Michelle Maiese

July 2003

Humanization as a Response to Violent Escalation

Humans do not normally kill other humans. The humans that we intend to kill, eliminate, or commit genocide against must be dehumanized, excluded from the moral community. Humanization is a matter of countering these effects, of recognizing the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.

Humanization is a matter of recognizing the common humanity of one's opponents and including them in one's moral scope. Viewing an adversary as outside the community in which moral norms apply can reduce restraints against aggression and legitimize violence. It is thought that recognizing the human characteristics of one's opponents can help to limit escalation and violence.

During the course of protracted social conflict, feelings of intense hatred and alienation often arise between the parties involved. People begin to de-legitimize those whom they sense are a great threat to their well being and values.[1] Enemy images begin to form, and parties begin to view these "enemies" as outside the community in which moral norms apply. By virtue of this moral exclusion, individuals come to be regarded as expendable, and as eligible targets of exploitation or aggression. When harm befalls these outsiders, parties may find it morally justified rather than feeling remorse or outrage.

Viewing one's opponent as evil, perverted, or criminal might also justify further aggression or violence and make acts that were previously unthinkable seem perfectly acceptable. Regarding the Other as less than human makes it easier to undertake more severe measures.[2] Dehumanization in this way leads to the intensification of conflict and the escalation of violence, paving the way for gross human-rights violations or acts of genocide.

Humanization refers to those strategies designed to counteract this destructive conflict dynamic.

Humanization Strategies

Additional insights into humanization are offered by several Beyond Intractability project participants.

Various strategies might be used to enlarge the scope of one's moral community. For example, parties can use inter-group simulations to teach about stereotypes and hostility towards out-group individuals and encourage people to consider the feelings of these individuals.[3] People can put themselves in the place of out-group individuals through role playing, role reversal, or guided imagination. All of these methods foster empathy and encourage parties to sympathetically imagine how their "enemies" must feel.

Empathy can also help disputants to view each other's aggression as at least partially similar to their own, reactively motivated and connected to needs and values. Acknowledging another's perspective may place another's needs and rights in a position to be considered and make it difficult to view the other as outside the moral community.[4] As both parties begin to recognize that the other's behavior is motivated by complex circumstances, they will be more equipped to distinguish between bad acts and bad people.[5] Rather than regarding their opponents as inhuman monsters deserving of terrible treatment, they can begin to identify with them in some way.

Dialogue can also help deepen the level of understanding between groups in conflict. As both sides speak openly about conflict motivations, it becomes clear that they have "some of the same situational constraints and underlying motivations for fulfilling needs like safety, control, and identity."[6] As these common fears, needs, and motivations are uncovered, the parties' individual stories begin to merge into one shared, larger story. This sort of identification with one's opponent stresses the common humanity of all parties and reduces the likelihood of violent aggression.

Sometimes, focusing on commonalities of interests can bring about recognizing the common humanity of one's opponent. Humanization can occur through the exchange of information and ideas and the discovery of common goals. This can sometimes come about through problem-solving workshops where parties discover common ground. Parties might also develop super-ordinate, or shared, goals. Such goals can have a strong unifying effect and lead to the formation of a new, inclusive group. By bringing groups together to pursue shared benefits that can only be obtained through cooperation, super-ordinate goals can help parties begin to think of themselves as an extended family. Possible goals include the avoidance of nuclear destruction, protection of the environment, social cohesion, and community-building projects. Pursuing such goals can help us "learn to broaden our social identifications in light of shared interests" across all of humanity.[7]

Crosscutting or overlapping group memberships that connect nations or subgroups of society can also help parties to recognize the humanity of their opponent. Recognizing that one's opponent is a member of some larger group to which one also belongs results in perceived similarities, which in turn can give rise to positive sentiments. Social bonds between individuals on both sides of the conflict allow for humanization and can help to combat polarization.

For example, favorable contact among members of different groups and nations that allows them to work together or play together can heighten their sense of shared humanity. Such exchanges can be educational, cultural, or scientific, and promote empathic personal contact and mutual respect.[8]

Education can also help to counter the negative effects of propaganda and help parties approach those outside their group more constructively. It can aid in humanization by conveying the idea that we are all part of a vast, interdependent, worldwide family "sharing fundamental human similarities."[9] Schools can also foster cooperative behavior among children, encouraging them to accept people different from themselves and recognize that they have needs and values similar to those of the in-group.

The media also has great humanization potential. For example, television programming might be used "to demystify the adversary and improve understanding."[10] Programming that highlights human suffering and the consequences of aggression could help people to recognize the terrible toll that violence takes on real-life people. Further violence against the adversary might come to be regarded as inhumane.

The Importance of Humanization

Humanization can help to break down enemy images or damaging stereotypes. Once one's opponent is viewed not as an evil monster, but a fellow human deserving of moral consideration, the conflict can be reframed in more productive ways.

As suggested above, humanization can help to de-escalate a conflict or limit escalation, as well as reduce the likelihood of mass violence or genocide. Parties who regard each other as human will find it much more difficult to rationalize harsh tactics or disregard human-rights norms.

However, humanization might also play a role in conflict-resolution processes more generally. It is often a crucial component in establishing cooperative relations between parties and promoting trust-building and constructive resolution. Recognizing the common humanity of one's opponent can pave the way for mutual respect, mutual trust, and mutual security.[11]

Once parties have begun to appreciate the humanity of their opponents, they can begin to listen responsively to the views of the Other, build on their ideas, and engage in constructive resolution. This might involve taking responsibility for harmful consequences, apologizing for them, and seeking reconciliation. Recognizing the other as a member of one's moral community also fosters honesty and leads parties to focus on actual issues rather than engaging in personal attacks.

Humanization can also pave the way for reciprocity and a belief in human equality, creating shared norms that constrain the way the conflict is waged. Reciprocity requires that each party treat the other with the fairness and respect that it would normally expect if in the other's position.[12] It is an expression of the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Human equality implies that all human beings are entitled to just and respectful treatment. Humanization can allow parties to see that even their opponents are deserving of such treatment. Thus, it can be a crucial component of conflict transformation.

[1] Morton Deutsch, "Justice and Conflict," in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, ed. Morton Deutsch and Peter Coleman (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, Inc., 2000), 51.

[2] Jeffrey Z. Rubin and Dean G. Pruitt, Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement, 2nd edition (New York: McGraw Hill College Division, 1994), 105.

[3] Deutsch, "Justice and Conflict," 57.

[4] Susan Opotow, "Drawing the Line: Social Categorization, Moral Exclusion, and the Scope of Justice," in Conflict, Cooperation and Justice: Essays Inspired by the Work of Morton Deutsch, ed. Morton Deutsch, Barbara Bunker, and Jeffrey Rubin (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995), 360.

[5] Jay Rothman, Resolving Identity-Based Conflict in Nations, Organizations, and Communities (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), 44.

[6] Rothman, 47.

[7] David Hamburg,"Preventing Contemporary Intergroup Violence," in The Handbook for Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugence Weiner (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), 31.

[8] Hamburg, 38.

[9] David Hamburg, "Education for Conflict Resolution," [article on-line] (The Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict) available from

[10] Hamburg, "Education for Conflict Resolution."

[11] Deutsch, "Justice and Conflict," 61.

[12] Morton Deutsch, "Cooperation and Competition," in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice ed. M. Deutsch and P. Coleman (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 34.

Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Humanization." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <>.

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