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The disturbing bestializing rhetoric of Vladimir Putin

In a recent rant, Vladimir Putin compared Ukrainians to gnats that need to be spit out to purify society. Professor of social psychology at the University of Grenoble-Alpes, director of the Maison des sciences de l’homme-Alpes (MSH-Alpes), author of Facing animals. Our emotions, our prejudices, our ambivalences (Odile Jacob, 2022), Laurent Bègue-Shankland rises, on the site The Conversation, against the rhetoric of dehumanization and animalization to which the Russian president has chosen to resort.

Bestiary of the Middle Ages

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“Any people, and especially the Russian people, are able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors, and spit the latter out like a midge that landed in their mouths. I am convinced that this natural and necessary purification of society will only strengthen our country.”

The speech delivered on March 16 by Vladimir Putin had a somewhat reassuring tone. There was a disturbing echo of the Stalinist discourse of the 1930s, in which those whom the regime had chosen to persecute were compared to reptiles and rabid dogs. In Putin’s recent diatribe, the evocation of the midge seeks to contemptuously minimize the threat posed by the adversary by stripping him of all dignity.

Putin’s speech is concerning, because human history suggests that the bestializing register is the rhetorical bass continuo of massacres and genocides. In Race and Historya few years after the end of the Second World War, Claude Lévi-Strauss recalled that the past of humanity overflowed with dark examples showing that to designate the “others” in such a way as to debase them, all the “bird names” were summoned: louse egg, monkey, dog, pig, rat, parasite, insect… The very origin of the word barbarian, in French, refers to the chirping of birds, opposed to the signifying value of human language.

From the Greek and Roman world, which already animalized the subjugated categories, up to the genocides of the 20th century which illustrated it on a terrifying scale, these logics are exacerbated during periods of conflict between groups. The historian Éric Baratay observes: “Struggle between pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, between Christians and heretics in the 12th century, sorcerers in the 15th-16th century, etc. From the Renaissance, the process took on a new dimension with the printing press, which added books and engravings to oral discourse. The 19th century was also a moment of apogee due to strong political, nationalist and social tensions, and the rise of media instruments (newspapers, posters, etc.) unequaled until then. »

Dehumanize a group by animalizing it

Animalizing (or bestializing) involves repudiating the humanity of an individual or group by assigning them traits associated with animals. Racist discourse frequently uses this rhetoric. This is shown by a series of studies carried out by a researcher at Northwestern University, which consisted of asking volunteers to assign a “degree of evolution” (from ape to human) to each group. by positioning a cursor on a line to express their judgments.

In research that used this method with Americans, participants rated South Koreans, Chinese, and Mexican immigrants as less “advanced.” The more the participants dehumanized the Arabs, the more they opposed their welcoming into their country, or tolerated their suffering gross professional or police injustice, or even torture. In another study, American participants who were informed during an experiment that their compatriots were considered less evolved by Arabs then tended to express in return a more negative judgment against the latter.

One of the tasks of history, according to Éric Baratay, would be to show the extent to which recourse to bestializing representations declines when tensions between groups are reduced. In France, this happened – in the second half of the 20th century, when nationalism and anti-Semitism waned after peaking in the first half.

But dehumanization does not disappear, and continues to fluctuate according to national circumstances. Thus, after an attack committed in the United States (an explosion which killed three people and injured 140 in 2013 during the Boston marathon), the dehumanization of Arabs there intensified even if the perpetrators were Chechens. Conversely, when groups of foreign origin are involved in constructive interactions, dehumanization towards them declines.

Can calling an individual or group an animal also promote harmful behavior? This idea was formulated by the philosopher Theodore Adorno, theoretician of the psychological foundations of fascism and who, in Minima Moralia, considered that “the recurring affirmation that savages, blacks, Japanese resemble animals, or apes, already contains the key to the pogrom”.

Bestialization in the laboratory

Research done at Stanford University put this hunch to the test. Participants were recruited to form teams of three “supervisors” whose role was to observe collective decision-making. They heard the verbal exchanges of the members of the group studied who were in another room. At the end of each decision-making sequence, when an error was found (the errors were actually planned in advance by the researchers, there was no team making decisions, but recordings that allowed to believe), the “supervisors” had to administer an electric shock of increasing intensity to all members of the group after a poor performance.

As they were set up for the study, the “supervisors” overheard an intercom exchange between the research assistant and a researcher: the assistant said either that the members of this group seemed “full of humanity”, or on the contrary that they were a team of “animals”. In a final (neutral) condition, no judgment was expressed about the group.

The results were consistent with Adorno’s hypothesis: over the course of the sessions, participants who were designated as “animals” became the targets of increasingly intense electric shocks, and those who were described favorably received the most intense shocks. weaker as possible, the neutrals being in the middle.

Animalizing people is therefore akin to an alteration of their moral value and can facilitate the perpetration of violent or disrespectful treatment that is generally reserved for the moral sub-category that animals still form in ordinary thought today. The existence of a border between humanity and the animal world thus turns against humanity itself, which transfers it to the groups it overwhelms.

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