In just one week, a General accused several celebrities and the Mayor of the country’s capital of supporting or giving aid to “communists”. A lot has been said on why it is improper for a general to say these things cavalierly.
I agree with most, if not all of these but, my concern is more agnostic – the systematic deployment of Red-tagging online endangers ALL of us. Science tells us that red-tagging is one Tool in a mind-conditioning arsenal whose effectivity traces back to the Holocaust (Yes, THAT Holocaust) and other tragic points in human history. Before I get red-tagged myself, allow me to explain.
Psychologists have studied why at certain points of history, people were able to commit unspeakable violence. After all, we are not born with the desire to be unkind or to kill. So, what makes atrocities and genocides possible?
Part of the answer lies in Dehumanization studies. Dehumanization means “to deprive (someone or something) of human qualities, personality, or dignity” (Webster). Unlike humans, Objects can be broken, thrown or ignored. But, what if it’s possible to peel away the “humanity” of a person or, an entire group of people? Can we train people to see others as “objects”?
Stanley Milgram studied how “good people” ended up participating in the massacre of Jews under Hitler. Through his (in)famous “electric shock experiments”, Milgram was able to convince participants to electrocute a test subject (another human) for up to 450 volts(!).
While there was initial resistance, most of them eventually complied. Interviewed afterwards, a lot of them also justified what they did by “devaluing” the person being shocked (he was “dumb”). Other studies then showed how by simply calling persons “animals” within earshot of the “torturer”, cruelty can be more easily delivered. Science confirmed that “Good people” can be turned into “monsters”.
A more troubling finding was that one need not go all the way and turn a person to an “object” in the eyes of another. If we can convince a person that some people are “different”, we trigger much the same response. It seems those we see as “Others” can end up being treated as badly as the inhuman.
As I explain in my Constitutional Law classes, this is why racism is wrong. And this is also why red-tagging is dangerous. People may hesitate from attacking Liza Soberano or Mayor Isko but, they may have less qualms about “evil communists”.
If we red-tag, we peel away a layer of their humanity, which as shown by the psychologists, make cruelty (torture even) far easier to inflict.
That the “red tags” are directed at Celebrities and a popular Mayor makes it even worse. Because if the apparatus successfully dehumanizes the popular and well-loved, then the apparatus can easily dehumanize everyday people. That’s You and me.
Is this alarmist? Well, one pattern underlying historical atrocities was that the Nazis for instance didn’t start massacring Jews on Day One. They started with other “enemies of the state” first. Then they expanded from there.
History also shows that some of those who started these incidents, eventually lost control of its evolution - a cautionary tale for General Parlade. Some may say, “Well that’s in the past and we’ve learned.
Have we really? Here’s the thing - Genocides are still happening. In Myanmar, people started massacring Rohingyas in 2016. Another wave started in late August 2017 – and is still going on. Myanmar is not some far off European country. It’s practically our neighbor. We share cultural and societal traits. If it can happen there, it can happen here.
What worries me the most is that Milgram’s experiments came before cellphones. Yet, he proved that people can be systematically “programmed” to torture others. Combine that knowledge with the technologies today.
What does Dehumanization mean in an era where massive disinformation systems exist (aka social media)? If Troll farms can influence the US elections in 2016 (and ours), should we not worry that a lot of red-tagging is through Facebook? With Milgram’s experiments in mind, should we be concerned that some of the networks taken down by Facebook were traced back to the military?
Don’t take my word for it. Try googling “Rohingya” and “Facebook” to see what our future could be like if we don’t put a stop to this. Social media amplified red-tagging leads to a slippery slope.
Is Communism a bad idea? To me it is. Still, I won’t demonize those who believe in it. But, in the science of dehumanization, “communist” is just a few letters away from “terrorist”. And when asked about the Rohingya massacres, Myanmar’s generals said they were just targeting “terrorism”.
I believe in the righteousness and professionalism of our armed forces. I grew up not knowing when or if my father would return from an assignment. My grandfather fought insurgents as a police chief. I have no love for those who rebel against our country. But, I am wary of a tactic that uses dehumanization to win a war for “hearts and minds”.
To be fair, it is true that terrorists use dehumanization tools against our government. But, the best way to fight back is to show our people we are better than that. Ombudsman and former Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales captured this in our SC petition (with former Justice Carpio) against the Anti-Terror Law, “In its fight against terrorism, the government must not be the source of terror and impunity itself.”
(Editor's note: The author is a Constitutional Law professor at the UP College of Law, and past president of the Harvard Law School Alumni Association of the Philippines.)
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.