I have been studying, trying to come to an answer that may not exist, thinking about psychopaths/sociopaths, and further, about those surrounding psychopaths/sociopaths, and why it is these people support those who carry out evil, both on the micro and macro level. Ultimately, it seems to me that the danger of these people is greatly increased by these people who support them, the people who take action on their behalf, the people who stand blindly by and allow them to destroy.
This led to my wanting to know more about the citizens of Germany who allowed the Holocaust to happen. I keep thinking about average citizens walking down the street, passing internment camps where children were being gassed, their bodies burned in smoking ovens as the smoke rose into the sky, where people were being used as slaves or medical experiments and then murdered. This led to more reading. I spent a term at the University of Munich after a semester of intense study on the rise of Hitler and the NSDAP (Nazi) party, so I have some frame of reference. We spent hours watching the videos of camp liberation. We studied the party’s propaganda videos, and learned of the history in the decades leading up to the second world war.
In researching the participation of ordinary people, or the ignoring of atrocities by ordinary people, I found a book by a man named Daniel Goldhagen that posits the theory that the German population simply harbored a massive hatred of the Jews, and therefore they were more than happy to participate, either directly or indirectly, in their extermination. There is much debate about Mr. Goldhagen’s perspective. He became an instant celebrity in a certain community and was hailed by those who want this simple answer, for whatever reason. I also read the primary criticisms of his perspective, and while they made some very good arguments against Mr. Goldhagen’s thesis, I did not find any satisfactory alternate response. I concluded that I do not agree with Mr. Goldhagen’s theory; while German antisemitism certainly played a part in the population’s participation and consent, implied or otherwise, it is not a complete answer. Ironically, Mr. Goldhagen came off as anti-German; is this somehow acceptable because of what happened to the Jews? But this is beside the point.
The world has experienced many genocides since that perpetrated against the Jews by the Germans, and the explanation that they are all singularly driven by the hatred of one population against another does not satisfy. There is more to it than this, and there can be no one answer as to why. However, it is important to consider why it is that seemingly ordinary people go along with murder, mass or otherwise. Why go along with any destructive behavior? Fear is an obvious culprit, and cowardice, but there is definitely more.
Recently I posted a story on Facebook originally published on Truthout about the crimes (both moral and actual) of the Obama administration. A Facebook “friend” (a person I have never actually met, but we were friends in the land of social networking because of some political similarity or other) attacked my post, stating his support of Obama, and pointing out my delusions. I countered, stating that I could not support someone who murders children with drones. He stated that Obama had not “murdered children” and that I was silly for even considering such a thing. I then posted for him two photos, one of a specific named, dead child, and a collection of several dead and injured children, all murdered or injured by American drones. The “friend” then unfriended me. I can only speculate at his reasons for doing this, but it seemed to me that in showing him what he did not want to see, he simply cut off the conversation. This led to my further rumination on those who would stand by as evil occurs. This man was not in any manner obviously fearful or even cowardly, but he supports Obama and he therefore did not want to hear any contradictions of this position, even if it meant ignoring the murder of children. To some extent, I was not surprised by his response. He was dismissive of what I was saying, and in some of his comments, sarcastic towards me, both critical and superior in his responses, as if I was just being a dolt who didn’t know any better.
More recently, while conversing intimately with a person who is quite thoughtful about the causes and effects of human behavior, I was surprised at her unilateral defense of Obama. She has been critical of him in the past, but it was always cautiously critical. Now that he has won the election, she is sure that he has changed, that things will be different, that he will go against his own words and make different choices. Without being sarcastic or nasty, she was unwilling to accept that this might not be the case. She was not supportive of him out of fear or cowardice, but she was supportive in spite of any abhorrent actions of this administration. She wanted to believe in him and was therefore supportive, in spite of what has been.
Somewhere in this is part of the answer to why we support those who harm others, from small abuses to genocide, why we as humans allow atrocities to occur. It’s not a simple answer. We participate, and through our participation, evil occurs. It isn’t only that we must examine the extremes, the angry man watching FOX News and ranting ignorantly against false birth certificates and making incongruous spelling errors about the socialist government while cashing his unemployment checks. Good people turn away too because they do not want to see or because they want to believe we are better than the worst of us. It is towards those living in this grey area that we need to turn our attention, because it is they who must see the damage that is done by standing idly by if we are ever going to stop abuse and human destruction.
Interesting post. I think there’s another significant factor at work here, in addition to moral ambivalence.
Several studies suggest that deference to authority figures, or perhaps just a desire for conformity, plays a significant role when we see individuals acting in sadistic and unethical ways . For example, the Milgram study showed how willingly participants would inflect painful, or even dangerous (as far as they knew ) shocks to other test subjects based on the guidance of an authority figure. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment
Kind of makes me suspect it’s a tough thing fix, if even possible, in human behavior. Most people want to be lead and have someone else make the decisions for them, be it supreme beings or Sarah Palin. 🙂