We are in the third month of social unrest in Hong Kong. Although the crisis is political, many psychological processes have contributed to its evolution. We'll just highlight a few here.
First, polarisation, dehumanisation and radicalisation. We've seen rapid polarisation and escalation in both the physical force and rhetoric used by police and protesters.
Society has been divided into police and protesters, black shirts and white shirts, or blue ribbons and yellow ribbons - a legacy of the "umbrella movement" in 2014. And the in-group versus out-group dynamics are playing out again in the current conflict: the out-group is seen as homogenous, and the problematic behaviour of a few is ascribed to an entire group. In addition, the whole group is thought to have a single, common, malicious motivation for their behaviour.
There is "ingroup favouritism" within both camps: fellow protesters or police officers can't be wrong, whatever they do. What is particularly troubling is that both sides hew to an ethos of not condemning or ostracising those within the camp. That is, protesters condone all forms and means of protest, no matter how destructive and debilitating, while police allow each other to deviate from protocol and use excessive force. This, in effect, is reinforcing the radicalisation of the two opposing groups.
There is also increasing pressure not just on celebrities and large corporations but also friends and family to declare their allegiance. People are quick to label each other as yellow or blue. This "you're either with us or against us" mentality is not conducive to dialogue and removes the common ground for constructive discussions. Anecdotally, such a mentality has already caused significant rifts among friends and family. This is further exacerbated by the echo chamber of social media.
In its extreme form, group conflict can breed dehumanisation. Protesters are calling police officers "dogs" and police are describing protesters as "cockroaches". Dehumanisation dampens one's conscience and helps justify the use of violence against each other, contributing to further radicalisation.
Second, hopelessness. Many have commented that the radicalisation we are seeing is driven by hopelessness, especially among young people. It is probably true that our youth see a less bright future than previous generations did. Hong Kong's income disparity remains high and its housing the least affordable on the planet, and young people perceive their career options and lifestyle choices as limited.
Some might argue that taking part in, or sympathising with, the movement is an act of hope. Supporters of the movement are hopeful their action - if pervasive and persistent enough - will bring change. What we fear, however, is that when the movement ends and its outcome falls short of protesters' expectations, which is very likely, true hopelessness will emerge. We dare not imagine what young people would resort to then.
Third, mental health. Several researchers have noted a deterioration of mental health in people in the past months. Even though Hong Kong is still largely safe and most people have not directly experienced violence, pretty much everyone has seen disturbing footage.
Since September 11, it has been clear that exposure to gruesome footage alone can affect mental health, especially among those who were vulnerable to begin with.
Another factor hurting mental health is sleep deprivation. Many newsworthy events have unfolded on television in the evening. It can be difficult to turn the news off in the middle of a violent clash, and fall asleep with disturbing images fresh in the mind.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has said she gets three to five hours of sleep a night. Likewise, protesters and police officers are sleep-deprived. Sleep deprivation affects our capacity for attention, memory, reasoning and decision-making. It also depletes our ability to regulate emotions. The chaos we are in is not caused by a lack of sleep, but it might be exacerbating our reactions to events.
Many have offered solutions to help de-escalate the conflict. Here we throw in a few more as clinical psychologists and researchers.
Firstly, we need a truce. Everyone is exhausted. A week or two of peace will allow us all to get some rest and gradually move away from emotion-driven behaviour. Fear and anger - the two emotions that seem most pervasive in the city - might drive us to make decisions we regret. With some time to rest and reflect, both individually and collectively, all parties can start making more rational and balanced decisions.
Secondly, this crisis should be treated as a public health disaster. Using a disaster-relief framework allows us to deploy health and mental health professionals accordingly. Also, within this framework, survivors need to feel safe and have their feelings validated. Now might not be the right time to settle scores and point fingers. Instead, both protesters and frontline police officers need to be heard and feel understood without being accused, regardless of whether or not we agree with them. Only then can the hatred start to dissipate and the conflict de-escalate.
Thirdly, we need a campaign to remind ourselves of our common identities, as Hongkongers and human beings. What is ironic and particularly heartbreaking is that all parties - protesters, police, Lam and her administration and perhaps even triad members - believe that they are protecting Hong Kong, their home, our home.
We ought not to dismiss our pain and suffering; nor should we trivialise the politics. But, we suggest - concurrent to pursuing justice - we can turn to the arts for healing and reconciliation. Theatre, comedy, poetry, writing and the like are non-destructive ways to express ourselves and our visions. They help us recognise our common humanity. We should also see our friends and family for who they are, not some cold political opponents. To weather the storms yet to come, we need each another.
When a woman was injured in the eye by a projectile, "an eye for an eye" quickly became a slogan. But to prevent the implosion of Hong Kong, perhaps we need another chant: "Let's see eye to eye."
Christian Chan, PhD, is an associate professor and Frendi Li, PhD, an associate professor of practice in the Department of Psychology at the University of Hong Kong
Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.Artikel Asli