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The Table Video

Wyndy Corbin Reuschling

Constructing Enemies: The Social Psychology of Violence

Ethicist Wyndy Corbin Reuschling explains how enemies are made, and how groups fabricate foes to strengthen their own identity and justify their actions.


The construction of an enemy has a powerful role in moral discourse. When I was way back when in graduate school, one of my classes was psychology of violence. And we read a book called The Roots, “The Roots of Evil” by Ervin Staub who’s a Social Psychologist.

And he was studying genocide movements. And you write the classic question now how could this have happened? How could Hitler have happened?

He looks at five genocide movements and then kind of the precursors and what, there’s a number of commonalities but one of the strong commonalities was a group has to identify an enemy, in order to bolster its own sense of rightness and its own sense of identity. And we see this played out quite a bit, right. And so it’s not just that it may not even be an actual enemy.

Somebody who’s harmed her wrong.

There’s always a sense that an enemy gets constructed.


That might not bear any reality to that group, actually. So, you know, the classic case that we see was the Holocaust and the construction of Jewish populations as a particular way. And therefore, the rightness of a group is demonstrated, approved whatever language you want to use in light of the enemy.

And I think we see that dynamic a lot. So I do think you’re making an important connection, because it really comes to a point, what justifies harm against an enemy, and we can have all sorts of justifications right?

And I think Staub is really onto something when one’s own sense of identity is threatened. You know, Reinhold Niebuhr who was a social ethicist you know, back in the 40s, and 50s has had this really interesting language of group pride then. When a groups identity feels threatened you know, an enemy, if one does not exist has to be constructed and all sorts of things can be justified then.