Eagleman reasons that "under the right circumstances our brain activity can look more like a psychopath's"
But to get to genocide, one must understand one more thing about group behavior. Eagleman again:
"Genocide is only possible when dehumanization happens on a massive scale. Not just a few individuals but whole sections of a population. If all members of a perpetrating group are complicit then it's as if they all experienced the same reduction in brain activity.This can be investigated and studied like a disease outbreak - a group contagion. One that's most often spread deliberately."
He goes on:
"The perfect tool for this job is propaganda. It plugs right into neural networks and it dials down the degree to which we care about other people."
Just as in the former Yugoslavia, where Serbians killed their Muslim neighbors, they were bombarded by propaganda. In this case, state-controlled TV stations demonized the Bosnian Muslims. They went so far as to actually claim the Bosnian Muslims were feeding Serbian children to the lions at the zoo. While a brain disposed to critical thinking would instantly recognize this as bull pocky, an already socially degraded brain, e.g. that saw Muslims as inferior, would simply ingest the propaganda. (Very similar to how many are doing right now with Trump's despicable propaganda).
The same thing transpired in Rwanda.What began as "humorous" cartoons depicting Tutsis as the most hated insects on the planet then transmogrified to non stop hateful rants about the "cockroaches" on Kigali RTLM radio, run by the majority Hutus. While the Tutsis could tune out this hate spiel (as most wise aleck 'free speech' mongers like to recommend for those who dislike bullying verbal taunts), the Hutus didn't - but rather fed their infernal hate on it to the bursting point. Every night more hate was ingested via this "free speech" medium until only a trigger was required to unleash the worst in Rwanda. That transpired when the Rwandan President's plane (he was Hutu) was shot down en route to what was supposed to be a peace conference in Tanzania.
The good thing as Eagleman observes, is that propaganda is almost always easy to recognize. In the form that leads to hatred and genocide "it always plays the familiar tune of dehumanization. Make your enemy less than human. Make him like an animal."
Propaganda is a weapon but has now become an art and a science. And thus it's becomes ever more dangerous. What's more, the internet now is the most likely medium for dispensing propaganda and to reach the people most likely to act upon them: young men.
The political agendas around us, actually manipulate the brain activity inside us.
How to get around it and stop it? That usually must entail the victimized brain stepping outside its own 'box' to see the propaganda for what it is. The trouble is that most brains are not trained to do that so often need an outside interlocutor who is able to recognize the infection for what it is and 'unpack' it for the affected brain or brains. The goal: enable the person to see through the political agendas of others, especially leaders or would-be leaders.
The problem is this intervention might not be welcome by the propagandized persons especially if they embrace the propagandizer on an emotional or charismatic level (as most of Trump's supporters do). In that case the interlocutor may be treated like Emmanuel Goldstein, the character from '1984': Recall Goldstein was himself demonized as a "traitor" by the rulers and people of Oceania. What was his crime? He attempted to break through the state's propaganda. That is, that continuous war was used to siphon off the wealth of the society to keep people living at bare subsistence. Goldstein's exact words, for which Oceania's fascists wanted him dead:
"The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labor. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent. "