Daniel Bar-Tal 

September 2004

Every intractable conflict is accompanied by the parties psychological repertoire, which evolves with time, and plays a determinative role in its dynamics. The psychological repertoire consists of such elements as collective memory about the conflict, ethos of conflict (e.g., rationalization of the goals that support the conflict, delegitimization of the rival, collective self perception as a victim, collective positive view of self), collective emotional orientation (e.g., fear and hatred) and social identity -- all of which evolve in the course of intractable conflict (Bar-Tal, 1998, 2001). Delegitimization of the adversary, among all the psychological themes, is one of the major detrimental forces that turns a conflict to be vicious and violent, feeds it and prevents its peaceful resolution (Bandura, 1999; Kelman, 1973; Staub, 1999).


In general, delegitimization refers to extremely negative stereotypes that are used to describe a specific group. Delegitimized groups are viewed as violating basic human norms or values, and are therefore excluded from being characterized as "good" or even "acceptable" people.

Delegitimization does not appear in every inter-group conflict. It tends to emerge especially in very violent and intractable conflicts, when the contested goals are perceived as endangering the fundamental goals of the group. In such situations, most of the information that the rivals receive about each other is dominated by conflict-related themes. These themes present the malevolent characteristics, intentions, and acts of the other side.

Types of delegitmization

There are at least five types of delegitimization (Bar-Tal, 1989):

Dehumanization, which involves categorizing a group as non-human (e.g., savages, monsters);

Trait characterization, which consists of attributing traits that are considered extremely negative and unacceptable in a given society (e.g., aggressors, idiots);

Out-casting, which consists of categorizing the adversary into groups that are considered as violators of pivotal social norms (e. g., murderers, terrorists);

Political labels, which involves categorization into political groups which are absolutely rejected by the values of the delegitimizing group (e. g., , for example, Nazis, communists);

Group comparison, which occurs when the delegitimized group is labeled by a name of a group that traditionally serves as an example of negativity in the delegitimizing group (e.g., Vandals, Huns).

Often, such delegitimization occurs on both sides of the conflict. For example:

In the case of the Northern Ireland conflict, Cecil (1993) reported that Protestants view Catholics as "lazy, priest-ridden, untidy and potentially treacherous" (p.152), whereas Catholics perceive Protestants as "bigoted, mean, and lacking in culture" (p.152).

During the Cold war, the Soviets viewed Americans as capitalists, which was, in itself, a delegitimizing label. They were also labeled imperialists, colonialists, exploiters, oppressors, brutal, aggressive, deceptive, untrustworthy and so on (Bronfenbrenner, 1961; White, 1965, 1984). At the same time, Americans delegitimized Soviets with such labels as communists, brutal, primitive, aggressive, sadistic, cold-blooded, ruthless, cruel, devious, oppressive, a trouble maker without respect for human life or human rights, totalitarian, militaristic, deceptive, adventuristic, and offensive (Bialer, 1985; Bronfenbrenner, 1961; Buchanan & Cantril, 1953; Cohen, 1986; Frei, 1986; White, 1984).

In the Iranian-Iraqi war the Iranians called Iraqis "Saddamist mercenaries", "criminals", "aggressive Ba'thist forces", "Zionist protectors", "terrorists", "arch-satans", "imperialists", "criminals", "reactionaries" and described their acts as "inhuman" and "diabolical". Similarly, the Iraqis branded Iranians as "criminals", "aggressors", "deceitful diabolic entity", "neofascists", "agents of Zionism", "illiterates", and "expansionists" (Bengio, 1998).

In the case of Israeli-Arab conflict, mutual delegitimization began from its very beginning. The Jews, arriving in Palestine from the end of the 19th century and early 20th century in waves of Zionist immigrations, initially viewed Arabs residing in the region ethnocentrically as being primitive, dirty, stupid, easily agitated and aggressive. As the conflict evolved and became violent, Arabs and especially Palestinians, were perceived as killers, a blood-thirsty mob, rioters, treacherous, untrustworthy, cowards, cruel and wicked (Gorny, 1987; Shapira, 1992). These early images have remained until today with an addition of few characteristics to Palestinians such as terrorists and murderers (Bar-Tal & Teichman, 2005). In Palestinian view, Jews were viewed almost from the start of Zionist immigration as colonialists who came to settle Palestinian land and expel the Palestinian population. They have been stereotyped as strangers, crusaders, unwanted and enemies. Also, Jews have been labeled deceitful, treacherous, thieves and disloyal and were seen as aggressors and robbers. In addition, they have been perceived as colonialists, racists, fascists and imperialists and they were even compared to the Nazis. The term Zionism itself became a delegitimizing label as it was considered a colonialist ideology (Bar-Tal, 1988; Hadawi, 1968; Kelman, 1999; Sayigh, 1997).

Consequences of delegitimization

Delegitimization affects inter-group relations in the context of intractable conflict because of its following features:

It consists of extremely negative labels that are salient and unique in the group's repertoire of characterizations of other groups.

It has the aim of denying the delegitimized group's humanity.

It magnifies the difference between the groups in conflict.

It homogenizes the delegitimized group as one entity, not allowing individualization of its members or differentiation among its subgroups.

It automatically arouses strong negative emotions.

It provides rigid, persistent durable categories that are unlikely to change while the conflict lasts, and most probably long after.

Functions of Delegitimization

Delegitmization fulfills several important functions on both the individual and group levels:

First, delegitimizing stereotypes illuminate different aspects of the conflict situation (Stangor & Schaller, 1996; Tajfel, 1981;Yzerbyt, Rocher, & Schadron, 1997). They explain the nature of the conflict: why it erupted, why it continues, and why it is violent. They also explain why the adversary is intransigent, violent, cruel, and prevents any possible peaceful solution.

Second, delegitimizing labels also serve to justify the violence and destruction inflicted on the adversary by the delegitimizing group (Tajfel, 1981). They provide justification for individuals and for the social system as a whole to intentionally harm the rival, and for continuing to institutionalize aggression towards the enemy (Jackman, 2001; Jost & Banaji, 1994). This is an important function that resolves feelings of dissonanceguilt and shame that may appear, because normally human beings do not willingly harm other human beings (Bandura, 1999; Kelman, 1973; Staub, 1989).

Third, delegitimizing labels create a sense of differentiation and superiority (Tajfel, 1978, 1981) to the extent of totally excluding the delegitimized group from the community of groups considered as acting within an acceptable range of norms and values.

Finally, delegitimizing stereotypes serve as motivator for mobilization and action. They supply information that implies threat and danger to the group. Therefore, group members are required to take all necessary steps in order to cope successfully with the other group. On the one hand, they indicate to group members that the delegitimizing group should take **revenge for the violent acts performed against them (Turney-High, 1949) and, on the other hand, they imply a need to initiate violent acts to prevent the perceived potential danger and **threat.

In sum, delegitimization operates circularly (see Bar-Tal, 1990). On the one hand, it is a result of the particular characteristics of the intractable conflict and especially of the rival violent behaviors. In this capacity, delegitimization provides an efficient, simplistic and un-ambiguous explanation of the nature of the conflict and its threatening features. This explanation, in turn, leads to group mobilization for coping with the threat and harming the opponent as a preventive or retributional act.

On the other hand, however, the need to justify the violence carried out and the harm inflicted strengthen the delegitimization. Thus, once a group performs violent acts, it needs a justification for them. Delegitimization is used to justify non-normative violent behavior.

The above analysis suggests that the characteristics, implications and consequences of delegitimization should be seen as a syndrome that is very influential in situations of intergroup conflict. When delegitimization becomes prevalent, it marks the whole nature of intergroup relations. Delegimization allows practices that would otherwise be unthinkable, practices like discrimination, exploitation, expulsion, mass killings, and genocide. Without the justification provided by delegitimization, many people would have great difficulty to commit such acts (see Bandura, 1999; Kelman, 1973; Staub, 1989).Thus, it is absolutely imperative that any movement towards conflict resolution and especially reconciliation requires abolition of the delegitimization (Bar-Tal, 2000).

Reversing Delegitimization

There is need to evolve the following views of the past opponent in order to reverse delegitimization and secure the peace process:

Legitimization allows viewing the opponent as belonging to an acceptable category of groups, behaving within the boundaries of international norms, with whom it is possible and even desired to terminate the conflict and construct positive relations. Legitimization thus plays crucial role in changing the nature of the intergroup relations. It enables initiation of negotiation with the opponent to achieve peaceful resolution of the conflict and eventually building peaceful and cooperative relations.

Equalization makes the rival into an equal partner with whom it is possible to establish new relations. This requires recognition of the principle of status equality between the groups, a principle that is brought to bear first in negotiations and later in all types and levels of intergroup interactions.

Differentiation leads to heterogenization of the rival group. It enables a new perception of the rival which has hitherto been viewed as a homogeneous hostile entity. The new perception implies that the other group is made up out of various subgroups, which differ in their views and ideologies. Differentiation thus also makes it possible to see that members of the rival group differ in their opinions regarding the conflict and its resolution.

Personalization allows one to view the rival group not as a depersonalized entity, but as made up of individuals with ordinary human characteristics, concerns, needs, and goals. This is a process of individuation after a period of de-individuation and consists of a further step after differentiation. Differentiation among individuals allows the acknowledgement of individual differences, namely to view groups as composed of individuals who differ in appearance, characteristics, opinions, concerns, needs, and goals. It also enables viewing members of groups in different personal or social roles such as mothers, sons, students, teachers, physicians, peasants, etc. Any type of individuation of group members defuses generalizations and enables one to perceive similarity and even commonality with them. These may include shared features, ideology, beliefs and feelings with at least with some members of the rival group. It facilitates the development of new individual and group representations that go beyond the stereotyped ones. These, in turn, facilitate personal references to members of the rival group, and may even evolve empathy for their hardships and identification with some of their needs or aspirations.

The above-described changes are necessary, but not sufficient, for initiating conflict resolution and peace process. They have to be accompanied by other changes in the psychological repertoire that fuel and maintain the conflict, such as changes in ethos of conflict, collective emotional orientation and like. Finally it is of importance to note that changing delegitimization, as well as other elements of the psychological repertoire that evolves in conflict, depend significantly on change in the conflict context--that is, cessation of violence and beginning of negotiation. The psychological repertoire of society members is always related to the context in which they live.

 Use the following to cite this article:
Bar-Tal, Daniel. "Delegitimization." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2004 <>.