The Collective Face of Evil
By James Hunter article link
December 26, 2010 | OpEdNews
Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made. -Immanuel Kant
The great atrocities of history have been condoned and/or committed by communities, most frequently nations, and have been done in the name of "purity," or some other high ideal. Unspeakable physical, cultural, and psychological violence committed against other human beings is predominantly a collective phenomenon. Only a small proportion of the mindless violence of which the human race is guilty is committed by deranged individuals. This is an important point because it is generally assumed that when individuals and society come into conflict, society occupies the high ground. This assumption is even built into our language. When we wish to use a more or less polite term to define someone we think is an evil person we call him "anti-social" or "sociopathic." If our assumption about the moral superiority of society over the individual is untrue, then it will require a serious re-evaluation of some basic assumptions that most of us have. It is a re-thinking that those who stand to benefit from the established order do not want us to undertake.
Does the data available to us support our primary claim here? Getting reliable statistics on important topics is always an iffy thing. If a matter of historical fact is of great significance, then probably someone has an interest in misrepresenting the data. Also when different people collect data they may mean very different things while using the same terms. What is genocide? What is rape? Murder? An atrocity? Torture? Fortunately for our purposes only a rough estimate is necessary. For our measure of "social evil" we will include war, genocide, and obvious examples of destroying the infra-structure of societies, upon which a significant number of people rely simply to sustain life. We will compare this with the most obvious example of death caused by individual violence, which is murder.
On his web site Matthew White tallies the number of collectively caused deaths in the twentieth century as follows: Genocide and Tyranny: 83,000,000, Military Deaths in War: 42,000,000, Civilian Deaths in War: 19,000,000, and Man-made Famine: 44,000,000, for a total of 188,000,000 unnecessary deaths caused by collective policies during the 20th century. This was lower than estimates by two other researchers on the same topic that he cites. Their estimates were 203,000,000 and 258,327,000. Different ways of counting, different definitions, and perhaps somewhat different political agendas account for the variance. However, it would seem to be a fairly conservative estimate that about 188,000,000 people in the 20th century died from socially created catastrophes, such as wars, genocides and the destruction of social infrastructures. How does this compare with murder?
Basing his estimate on known statistics, and extrapolating from these numbers, White comes up with the figure of 8,500,000 homicides in the 20th century. Granted that this is simply an estimate, his reasoning was plausible, and this probably represents a fairly accurate ball park figure. If we put White's two figures together we have about 8.5 million homicides compared with 196.5 million collectively generated deaths. That means that about 4.3% of these the death total was the result of individuals acting on their own and 95.7% was the result of the internal and external policies of nations. That is rather striking. Surely it should be enough to raise questions about our assumption that when individuals and societies are in conflict, society generally occupies the ethical high ground.
The lion's share of evil in the world is not created by individuals violating the rules of society, but by societies who violate the rights of the individuals that compose them, and who are not willing to accommodate to the legitimate needs of their neighboring societies. Enemies of society, if they are violent and fanatical, may indeed pose a threat to people, and we may need some protection from them. But first and foremost we need protection from society itself. It was this understanding that led to the creation of the Bill of Rights, the Nuremberg Principles, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and similar documents . The danger is especially great when we are dealing with a society that operates under the illusion of its unassailable purity, as is the case with the United States at this time.
It is curious how often one finds the ideal of "purity" behind the actions and ideologies of groups that perpetrate needless violence on others. Examples abound. The war on drugs. Prohibition. Laws against sex workers. The persecution of gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities. The Holocaust. The Inquisition. The Kumer Rouge. Whether we are talking about physical, sexual, ideological, racial, religious, or ideological purity, the advocacy for and implementation of this ideal is generally a prelude to violence. So much is this the case that whenever we hear the word "purity", or perceive this ideal disguised in the garb of another word, a warning bell should go off in our minds. Is some new carnage being engineered?
How are we to explain this propensity for groups of individuals to do things that most of its members acting as individuals would never do? I am sure that a number of factors come into play, but perhaps we can highlight a few of the most important ones.
Undue Submission to Authority
People suffer from the belief that if an authority tells them to do some the thing that is plainly evil, they are exonerated from the guilt of doing it. They have, in other words, no responsibility for assessing for themselves what is right or wrong in a situation. This fact of human nature was brought home in the famous experiments preformed by Stanley Milgram's in the 1960s. These experiments showed that people would administer what they believed to be painful and possibly fatal electric shocks to people they had no reason to hurt, simply because they were told to do so by an authority. For those not familiar with these experiments an excellent summery of both Milgram's work and some follow up studies can be found here. Minimally they challenge the equation of morality with obedience, as when we consider the terms "good child" and "obedient child" to be synonymous.
The experiments done by Millikan focus on how people respond to experts and/or individuals who have been designated by society to establish and enforce social norms. Mindless conformity to the norms and expectations created by such individuals is certainly one aspect of how society is able to get people to do things that, acting on their own insights and inclinations, they would never do. However, there is a more amorphous type of authority. This is the authority of the group itself. People are afraid of "public opinion." We carry around inside out heads a "generalized other" that expects things of us. "They" will disapprove of us if we are not careful. People want to be accepted by, and thought well of, by their communities. They want to do what is done -- what "they" will approve of. One of the great ironies of history is that the philosopher Heidegger, who warned people about the power of the "they" self, himself became an ardent supported of Hitler. It is easy to be swept along with the crowd. It feels "good." Even philosophers who should know better become seduced. It is difficult to oppose what one's primary social group believes and is doing. It creates anxiety about not being thought well of, about losing the social home to which one belongs, and about the validity of one's own insights. It is difficult indeed.
In their collective activities people tend to come under the sway of eschatological ideologies. By "escotological ideologies" I mean to designate ideologies characterized by the following beliefs:
* The the world can best be understood as a battleground between the forces of good and the forces of evil.
* That we are moving toward a final battle between these two forces that will lead to an end of history.
* That during this battle the evil forces will be defeated and the good will enter into a kingdom (either in this world, or in the next) that will establish for all times an unchanging (a-historical) social order based on righteousness and purity.
Christian fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism, and the belief system of the Neo-Conservatives all fit this pattern. They are all eschatological ideologies. That is one of the primary reasons why the world is in such a dangerous state at this time.
Most individuals, at least in their personal affairs, are guided by what might be called a value oriented pragmatism. That is to say they pursue those things that they experience as having value, and they do so in a practical manner. This entails the recognition that the needs, beliefs and desires of others must be taken into consideration as they pursue their goals. I am not suggesting that most people are excessively honest or rational in their personal pursuits. They are not. They are mixtures of rational, irrational, self-serving, altruistic and sometimes even noble thoughts and feelings. But they do not organize their daily interactions with others on the premise that they are themselves paragons of virtue and that anyone who opposes them is an incarnation of pure evil and should be killed. They do not, in other words, understand their personal affairs in terms of an eschatological understanding of reality.
The Influence of the "Super-Elite"
Not all the forces that contribute to the dangerousness of the times are driven by eschatological fantasies. The money elite of the world -- primarily of big bankers and the CEOs of multi-national corporations -- are driven by other aims.
In large part it the super-elite seem to be driven by pure and unadorned greed. However, it is probably true that some of the economic super-elite sincerely believe that it would be best for everybody if the world were ruled by the elite who who presumably proven themselves in the economic arena to be capable of ruling. Three important facts should be noted about the super elite. First, they manipulate for their own ends the belief systems of those who are susceptible to escotological thinking. Second, they see any real form of democracy as contrary to their ends. Whether their motivations are self-seeking or benevolent, they are aristocrats. Third, whatever their motivations, by promoting policies that increase financial gap between the rich and the poor they are creating a very dangerous situation.
Every week I read articles and see videos done by intelligent and sensitive women and men, who have taken the trouble to know what they are talking about, and who make sensible and creative suggestions about how we as species might move forward without destroying either each other or the ecology upon which we are dependent. My thinking and life are vastly enriched by the work of such people. There are lots of them, actually. I think, so long as there are such people around, the human race is not hopeless. In an article entitled The Fundamental Mistake of Civilized Life I argue that human beings are not intrinsically evil. I believe I am justified in this fundamentally positive take on human nature, despite the evidence that points toward a less optimistic assessment. But then I notice an unfortunate fact. These thoughtful people are not running the world. Many are marginalized. They are not called by the TV news shows, even when they obviously know far more than the experts who are called. These intelligent and informed people are seldom powerful elected officials or appointees, or CEOs in big corporations. They are not members of the political and economic super-elite. This raises an interesting question in my mind. What does it take to rise to the top of the business and political organizations in our society. Of course there are many charming and sensitive, and perhaps even moral people among the super-elite, but it appears to me that rising to the top generally entails a number of characteristic:
* A fortunate birth which gives the person access to economic and educational resources that most people do not have, and which also pre-disposes them to be identified with the interests of the very rich.
* A superior degree of intelligence. This is not always the case. With a fortunate birth sometimes a superficial cunning, and an instinct for who one should hang out with may be enough. But on the average, people who rise to the top probably are more intelligent than average.
* A ruthlessness in playing the highly competitive games that permit success in our political and business institutions. The ability to empathize with others would tend to inhibit the needed ruthlessness and would serve as an impediment.
* Narcissism, and a drive toward self-aggrandizement.
* A willingness to embark on enterprises that will inevitably lead to great human suffering and even death. We see this, for example, in the willingness to exploit the cheapest labor that can be found, and to undercut the ability of workers to advocate for health benefits, acceptable working conditions, or even a living wage.
* A philosophy of social Darwinism that tells the person that since s/he is at the top, s/he must belong there. If the unfit die from malnutrition and preventable diseases, that is just natural selection at work.
* A willingness to set aside the most fundamental requirements of ethics whenever they might impose a limit on personal ambition.
These characteristics paint the picture of a privileged, cunning, ruthless, narcissistic, amoral individual who is incapable of real empathy or of loyalty in relationships that are not self-serving, and who conducts his or her affairs in a Machiavellian manner. In other words, in the language of the mental health field, a sociopath. If it is individuals with these characteristics that do, on the whole, rise to the top the power hierarchies in business and politics, then there is little wonder that our collective lives are on the whole ethically inferior to the lives we live as individuals.
Unless definite steps are taken to prevent it, a super elite of the very rich and powerful always seems to emerge. These groups may consider themselves to be the philosopher kings that Plato felt should run societies. Minimally one can say that these elites are not strong advocates of real democracy -- though they may like the trappings of a democracy if they can control it with their money. It is possible that some members of the super-elite actually do try to act for the benefit of the whole of society. The super-elite do not represent a totally monolithic entity. In general, however, they do band together to protect their privilege and to further the right of a small minority of people to amass and retain huge fortunes at the expense of the rest. The resulting inequities -- when they reach a degree of absurdity -- invariably produce violence.
The issue of "distance" between people is also a factor. Interactions between individuals are most often face to face, while collective actions tend to be in relationship to people who are more distant from one. David Grossman in his book "On Killing" makes the point that it is actually very difficult for one human being to kill another one. Soldiers have to be psychologically conditioned to do so. In this context, boot camp can be understood as society training people to be less than fully human, or at least to suppress the innate pro-social inclinations that are built into the species. A good deal of the conditioning in boot camp is focused on teaching the soldiers not to perceive the enemy as people like unto themselves, with family, friends, hopes, fears, worthy aspirations etc. Despite the training, many soldiers find it very difficult to deal with the aftermath of having killed -- even in battle, where it is the socially prescribed thing to do. Physical as well as psychological distance between the killer and the killed facilitates a willingness to kill. One presumes that the same person who could direct a drone plane to bomb a household of people -- with the inevitable "collateral damage" that he/she knows will be a part of the process -- would not kill the children and other non-military people with a knife while looking them in the face. A certain amount of collective violence is possible simply because the perpetrators are spared the horror of seeing what they are doing. Cultural and language differences are additional forms of distancing that facilitate socially prescribed killing. The less "like us" and therefore the less human the other person is perceived to be, the easier it is to kill and/or torture him/her. Perhaps the greatest distance is achieved through the process of demonizing the "enemy." Members of the group to be attacked or exterminated are not human. They are not even ordinary animals, for which one might still feel some sympathy. They are monsters -- devils. We have been taught that society forces individuals to repress violent and destructive impulses for the sake of harmonious social living. Actually what seems more common is for society to repress those impulses that are most tender, gentle, loving and pro-social.
We have attempted to suggest some of the reasons why, on the average, collectivities and societies -- especially nations -- are responsible for much more violent and criminal behavior that are individuals. We have touched on eschatological ideologies, the dynamics of authority, the nature of the economic / political super elite, and the role of social distance as some of the factors that might help explain this fact. Undoubtedly there are other factors. Whatever the causes, the recognition that people acting as a part of collectivities do, in fact, tend to be more violent than the same individuals acting of individuals has a number of important ramifications.
Human beings are social creatures. We cannot totally withdraw from participation in the life of our communities, nor would it be good to do so. At the same time, when we evaluate any conflict between society and individuals we should remain open to the possibility that the source of the difficulty may be as much or even more with society than with the individual. The prisoner is not necessarily more guilty than the guard, the judge, the legislature, or the churches that pressed for laws that might be repressive, draconian, misplaced, counterproductive or simply unnecessary. The isolated and eccentric thinker may have exactly the insight that is needed for our survival and evolution.
Authority should always be treated with suspicion. This doesn't mean we don't need authorities, in the sense of people who take the trouble to study this or that aspect of life in detail, so that they can provide us with reliable conclusions. But we should always be aware of any biases that the authorities might have. Are we really getting an objective appraisal, or are we reading a more or less subtle form of propaganda? Is the real aim simply to inform us, or is it to create a particular view of reality that would be conducive to their interests, or to interests that they serve. Perhaps the most conspicuous examples of less than objective reporting on data are supplied by drug companies, who do the research on the effectiveness of their own products. Anyone who thinks they can trust such research is naive indeed. Experts in all fields can be bought by business or political groups that want the information that is delivered to the public to be tailored to create the right impression. Our society is awash in misinformation, half truths, and just plain lies pumped into the mainstream by "experts".
When their own insights are in conflict with what "everybody" knows, individuals should at least entertain the possibility that they may be right and society wrong. Of course it is also possible that society may be right. But the matter should be resolved by reason and evidence, not by deeply ingrained prejudices, urban legends, moral panics and force.
Radically free speech may be the most important of all the liberties to be protected in a free society. Many people believe that freedom is a value in its own right, and I would concur. But perhaps an important pragmatic consideration might also be brought forward in support of free speech. Think about how often it is that what everybody "knew" turned out to not be so. In these dangerous times it might well be fatal for us to disregard the voices of those who march to a different drummer.
While there are notable exceptions, the fact is that most individuals most of the time are capable of only very limited deviations -- whether in thought or action -- from the norms of their reference groups. This is true whether their primary reference group is a nation, a religion, a social class, a political movement, or a criminal organization. If one wishes to understand why people perpetrate so much needless suffering on others, it is of limited value to look into the evil that lurks in the hearts of individuals. Rather, one needs to focus primarily on the collectivities to which individuals belong and examine the manner in which these collectivities create the conditions that facilitate the ongoing carnage.
James Hunter writes for Politics of Health and works with David Werner on issues of health.
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