A Problem of Social Identity as a Main Reason of Rwandan Genocide

Published: 2021-09-11 13:15:09
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The social identity and the “us vs. them mentality” were clearly seen throughout the Rwandan genocide. In this piece, I chose to incorporate quotes from two sources, “Machete Season” by Jean Hatzfeld and the article titled “Hotel Rwanda Portrays Hero Who Fought Genocide.” In addition to the four quotes in total, I included an analysis in which I used the theories of social psychologist Henri Tajfel. The first quote I used from the preface of “Machete Season” reads, “The women, men, and children who were slaughtered were of the same race and shared the same language, customs, and confessions (Roman Catholic) as those who eagerly slaughtered them.” (pg vii, preface). The next quote from the book reads, “Suddenly Hutus of every kind were patriotic brothers without partisan discord. We were through playing around with political words. We were no longer in our each-to-his-own mood. We were doing a job to order. We were lining up behind everyone’s enthusiasm. We gathered into teams on the soccer field and went out hunting as kindred spirits.” (pg 16). Next, I used two quotes from the article about Hotel Rwanda. The first quote reads, “”At the start of the genocide, Rwanda, a nation of six million people, was about 85 percent Hutu and 15 percent Tutsi. The two groups speak the same language and share the same culture.” The second one states, ““Within hours, the streets filled with Hutu militia known as the Interahamwe, or “those who work together.” Spurred on by furious calls for blood by a local radio station, they first killed the Tutsi business and political elite, then turned to ordinary Tutsi citizens.”
Both of these quotes speak to the same concept, which is the shocking amount of similarity that existed (and still exists) between the Hutus and Tutsis in all aspects of life (culture, race, language, etc.). Yet, despite all these similarities, the Hutus were still able, both mentally and physically, to kill nearly 800,000 Tutsis. This connects directly to the driving question. While it doesn’t directly answer it, it forces one to think, even harder than usual, about how two people of practically the exact same culture can end up so greatly polarized. It’s rather astonishing how this can happen. It also prompts us to delve into the outside forces that were acting upon these people (government influence, propaganda, etc.) and what role they play. A question that would bring about some interesting debate and discussion could be something along the lines of “Would this genocide have occurred without the influence of the government and other actors?” This allows us to greatly analyze this topic, possibly even more so than if we were only looking at the question of why genocide occurs. Although, these two topics are not two separate entities, far from it in fact. They can be intertwined because one can answer the other. As soon as I read these two quotes, I could not help but recall the social identity theory proposed by social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in 1979. The social identity theory deals primarily with the way in which an individual views themselves and others based on their allegiance to a group. It also deals with inter-group discrimination and how we as individuals divide ourselves, thus creating an “us” and a “them” through a process known as social categorization (putting people into social groups). Henri Tajfel and John Turner described this separation using the terms in-group (us) and out-group (them). The in-group, according to the social identity theory, will discriminate towards the out-group in order to enhance their own self-image. This is precisely where the us vs. them mentality stems from.
The Rwandan genocide is one of many examples of the social identity theory. As the quote from the article states, the streets filled up in a matter of hours following the president’s assassination with the Hutu militia known as “interahamwe,” which means “those who work together.” This was the “powder keg” of the Rwandan genocide and immediately sparked widespread violence across the country. In comparison, the quote from the book, which came from one of the perpetrators of genocide himself, talks about all “kinds” of Hutus forming this “brotherhood” and, as he stated, they were working towards a goal of completely eliminating the Tutsi population. Firstly, before I go any further, I would like to point out a clear contradiction in this man’s statement. He states that there wasn’t any “partisan discord,” or a separation between different people, yet it was quite the contrary. The divide and separation was so intense that more than 800,00 died because of it, including “moderate,” which also implies extremism was existent, Hutus.
As the man from the book stated, there were “moderate” Hutus that were killed, which implies extremism was present. Extremism is another great example of the social identity theory. It is defined as “the holding of extreme political or religious views.” Thus, certain individuals form a group in which they separate themselves from another group in order to enhance themselves, and they carry out their discrimination in a rather “extreme way.” Often times, this discrimination is carried out through violence and killing. We saw this on 9/11 when al-Qaeda, a terrorist group often labelled as “extremists,” carried out an attack on the United States that killed over 3,000 people. We can see it today with anti-semitic and white supremacist groups. All of these groups are different in their own ways, but they have one major thing in common: They all stem from the act of separating themselves from everyone else and creating an in-group (themselves) and an out-group (those whom they discriminate against). Although, they often portray their discrimination in an extreme way, thus they are labelled “extremists.”
Now that we can see that there certainly was a strong divide between people in Rwanda, we can connect this directly to the social identity theory. The Hutu population separated themselves from and discriminated against the Tutsis in an attempt to enhance their own self-image and maintain their self-esteem as a group. This is where the us vs. them mentality can be clearly seen. The Hutus were the in-group, the Tutsis were the out-group, and he Hutus killed 800,000 Tutsis as a result. Furthermore, these two quotes both hold clear connections to each other in that both speak to the brutal acts that were carried out by the Hutus and their ultimate goal of exterminating the Tutsi. Although, something that seems to be often overlooked is the fact that this entire operation enacted by the Hutus was a direct result of the us vs. them mentality. This connects directly to the driving question of “Why does genocide occur?”
The social identity theory and the us vs. them mentality can be connected to the “political, social, and economic” causes of the Rwandan genocide. Firstly, the nation was in a state of great political instability and there wasn’t a clear, strong central government to uphold moral values and properly enforce the law. Due to this political instability, Rwanda faced what seemed like endless struggle and faced countless crises that the government could not adequately handle. As a result, the Hutus, along with the Rwandan government, placed the blame on the Tutsis and eventually began killing them under the belief that the extermination of the Tutsis would solve their problems (create a utopia). Furthermore, being that this mentality deals with social psychology, it’s just as important to understand how this played a role in the social causes of the Rwandan genocide.
Dating back to colonialism and Belgian control, ethnic and social tensions between the Hutus and the Tutsis have been a major contributor to the continuous violence and hatred existent throughout the nation. When the Belgians were in power, they favored the Tutsis because they felt that they had more “European features.” So, the Tutsis were granted more power and social authority than the Hutus. In other words, the Belgians facilitated an us vs. them mentality in which the Tutsis were the in-group and the Hutus were the out-group. Although, over time the Hutus grew angry over the discrimination they faced; they eventually resorted to violence in hopes of restoring a balance of power. Leading up to the Rwandan genocide, an immense amount of propaganda was spread that labelled the Tutsis as “cockroaches” and thus convinced the Hutu population that it was us vs. them and the Tutsis had to be eliminated. In the end, over 800,000 Tutsis died.
While we typically restrict our study of genocide to the political, social, and economic causes, we consistently overlook something that lies deep beneath all of the killings, and also exists in each and every person who participated in it. That which exists beneath it all is the social identity theory and the us vs. them mentality. Every single day we attach labels to both ourselves and others in an attempt to maintain our self-esteem. We say things like, “I am American” or “I am black” and, “She is Australian” or “He is a teacher.” Then, once we have labeled ourselves and others, we associate ourselves with a group. Next, we come up with reasons why our group is the best and another group is not. We see it everyday, all over the world. Whether it’s two sports teams arguing over who is better, or the people of two nations arguing over whose nation is greater. We saw it with Germany prior to WW1 and their extremely high morale and nationalistic pride. The social identity theory can be seen all around us, and we can use this theory to understand certain events in history, such as genocide.

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