When studying the ways by which a population, even a modern population – especially a modern population – can be motivated to embrace war, it is easy to see that the influence of tribalism and hatred of the other is as powerful now as at any time in history. Indeed, one only has to examine the relative ease by which the American public was led into a “global war against terror” and, specifically, into supporting aggression against a country with no provable ties to the events of 9/11, to know that these old tropes are alive and well.
However, how is it that this impulse can still be so effective in this time of globalization and a somewhat merging of global culture? Certainly, the efficacy of generic class and race hatred used historically to motivate the masses loses some of its steam when the face of that “other” can be easily seen and understood through even the most basic of Internet searches. And one would think that the cultural reinforcement of global commonalities would weaken the case for conflict based on nationalism and jingoism. Yet, it would seem that people today are just as susceptible to divisions along these lines as ever.
If, as Göring was quoted in the first part of this series, “it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy,” then an examination of the utilization of tribalism as a means of influencing a country’s population must start there. Why, for example, would a country’s leaders select one group over another for identification as the enemy? Is it merely as simple as picking a convenient recipient of public ire and then bringing opinion around, or are there deeper psychological elements at work?
In terms of simplicity, scapegoating is one time-honored means utilized by a country’s leadership to solidify public sentiment. However, it is not as easy as picking just any group to be ostracized, nor can any group that was seemingly picked as such simply claim so without an understanding as to what made them such a desirable target. The Jews, for example, are often cited as an example of a more or less innocent group that was picked merely as a means of convenience by Nazi Germany as a way of solidifying support for aggression, but this belies the consequences by which the historical, aloof existence of the international Jewish community persisted – both by choice and as a means of survival as a people – independent of the individual nation-states of the time, and which was used to feed the climate of suspicion and distrust which the lunatic fringe of German politics was able to leverage so effectively in rising to power. One may be tempted to use the current association of Islam as the “face of terror” as another example of the convenient singling out of one group out of many for political means. Islam, after all, is hardly alone as a religion for whom its believers have used violence; a history for which Christianity is equally notorious. Yet, this would belie the way in which some members of the Islamic community have aggressively embraced terrorism as a means of achieving political ends and, thus, have made the association that much easier to make. So, it would seem that one important criterion is the ability to successfully blame the victim for being a recipient of aggression.
On the opposite spectrum from scapegoating is the leveraging of the concept of “eternal hatred” between groups as an excuse for aggression. After all, it is quite easy to make the case of “why” against a group for which a lengthy animosity has supposedly existed. Certainly, this worked against the Jews, who were the object of a seemingly “eternal” anti-Semitism, whether real or manufactured. And the long history of violence between Islam and Christianity has made the current animosity between the religions equally powerful for some. The effectiveness of this strategy, however, lies not in the ability to blame the victim, but in the ability to absolve all parties from blame. After all, what culpability could either group have if the ultimate source for aggression can be linked to an age-old hatred? Thus, it would seem that another criterion is the ability to leverage deep seated, historical animosity as a means to absolve the aggressor from blame.
Finally, neither method would be effective without a population susceptible to an atmosphere of misinformation and disinformation. Whether through the manipulation of uneducated opinion and bias, or through a public taught not to question authority, the ability of a country’s leadership to influence mass sentiment is in direct proportion to its ability to disseminate information unchallenged. Therefore, a third important criterion appears to be the ability to discredit and stifle viewpoints in opposition to the government sanctioned story.
Hence, when a country finds itself in the grip of tribalism or hatred of the “other,” it is vitally important to objectively evaluate any argument for war or aggression that relies on the singling out of one group or another, either directly or indirectly, and in a way that fights back against attempts to shut down such an evaluation. For if a country’s leadership can find a group that, at least in the public’s eyes, can be credibly blamed, while absolving itself of the blame for doing so, and in an atmosphere that is antagonistic to counter viewpoints, then a sort of unholy trifecta exists that can be leveraged to great horror, as has been seen repeatedly throughout history.