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THE LUCIFER EFFECT: How does an offensive nickname become a source of evil? (Part I)

THE LUCIFER EFFECT: How does an offensive nickname become a source of evil? (Part I)
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Auguste Rodin. The gates of hell (fragment). 1880-1917


For thousands of years, people have been struggling to unravel the nature of evil … But, it turns out, it is enough to give a person a negative characterization in order to “dehumanize” him and release the “beast out”. Computed tomography shows that our brains react differently to physical abuse and verbal aggression.

It is not for nothing that since ancient times there has been a tradition of verbal skirmish, which is sometimes followed by some modern boxers. How harmless are the nicknames and nicknames that we give to other people?


Whoever says to his brother: “cancer” is subject to the Sanhedrin;

and whoever says: “insane” is subject to fiery hell

Matthew 5:22 – Matthew 5:22




Sociologist Irving Goffman described how the process of turning people into “spoiled” and “inferior” occurs. The ancient Greeks widely used the word “stigma” (stστίγμα) – it was a tattoo, a stigma placed on slaves or livestock. Slaves in classical ancient societies were not considered full-fledged people, but rather “talking tools”.

Treating a person as an animal can only compete with treating him as a “speaking thing”. According to one Japanese general, his soldiers easily killed innocent Chinese during the invasion of the Middle Kingdom before World War II, because “they were treated like things, and not like people like ourselves”.

Islamic terrorists are often presented to the fighters against terrorism as “cunning bombs” that have come to life – it makes them easier to destroy.

Mass rapes and murders in Nanjing in 1937 and in Rwanda in the 90s became possible, because the idea of ​​a person as a “talking tool” did not remain a sign of exclusively ancient times, but survived it for a long time.

Until now, humanity is making titanic efforts so that representatives of a different race, culture, lifestyle, thinking, religious or sexual orientation are no longer stigmatized and considered “not quite human” in the collective consciousness.

In modern sociocultural research, various types of stigmatization are studied, which are rooted in the peculiarities of our social psychology.

But where are the origins of this terrible phenomenon? Goffman speaks of “cognitive recognition”, which has a very important social function: it separates “right people” from “wrong”, “us” from “strangers”.

But by defining personal identity, society can easily deny a person the right to life or access to some resources. For example, he may be denied a loan – bank employees are often expected by owners to have the skill of “recognizing” their customers.




A stigmatized person may not be allowed into an expensive restaurant, club or elite store, taking him “for clothes”. A striking example is contained in the movie “Pretty Woman”, where the heroine Julia Roberts refused to serve, recognizing her as a prostitute.

As a matter of fact, in this story about “modern Cinderella” the whole plot is precisely based on the heroes overcoming this stigmatization. If you think that such prejudices and cognitive technologies are the destiny of exclusively high society, then you are mistaken.

In the British criminal communities there is such a position – “onlookers”. These are people who professionally specialize in cognitive recognition. They are used to “read” people, to recognize their stigma.

For example, they are often placed at the entrance to various nighteries so that they identify each visitor on a personal level and warn about the appearance of someone “stranger”as a suspicious one.

Charles Dickens, describing the social mixture of prisoners and visitors in a London prison, talks about the procedure of “posing for a portrait”: a new prisoner is put on a chair and the guards examine him for a long time in order to be able to identify in the future as a criminal.

The search for a “sign” is not only a consequence of the psychological need to identify, recognize who is in front of you, but also an echo of ancient magical practices, which include fortune telling and the use of various kinds of amulets.



Stigma, as the equivalent of bad reputation or fame, also in a digital information society helps to exercise social control over the individual. At the same time, under the pressure of virtual demands for public identification, the real image of a person, nation or social group is distorted.

As a result, we often deal with dehumanization – the “dehumanization” of a person, his transformation from a subject into an object, to which the moral rules no longer apply. With “non-humans” and “demonic entities”, of course, it is illogical to act as with people – terror in their relation is fully justified.

Even during the Hundred Years War, for example, among the French there was an idea that the British were real devils: eyewitnesses claimed that they had personally seen their tails and hooves. Naturally, this made it much easier for Joan of Arc to agitate for a holy war against demons.

Arlene Audergon (“The War Hotel”. The Psychological Dynamics of Armed Conflicts) showed that social control easily develops into real terror. And dehumanizing stigmatization is often expressed in repulsive nicknames.

So, to kill a person in most cultures is a terrible sin, but to kill a cockroach or a rat – a repulsive, harmful creature that devours your reserves and spreads infection – is a completely acceptable and even very useful action.

In general, even experimenting with animals does not involve treating them like full-fledged people. From the artistic images of Wells’ Dr. Mohr and Bulgakov’s Professor Preobrazhensky to the ominous Dr. Mengele – one step …




In the summer of 1994, the Rwandan radio station Radio and Television of a Thousand Hills incited the Hutu to commit genocide against the Tutsis with the following words: “You must kill them – they are cockroaches … I don’t know if God helps us to destroy them, but we must rise up to eradicate this race of bad people … there is no other way”. 

In the Third Reich, in children’s books, Jews were taken out under the guise of “poisonous mushrooms” – in kicking a toadstool, is there anything reprehensible? In the course of a propaganda campaign aimed at dehumanizing Jews, the “civilized” German Joseph Goebbels blessed the depiction of Jews in the form of rats in the film Der Ewige Jude (“The Eternal Jew”): “These animals are a symbol of treachery and destruction. Jews are the same rats among people”.

The image of a rat is also used in modern propaganda. So, in London and other cities of Great Britain from 2000 to 2001. an action was organized under the slogan “Catch rats. Drug dealers are breaking lives”.

It is good that society has finally begun to  solve the problem of drug trafficking systematically, but it looks very ambiguous when this happens through dehumanization technologies on the Nazi model.

Rats and cockroaches are actively used as stigmatizing metaphors in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The historian Amos Elon, author of The History of the Jews in Germany 1743-1933, cites as an example of dehumanization a 2001 cartoon in an Israeli newspaper, where the Intifada is presented as the invasion of harmful parasites into the human body.

Palestinians are equally obsessed with demonizing Jews. And according to the patterns of the Third Reich. Their cartoons depict Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon eating innocent Palestinian children from a bowl. There is also an image of a rat in a Jewish prayer blanket with a Star of David and a donkey covered with a talis.

In general, such cartoons are rooted in archaic ideas about the tribal totem. Suffice it to recall the Gallic rooster, symbolizing France, the bald eagle – the USA, the lion – Great Britain, the bear – Russia … During wars and conflicts, even civilized peoples obviously “go wild” and images of the bloody fight of these animals are flooded with propaganda media.

Read Part II

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