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Psychology

Psychologist Yulia Gaididei: "Dehumanization works both ways."

18.04.2022

Anna Roche talked to psychologist Yulia Gaididei about the nature of war cruelty

- When we see horrific evidence of brutality against civilians, many people want to believe that only individual, mentally ill people are capable of committing such things. Is this true? Or can almost anyone, under the right circumstances, begin to commit such atrocities?

- Atrocity is a person's response from a traumatized state. Unfortunately, all people are traumatized, but to varying extents. There is a concept in character science that describes a "point of least resistance." These are events that turn out to be unbearable for each individual.

For different people, different things are unbearable: some people can't stand being in society for long; some people can't stand being alone; some people can't stand aggression; some people can't stand fear, but they can stand aggression.

When a person gets to this point of least resistance, in order to cope with it, they strain all of their defenses, and engage all of their supports. In essence, our character is a set of defenses that a person has in order to cope with living in the world, preserving themselves. However, sometimes a person's supports and defenses are lacking. Perhaps they don’t have enough defenses, or their defenses aren’t flexible enough. Perhaps they were formed for a particular situation and the person gets into a completely different situation. Then all the defenses collapse and the person reaches the boundary beyond which they lose what we call humanity. The cortex of the large hemispheres, which is responsible for analytics and morality, completely shuts down.

Man approaches the beast, and when the beast finds itself in a stressful situation, it has a "fight" or "fly" reaction.

The next question is how familiar a person is at all with their beastly self. Do they have contact with their emotions, with their body. If they do, then dialogue is possible. If not, then the animalistic part will simply take over, and the person will act, as they say, "in a state of affect". Imagine a panther who is locked up and fearful for its life. Would it be so unexpected that it would tear their abuser apart with their claws?

- But we are talking about crimes against civilians now. Can we compare a soldier who commits them to a caged panther? After all, these particular people are not threatening its life.

- Yes, it's not a defense response in specific circumstances. However, the basis of intentional brutality is a colossal underlying anxiety stemming from a sense of insecurity. If we're talking about soldiers who seem to be safe at this moment, they may be experiencing much more anxiety than if they were in combat. A certain hormonal background is released for the "Fight" or "Flight" reactions. In combat, it's expended - through action, through screaming. When everything seems to be fine, but it really isn't, you get a compressed spring that can go off.

- There is a popular theory that mass violence is connected to dehumanization. That is, it happens when propaganda teaches society to see some group as "subhuman”. The loudest example is the rhetoric towards Jews in Nazi Germany. That is, the person committing the cruelty does not see his victim as human. What do you think of this?

- Dehumanization works both ways. If we reject the other person as human, we also reject a part of ourselves. Jung has a concept of the Shadow. These are the qualities and actions that prevent a person from feeling connected to the self, that is, from feeling himself. Dehumanization is very much like displacement into the "shadow”.

We take the qualities that we cannot cope with and attribute them to a group of people. That is, we seem to be struggling with someone else, but in fact we are actually struggling with is something in ourselves.

Jung always said that one can only deal with the "shadow" by dealing with oneself.


Photo: REUTERS

- During armed conflicts we see evidence of particularly shocking brutality. For example, child rape. Can this be explained by the same psychological processes?

- In general, it is also about an increase in anxiety - the pressure on the person. However, here, it is likely that there was already a propensity for this. In wartime, the propensity can more easily lead to the realization of intentions that in peacetime may have remained contained.

- How strong a role does collective pressure play? Fear of disobeying orders, a desire to do "like everyone else" or even to stand out in your group?

- Very strong. I remember when I was studying psychotherapy, our group was shocked when we were told that lying is an evolutionary mechanism. Lying is a way of surviving in a group.

In order to survive in a group, you have to lie from time to time - and to yourself, too. To belong to a group is a more important need for survival than the need for the truth.

If this happens in times of peace, what about situations where you are completely dependent on the group? In this situation, belonging to a group is a matter of preserving life for you personally. So, of course, it has a very strong influence.

- How do you explain that under the same conditions some people commit atrocities and others don't?

- Protections either help the psyche to withstand what is happening, or they do not. World culture has this metaphor for man.

Man is a chariot. The body with all its built-in reactions is the chariot itself, the emotions are the horses, the mind is the reins. However, there is also a charioteer who stands on the chariot and drives the horses through the reins.

The body, the emotions, the mind are all related to character. Character is very much conditioned by genetics and social conditions of upbringing; the will that governs it shapes personality and the way exactly the self deals with the conditions in which it is placed.

- Why does this self prevail over instincts for some, and not for others?

- Here we come to the border of psychotherapy and theology. There is a branch of psychology that describes how healthy a person will be depends on whether or not they have the opportunity to meet the soul of the other person. Cruelty is not innate. It is a reaction to events that may or may not develop in us. The more love our self sees, the more chance it has of having power over character.

- You also said that if a person is well acquainted with their emotions, they are more likely to be able to control their inner beast. Is this about emotional intelligence? So, if society teaches boys to suppress their emotions ("boys don't cry"), will we see more violence in the case of war?

- It's not even about showing or suppressing emotions, it's about being in touch with one's own emotionality. There are very emotional people whose emotionality is separate from their train of thought. A human being initially develops from three parts: the brain and perception organs are analytical and thoughtful, our internal organs and internal secretion organs develop emotions and muscles, and our bones and ligaments are actions and resources. So we have feelings, thoughts and actions - and bridges between them. If a person has a well-developed brain but no contact with actions, he can think endlessly and not do. It can also be the other way around - then the person does not understand what he is doing.


Photo: aussiedlerbote.de

It is the same with feelings.

A boy may be allowed to cry. But if he is not taught to analyze it and to act adequately, he may be very capable of feeling emotions, but be unable to address them.

Besides, in order to endure everything that happens, a person needs a body. So you also need contact with the body. So yes, developing emotional intelligence and body contact is very important.

- What can a person do to maintain humanity in an extreme situation?

- If we're talking about people who are still "on shore," you need to study your points of least resistance. Understand what moments are so triggering for you that your brain shuts down. Explore that and look for different ways to deal with it.

- What about if a person is already at that point, is there anything they can do?

- Remind yourself that you are human. Don't shut yourself off, look for and accept support. With respect to the purely corporeal - breath. Breathing is just about the only physiological process we can control. By regulating our breathing we can bring ourselves back to consciousness. When you're anxious, your breathing gets disrupted or stalls, and stress reactions kick in.

If you feel like you're in a deep trauma hole, try to equalize your breathing.

This is, of course, purely hypothetical. Breathing can help if you have any base of awareness: realize in acute stress that you feel bad, remember to breathe, and do it. That's pretty much it.

In fact, what I'm saying about building awareness and getting to know your traumatic reactions applies primarily to those who are not in the conflict zone - because they have the capacity to do so. The civilian population is also in a field of heightened anxiety right now. Indeed, manifestations of violence can be different - not necessarily physical. As such, it's important for all of us to work on our awareness right now.

- What will be the consequences for people who have committed atrocities? What should they expect when they return to civilian life?

- There are a lot of factors here. If there is an underlying sense of security, they probably won't commit atrocities again. So it depends on what kind of life they go back to and whether they can work through the underlying sense of insecurity they have left.

There's a lot to say separately about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Even if the person didn't commit atrocities, they were in a life-threatening situation. They come back with a clenched lump inside of themselves. What they do with it next is the question.

There are people who shove all their experiences deep inside. Then their children or grandchildren deal with it.

Traumatized people will pass this baggage on to them through the unconscious, through patterns of interpersonal relationships, through a  lack of love. This works because if we lock up a whole bunch of stuff inside of us, we lock up the ability to love, too.

There are people who are able to live through and mourn what they have done. Then they can regain the integrity they had before these events. You can't fix everything, but you can mourn, and that restores the psyche.


Photo: AP nuotr.

- I'm sure that when we publish this interview, some readers will say that you justify violence. It turns out that people who commit violent acts are victims of circumstances and should be almost pitied. What would you say to them?

- You've probably heard of the "Karpman Triangle”. This is a system of relations with three roles: victim, rescuer and aggressor. It is built when a basic need, in this case the need for security, is very much ignored. To compensate for this, one splits into three roles and begins an endless race in circles.

The triangle always works without fail if one joins it. However, I'm not speaking to that model at all right now. I have no goal to justify. That would be the role of the Rescue, but I don't have the goal of blaming. That would be the role of the Aggressor. Actions from these roles are actions from the traumatized part and they won't help satisfy the need for safety. Everyone has freedom of choice to the extent that they have it.

I feel like quoting Tolkien, who said: "We do not choose the times. We can only decide how to live in the times that have chosen us."

I choose to look for reasons for doing things and to speak the language of love. That doesn't mean I approve of any particular actions. It means that I can bear to be in the world in which it happens. The more people who can bear to live in such a world, the safer it becomes.

Author: Anna Rosch

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