“Humanizing the Other:” Genocide Dialogue Focuses on Prevention

The 2009 J. Bonner Richie Dialogue on Peace and Justice, held this year at the new library March 23- 24, focused on genocide.

Lecturers spoke on the atrocities of the Holocaust, the genocides that have occurred and are occurring in African nations, and how to prevent them from happening again. Dr. Ervin Staub, holocaust survivor and Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, focused particularly on healing after genocide and preventing atrocities.

Staub emphasized that by understanding the implications of potential violence and taking early action, genocide may be prevented. He outlined the things that are generally in place for violence to occur — political instability, difficult life conditions, conflict over resources and repression, just to name a few. The ideologies that form under these conditions tend to focus on dehumanizing a group that is standing in the way of the fulfillment of that ideology, and that is when violence can erupt.

Staub said that opening the dialogue between the opposing groups can lead to reconciliation — that is, if the parties are willing to understand each other’s point of view. Without this dialogue, the oppressors continue to dehumanize their perceived enemies, and use this dehumanization to justify the atrocities they commit.

Bystanders, both internal and external, play a crucial role, said Staub. Internal bystanders live in the area and can be caught in the crossfire; while external ones are, for example, other nations who do not attempt to correct the situation or stop the genocide once it has begun. Doing nothing sends the message that there is nothing to stop those committing atrocities, and therefore they may as well do what they please.

Professor Staub has detailed a step-by-step formula for the prevention of genocide, beginning with teaching constructive social responses to difficult life conditions. People caught in political, economic and socio-cultural chaos often just don’t know how to respond to their situations. It is crucial, then, to open up a dialogue between the opposing parties, and by talking, become more human in the eyes of the other. All genocides that have occurred have begun with an element of dehumanizing the opposing party by calling them names such as “cockroaches” and “dogs,” thereby making them seem less human and blinding others to their situation.

Once genocide has occurred, it is tremendously important to begin the healing process — again by opening dialogue and having offenders admit to their actions. It is also important, says Staub, to see that the society generates constructive communities and groups that can fulfill the basic needs of the people.

Ervin Staub has been instrumental in the creation of a group called the Global Youth Connect, through which youth from various cultures can work to understand each other and prevent future violence. He has published dozens of books and articles, and his current studies of altruism in humans are making a noticeable impact in the field of psychology. His full biography and vita can be viewed at www.ervinstaub.com.

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