Creating new perspectives since 2009

As Gaza faces genocide, why is Jordan Peterson fuelling dehumanisation of Palestinians?

November 1, 2023 at 4:11 pm

Jordan Peterson on November 02, 2018 in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire [Chris Williamson/Getty Images]

With the death toll in Gaza now surpassing the 8,000 Bosnian Muslims massacred in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, the refrain of “never again” rings devastatingly hollow. The world vowed never to allow such horrors after Srebrenica, just as it did after the Holocaust. Yet, here we are again – watching atrocities unfold and innocent lives extinguished while the international community stands paralyzed.

The rising body count in Gaza begs the question: what does “never again” truly mean when genocides and massacres continue to be ruthlessly carried out, again and again?

Dispelling any doubt that Gaza’s 2.2 million Palestinians are being subjected to a genocidal campaign, the top UN human rights official resigned in protest this week over what he calls the “genocide” unfolding in the besieged enclave. Craig Mokhiber, outgoing Director of the New York office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, accused the UN of “failing again” to prevent genocide like it had in Rwanda and Bosnia.

In a fiery departure letter, Mokhiber categorised Israel’s “wholesale slaughter” of Palestinians as a “textbook case of genocide” rooted in ethno-nationalist ideology. He condemned the US, UK and Europe as “wholly complicit” for arming Israel’s assault and providing it diplomatic cover. Mokhiber called for dismantling Israel’s “deeply racist, settler-colonial project” and establishing a single secular state in historic Palestine.

The top UN human rights official is not alone in calling on the international community to shake off its apathy and prevent an Israeli genocide on Gaza. Associate professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Stockton University and the endowed professor in the study of modern genocide, Raz Segal, has also called Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza “a textbook case of genocide” that is unfolding before our eyes. The sheer destruction and loss of life, the rhetoric of Israeli officials and the systematic siege all point to a clear genocidal intent to destroy Palestinians as laid out under international law, Segal argued.

He cited the fact that Israel has openly declared plans for a “complete siege” on Gaza and to “act accordingly” against “human animals”— language clearly calculated to justify mass civilian death. Meanwhile, Israeli leaders’ vocal dehumanisation of Palestinians as “evil” has provided the pretext for disproportionate force, not to mention the continued Nazification of Palestinians by officials of the apartheid state.

Throughout history, we have witnessed the harrowing truth that genocide and massacres often emerge from a chilling process of dehumanisation. This disturbing precursor systematically strips targeted groups of their humanity, paving the way for unimaginable horrors.

Dehumanisation is a sinister psychological tactic that vilifies, belittles and degrades people to the point where violence against them seems justified, even righteous. Through the use of derogatory language, harmful stereotypes and degrading imagery, the victims’ humanity is denied and their lives cheapened. This lays the groundwork for the unspeakable atrocities that follow.

The Gaza manifesto: Why America’s old Middle East is crumbling

One needs only to look at history’s darkest chapters to see dehumanisation rear its ugly head, time and again, before genocide. The Nazis infamously depicted Jews as “vermin” and “subhuman” prior to the Holocaust, which fuelled the mechanised murder of six million. Extremist Hutu propaganda branded Tutsis “cockroaches” before the Rwandan Genocide.

In more recent memory, the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre stands as a chilling case study on how violently dehumanisation enables slaughter. In the lead-up to the killings, Bosnian Serb forces cast Bosniak Muslims as the enemy through a campaign of dehumanising propaganda. By the time 8,000 Muslim men and boys were systematically murdered, the perpetrators saw them as less than human.

The psychological impact of dehumanisation is profound, not only in conditioning people to commit horrific acts, but also to instil apathy in world leaders. It not only provides a pretext for violence but also numbs our innate human compassion and erodes moral boundaries. Individuals are far more capable of carrying out atrocities when they can mentally distance themselves from their victims’ humanity.

This recap of history serves to highlight that the road to genocide is paved through dehumanisation, a fact that is made more apparent with Israel’s devasting onslaught on Gaza. But the dehumanisation of Palestinians did not begin on 7 October. Rhetoric and actions that strip away the humanity of Palestinians has been a constant feature of the Zionist project and Israel’s takeover of Palestine.

Long before the bombs fell, Israel had already littered the road to genocide with decades of dehumanising policies and actions against Palestinians. Aided by supporters in the West, the Zionist project has systematically stripped Palestinians of their humanity – a pattern that persists through new guises into the present day.

In an interview yesterday, for example, Piers Morgan and Jordan Peterson displayed the troubling attitude that dehumanises Palestinians through victim-blaming narratives. When asked about the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, described by Morgan as a “perpetual prison camp”, Peterson, who controversially called on Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to visit “hell” on Gaza, appeared to justify Israel’s actions, while showing contempt for Palestinians.

Rather than acknowledge the complex factors behind Gazans’ suffering under blockade and Hamas rule, Morgan and Peterson pinned the blame on Palestinians. Their rhetoric implied that Palestinians have brought the suffering on themselves.

“It begs a whole other set of question … If your government is a totalitarian band of armed criminal thugs, what responsibility do you bear for that as the subjected people,” asked Peterson after acknowledging half of Palestinians in Gaza are children and, therefore, would not have voted for Hamas. He explains that “the answer to whatever tyranny Israel might be exerting over the Palestinians, it isn’t for the Palestinians to exert even more tyranny on themselves. Especially not in concert like a third party in Iran. Who’s perfectly willing to sacrifice them at any point.”

OPINION: The heart-wrenching reality for civilians in Gaza: A wake up call for the world

In an astonishing display of one-sided rhetoric, Peterson asks: “What responsibility do the Palestinians bear?” He continues, without mentioning Israel’s role in oppressing Palestinians: “The Palestinians, like all other people, bear the responsibility to live up to truth and to stand up to tyranny in their attention and their deeds and their actions.”

Peterson goes on to state, still without acknowledging Israel as a source of tyranny: “If you don’t [stand up to tyranny], you pay for that and so do your children and then so do your grandchildren, so do you great-grandchildren. There seems to be something unjust in that. Why do the children suffer? The children suffer for the sins of their forefathers. It’s unfair the world is set up that way, hey it may be unfair but it is set up that way. What responsibility do people who live under the thumb of totalitarianism have for the fact that they are living under the thumbs of totalitarians? And the answer isn’t none.”

Peterson’s hypocritical rhetoric is glaring. One suspects that he would never victim-blame Jews for the centuries of persecution they endured in Europe and that the “children suffer for the sins of their forefathers.” Yet he has no qualms stripping Palestinians of their humanity by falsely pinning the blame on them for Israel’s devastating violence. The distorted version of events thoroughly erases Israel’s role in perpetrating massacres against Palestinians living under apartheid rule. Yet, when it comes to the suffering of others, he would never stoop to the absurd “theological explanations” he readily provides to paint Palestinians as complicit in their own oppression.

Peterson’s disturbing lack of empathy for Palestinians, even as they endure unimaginable suffering, reveals how profoundly Palestinians have been dehumanised in the minds of many. Rather than joining urgent calls for a ceasefire, many are peddling callous justifications that rationalise indifference to their pain.

This denial of Palestinians’ basic humanity has clearly taken root among some influencers and permeated sections of society. As Gaza grieves amidst genocide, the impulse should be compassion – not fabricated excuses to turn away.

Genocide in Palestine: journalists need to decolonise the mainstream narrative

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.