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The Collective Face of Evil

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Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.

                                                             Immanuel Kant

Abu Graib by Open Source
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 8,5000,000 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. S o 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.

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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.

Eschatological Ideologies

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.

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  • 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"

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Write for Politics of Health and work with David Werner on issues of health. Worked in the field of "Mental Health" all my life. Am now retired. Jim

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