Come on America — revolutionize ‘how to talk’ — beat the odds that are working against democracy.

Elizabeth G. Boulton, PhD
6 min readNov 3, 2020


As the US Trump-Biden election gets underway, many are concerned about the outbreak of violence, with some ‘preparing for civil war.

To avoid the worst — and let us be clear — many lives lost, there might be a chance for leaders across the country to speak up and defuse tensions.

Below is some information on the inter-group dynamics involved, what factors pressure load tension, and ideas about how to repair frayed societal bonds.

Baseline tribal tendencies

At a baseline, humans are already deeply tribal creatures. Gravitation towards in-group love and out-group hate is so strong, that even when an arbitrary group of people are assigned to competing teams, it has been found that they experience reduced empathy for those in the ‘other’ team. Worse, as the study ‘their pain gives us pleasure’ indicates, people tended to feel pleasure when their rivals experienced misfortune.

Defining the other as a ‘threat’

The situation becomes more dire when the ‘other’– the ‘them’ — the ‘out group’– is not merely a competitor, but rather is defined as a ‘threat.’

A psychological study found that when an out-group is defined as a threat, the people within that group are regarded with less empathy and higher levels of hostility, with these two emotional states being enablers of harmful or violent action.

This is important because in in the discourse surrounding the US election, we are starting to see opposing sides defining the ‘other’ in terms of threat — threat to life, to democracy, to the state, to wider societal security, or to freedom.

The role of hate language and dehumanisation

Another pressure loading factor is the role of hate language and dehumanisation. Genocide research, by Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske, found that a key factor is language which dehumanises others:

…propaganda depicting Tutsi in Rwanda as “Inyenzi” or cockroaches, and Hitler’s classification of Jews in Nazi Germany as vermin may have facilitated atrocities like torture and genocide; both examples tag the victims as disgusting less than human creatures…

The reason dehumanisation is so important, Harris and Fiske found, is because it disengages people’s ‘social cognition’ neural pathways, allowing them the ability to recognise that another person has “an internal life — conscious cognitive and emotional experiences,” and thus is subject to normal moral rules and norms.

Role of trusted authority figures

A third significant factor which can tip heated societal discourse into the realm of violence is the role of leaders. This is because, despite loud proclamations of desiring independence, the human being is still a very obedient creature.

The significance of human’s obedient tendencies exploded into modern human consciousness in 1963, when the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was televised. As Hannah Arendt famously described in her report on the banality of evil, people were shocked at Eichmann’s lack of remorse and plain explanation that he was “just following orders.” To test this insight, soon after the trial, Stanley Milgram’s began his electric shock experiments, which reached the same conclusion. The 2012 film Compliance based upon a true story in the USA, where staff were convinced to abuse other restaurant staff by a pretend police officer, underscores how enduring this problem is.

Accordingly, the tendency of individuals to forego their own ability to analyse a situation and defer to others is another factor that influences how wider societal behaviour might unfold. This has already happened.

Referred to as the Trump Effect, the links between Donald Trumps’ xenophobia and hate-crimes has been discussed at length, has been formally documented as a concern by the UN and is even now mapped:

Don’t call me stupid

While not at the same level of Trumps’ xenophobia, hate and hints of dehumanisation language also pepper the language of anti-Trump discourse. Beginning with Hillary’ Clinton’s description of Trump supporters as deplorables, there is a consistent trend whereby this demographic group are portrayed as inherently dumb or stupid and possibly even mentally dysfunctional.

The worry is that such consistent characterisation contributes to a type of dehumanisation. It has scary echoes of Huxley’s novel, Brave New World, where people are put into castes — Alphas, Betas, Gammas, delta and Epsilons — based upon their intelligence and work functions:

‘Brave New World’ Caste System…

It suggests they do not deserve to be listened to; their voice is written off; they are unsuitable for participation in public dialogue.

In this circumstance, this dehumanisation of Trump supporters will only increase their fear and exacerbate polarisation. The original genuine grievances, as to why they voted for Trump in the first place, are forgotten in what has now escalated to a battle around identity and tribe.

This, and what could happen next is extremely serious, but so too is that way this issue, and general US socio-cultural divides are discussed and approached over the next few weeks.

What leaders on all sides can do….Find a new way to talk…

The key will be to strongly decry harmful actions, behaviours, ideas and language, but not also participate in dehumanisation and hate-rhetoric.

1. Focus on actions, not identity

There is fine nuance here which needs to be made very clear. It is possible to be critical of threatening behaviours and actions, and use lawful restraint if necessary and proportionate, but also avoid BRANDING a group of people in a particular way. Focus on actions, behaviours but not identity. Play the issue, not the people.

2. Call out hate-speech and de-humanisation, but let people speak authentically...

This will sound contradictory, it means, let people be emotionally expressive. If their will and intention is good, but use of specific terminology is clumsy, focus on their intentions. Where it is not hate-speech etc, but unintentionally offensive, let it go. Just let them talk without critiquing and correcting all the time.

3. Re-humanise people

Use your imagination! Find what folk have in common, who they are as a person, what their concerns really are underneath the anger, what sort of pets they have and so on.

4. Storytelling

Let people share their story… Get to know each other in more than a one dimensional way…

5. Meet

Try sitting down to chat over some simple food…or in a neutral venue… Less digital, anonymous communication...despite COVID19!

Societal divisions are seen more broadly in the globalised world. For these to heal, in the high-tech, high-science world of the 21st Century, constructive ways must be found to re-open the pathway to discourse, such that all societal members, and tribes, are afforded dignity to speak and be heard and participate in decisions of their society.

Instead of fighting each other, or destroying property, Americans could lead the world in finding ways to talk, despite the obstacles of digital tribes, big money owning media, polarisation and international interference.



Elizabeth G. Boulton, PhD

Researcher in climate emergency responses, the climate-security nexus, threat framing & narratives. Located in Regional Victoria, Australia.