Monthly Archives: January 2012

Nazis

In 1961, in the wake of the recent horrors and atrocities of the Second World War, a researcher at Yale University proposed a scientific experiment.

He wanted to investigate how the appalling and inhumane actions performed and ordered by Adolf Hitler and members of the Third Reich could have been possible, in anyone not severely impaired by some kind of sociopathic personality disorder.

He ended up demonstrating that, under certain circumstances, ordinary people can be persuaded into acts of barbaric cruelty. Specifically, he created a situation in which two-thirds of participants administered what they believed to be a massive, potentially fatal electric shock to an innocent person, simply because they were instructed to do so by an authority figure.

This has become known, after the psychologist who conducted it, as the Milgram experiment. Today, it’s considered a landmark in its field, and provided genuinely shocking and revolutionary insight into mankind’s capacity to perform unconscionable acts.

It’s not hard to understand why people might have sought some kind of explanation based in errant psychology as to how something as evil as the Holocaust could take place. Six million Jews were killed, as part of a systematic genocide that included many other “inferior” minority groups.

The regime of the Third Reich was filled with dehumanising tactics, not least in propaganda films such as The Eternal Jew, commissioned by Joseph Goebbels. The cartoonish depictions of Jewish people that the Nazis attempted to popularise all served to place these millions of people in the category of an “other”, of a comical stereotype, of someone not really the same as a proper human, of someone who the rest of us might be better off without, and whose suffering certainly needn’t concern us.

By the time Jews were having their property confiscated as a matter of official policy, they had been successfully othered in the minds of enough Europeans that the Nazis could proceed with their “Final Solution” without any significant uproar.

It was this sort of euphemistic jargon, coupled with all the dehumanising psychological techniques brilliantly employed before and throughout the War, by which people could avoid having to directly address – or even think about – the murder of millions of individuals to which it referred.

Nobody involved in the Third Reich needs to have been an inhuman monster to achieve this. They only made clever use of a number of aspects of human behaviour, of the shameful ways in which we are naturally inclined to act if the circumstances are right.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Milgram’s research was, not the original experiment, but the variations on the same theme which followed it. For they suggested, not simply that man has an inherent tendency toward atrocities, but that certain particular facts of the situation can strongly influence our capacity or likelihood to act with either compassion or indifference. A closer physical connection to their “victim” lessened the subjects’ tendencies to act cruelly toward them. A greater distance between themselves and the authority figure urging them on had a similar effect. The presence of a stooge, ostensibly in the same role as them, and either refusing to administer the electric shocks or pressing on with it to the bitter end, also greatly influenced people’s decisions about how to behave. Seeing someone else defy their instructions gave them the courage to do the same; but they were even less likely to resist committing a terrible act if their peer had already gone through with it.

The Nazis who committed the worst atrocities of the war provided themselves with circumstances which allowed them to justify their actions, and let them avoid any negative mental repercussions. Their propaganda discouraged any thought in others which saw their enemies as fully realised humans. Their goals required the deliberate clouding of rational thought and the silencing of compassion.

Here’s a lesson to be learnt: Let’s try not to have goals like that.

That the Nazis acted with appalling cruelty is no revelation. What matters is what we can learn about how not to behave like that. We don’t just need to do anything easy like not hate a particular racial or religious demographic. We have to learn how “the enemy” has often been stereotyped as a uniformly antagonistic mass of “others”, and be able to recognise any hint of such thinking in our own interactions with the world. Such tribalism is, without exception, destructive and harmful.

Not even the Nazis were less than human. There are no “others”.

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Jessica Ahlquist

The atheist and skeptical blogosphere (which is kinda my thing) has been abuzz these past couple of weeks with the case of Jessica Ahlquist, a young atheist activist who recently won a legal battle in the US to have a religious prayer removed from her school.

My rather irate write-up of this is here, and some of the reaction she’s been getting involves the most startling and disheartening cases of othering and dehumanisation I’ve seen.

Regardless of the validity of her case, numerous religious people have so vilified this 16-year-old girl in their minds that they’ve somehow managed to justify extreme verbal abuse, including threats of physical assault, rape, and murder.

The comments include laughter and mockery at the concern she’s expressed over her family being attacked (after her home address was made public). She’s been called stupid, evil, psycho, garbage, a disgrace, a bitch, a scumbag, a worthless cunt. Even the label “atheist” is used as a term of abuse by many Christians, as a sufficiently effective dehumanising tactic that they no longer need to think of her as a person once they’ve successfully pegged her as part of such a hated out-group.

These people clearly have no understanding of Jessica’s mindset, and I am equally baffled as to theirs.

But I’m under no delusion that their decisions to abuse and bully a young girl are the result of anything other than distinctly human thought processes. The state of mind they’ve arrived at is so alien to me that I don’t know how to speak to it in a way that would establish any meaningful connection. Maybe they’ve each grown up learning to be scared of having their rights taken away, and Jessica’s case has pushed those fear buttons. Perhaps casually joking (as it probably seems to them) about abusing or killing outsiders acts as a useful way to solidify their group, and make them feel safer in their own social stratum. This is vague, pop-culture psychology, but these kinds of processes wouldn’t be unprecedented in explaining how people or groups end up doing terrible things.

And given that their decisions, however unconscionable, were arrived at by thought processes driven by human psychology, rooted in a bunch of drives and fears which have been moulded by millions of years of evolution in competitive environments, I can’t dehumanise them in turn. Nobody in this story is any sort of inhuman monster. There are no “others”. They’re all just people.

But that doesn’t mean their actions can’t be spoken out against. Treating another human being with so little dignity or respect is abhorrent, and is made worse by the facts of their target’s youth and the total lack of significant provocation on her part. I completely reject this behaviour as an iniquity unworthy of a sentient species.

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Benefits scroungers

I wrote recently on Cubik’s Rube about the ongoing discussion in the UK over the issue of benefits, and the campaign against benefits fraud in particular.

A great deal of resentment is often expressed in public discourse in this country, by no means limited to tabloid journalism, at those who receive a regular entitlement income from the government which it’s widely agreed they don’t deserve.

There are a number of forms of financial welfare potentially available to people without means to support themselves and their families, and these provide a much needed lifeline to many people who are unable to find work, or unable to perform work due to illness or disability. It’s not a controversial idea that at least some such programmes should be in place, to give people something to fall back on if they’re suddenly made redundant or fall seriously ill. The most trenchant opposition to such a system that I’ve heard comes from libertarians, who only object to the state’s involvement and think that private organisations and charities would be a better way to achieve the same effect.

And yet, whenever they’re publicly talked about, these benefits seem to be a subject of stereotyping and derogation. Few politicians seem as keen to claim the credit for providing a valuable service to people who cannot currently provide for themselves, as they are to cut costs and eliminate any wasted money spent, while denouncing the “scroungers” who are claiming these benefits inappropriately.

The political argument here is beyond the scope of this blog, and I’m not suggesting that strategies focusing on getting people back to work, rather than allowing them to become complacent and dependent on state hand-outs, are entirely without merit. What’s relevant here is the way benefits claimants are often stereotyped and generalised about, so that other groups can more easily distance themselves from them.

There’s a standard picture that will tend to spring to mind when you picture someone on benefits, and it’s not entirely fictitious. There do exist people who appear on the Jeremy Kyle Show wearing tracksuits and hoodies, with a certain type of haircut and accent and tone of voice and abusive manner, who will seem immediately recognisable to many Brits who’ve seen this “type” before. Even if they’ve not met many “chavs”, they’ll have seen them appearing as comedy characters, in both male and female varieties.

If you’re a better person than I am, you might be able to avoid feeling even a twinge of contempt, even the slightest disgusted curl of your lip, when you encounter someone who fits in this category. There is often an unattractiveness to many of these traits. It’s not incomprehensible where the disdain comes from.

But when you experience a powerful natural inclination to despise another person, that’s something it’s really important to examine.

No doubt many people will claim to be motivated my pragmatic reasons in their condemnation of these people: they’re a drain on the economy, after all. But as I’ve discussed in the post linked above, the contempt often levelled at all benefits claimants is disproportionate to the relative harm done by benefits fraud, and the conventional stereotype simply doesn’t apply to most people who need help to get by while they’re out of work through no fault of their own. But more to the point, dehumanising tactics are inappropriate even in those cases when criticism may be appropriate.

The way the “scroungers” outgroup is often defined in our minds – ascribing to people a particular accent, style of clothes, and work-shy attitude – neatly helps us avoid having to think of them as individuals, and helps us rationalise that initial gut reaction of despisal. If we can convince ourselves that it’s their own fault, that they’re a lesser class who don’t deserve the decency with which we usually treat our fellow people, then we don’t have to consider at all the uncomfortable possibility that they were screwed over by a political or economic system that we’ve benefited from.

This isn’t intended to be a stern lecture at anyone who doesn’t spend their every free moment feeding the homeless or helping those less well-off. It’s not that we should all be feeling like awful people for not adequately fixing the world’s problems for everyone else. But we should be prepared to reconsider who we hold responsible for those problems. Contempt is convenient, in some cases. And in others, an instinctive response of experiencing guilt is just as natural as the tendency to cover it up with othering and deindividuation.

It’s not necessary to exempt every member of a group from any wrong-doing, in order to recognise the importance of continuing to treat everyone as humans, and to respect their individuality and dignity accordingly.

Nobody in this story is “scum”. There are no “others”. They’re all just people.

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Rick Santorum and abortion

Republican politician and Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum is not a popular man among the American left.

He’s outspokenly a social conservative, and is strongly opposed to the liberal positions on a number of political issues that mean a lot to people, such as abortion, immigration, and gay rights. Dan Savage’s NSFW campaign to redefine “santorum” exemplifies the disrespect widely held for him.

Recently, there’s been a resurgence of interest in Santorum’s position on abortion, particularly with regard to an incident in his own family some fifteen years ago, for which he has been widely criticised online.

While his wife was pregnant, she was told that a fatal defect in the fetus meant that it had no chance of surviving. They decided to opt for a “long-shot intrauterine surgery”, which unfortunately led to complications. Karen Santorum had an infection that needed some sort of intervention if it wasn’t going to kill her.

The medical recommendation was that the fetus be removed, or at the very least that antibiotics be administered, in order to save her life. Even in the latter case, though, this would likely induce labour, which would effectively kill the fetus, unviable though it was in any case. The Santorums agreed to the antibiotics.

The doctors wanted to do more to accelerate her labour and get her out of danger faster, but she refused. In the end, the child was delivered without any further intervention. As predicted, it was too undeveloped to have a chance of surviving, and died after a couple of hours.

Whether or not this set of events can be summarised by saying “Rick Santorum’s wife had an abortion” is a semantic matter. What seems clear is that these two people went through a difficult experience, where their concerns for personal safety butted up against the values they considered deeply important in an emotionally fraught context.

And both partners, judging by the report, seemed to understand at least some of the issues that people with difficulties in pregnancy face when making these kinds of decisions. Rick Santorum is quoted as saying:

Obviously, if it was a choice of whether both Karen and the child are going to die or just the child is going to die, I mean it’s a pretty easy call.

His wife Karen said:

If the physician came to me and said if we don’t deliver your baby in one hour you will be dead, yeah, I would have to do it.

These statements, and their actions, seem to contradict Santorum’s stated position on abortion – namely, that doctors who perform abortions should be charged with murder, with no exceptions. Even though it’s something he’s been through himself, and he’s had a chance to experience the complexities that can arise, and the fuzziness of the boundaries, he’s still apparently unwilling to allow that other people might face the same difficulties he and his wife did. That the conflicting emotions he must have felt when his wife’s life was in serious danger, the difficult and nuanced decisions, the extenuating circumstances, are all things which might apply to millions of other people. Those other people out there who aren’t Rick Santorum or his wife.

It’s a shame that such a prominent politician, even with personal experience of this ordeal, is still such a rigid thinker as to group together every other abortion out there as straight-forward unambiguous murders. And yet, the fact that he and his wife went through something difficult themselves seems to have led to him being hated even more by some commentators, which I don’t think is constructive.

Rick Santorum’s position on abortion appears to be ideological, and is not one I agree with. But he was trying his best to act morally on that day in October 1996, and the result wasn’t close to being one of his great moral failings. He’s made statements since then which are unthinkingly inhumane, and bafflingly lacking in sympathy. There’s plenty of room for them to be criticised without employing his own tactics, of demonising his decision-making at a time when an abortion might have saved his wife’s life.

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The 99%

A commenter on Cubik’s Rube recently suggested a potential topic for this blog:

The Occupy movement tries to get sympathy by dividing everyone into “us” (the 99%) and “them” (the 1%)… Not saying that there aren’t huge problems with income inequality, just that pushing the 1% into an outgroup probably won’t help us think clearly about the issues.

I think he’s right. On a personal level, I have sympathies with the Occupy movement and opinions about economic inequality that lie outside the scope of this blog. A relevant question to ask here, though, is just what the supposed divide between the 99% and the 1% actually means.

The objections of the Occupy protesters who rally around the 99% banner are, broadly speaking, focused on what they see as an unjust inequality in personal wealth, between the very richest Americans and the less well-off majority. Of particular concern is the extent to which this majority are suffering higher taxes and reduced public services, on account of the reckless and financially ruinous actions of a small cadre of wealthy elites in the banking industry.

Like I say, I have a lot of sympathy with this position. But it’s important to remember that, while certain reprehensible actions may have been taken, the world’s economic problems are not the sole and complete responsibility of one solid, easily defined demographic of individuals.

In particular, the rich don’t deserve to be despised simply for being rich. The system that allows a privileged minority to rise to the top in such a way might be objectionable, and certain individuals might deserve admonishment for their actions in maintaining an unjust economic framework, and exacerbating the oppression of the poor. But earning a living that allows one to lead a life of leisure is part of the American Dream, something that many people aspire to. It can be done without being some evil fat-cat who’s cruelly exploiting the masses for his own selfish ends.

This isn’t to say that such exploitation doesn’t occur, or shouldn’t be addressed where it does. But it’s important to think carefully before placing the blame on, and subsequently nurturing an instinctive loathing for, an entire block of people you don’t know. Vilifying an outgroup is an all-too-easy way of kidding yourself that you’ve identified the root cause of a problem.

The idea of the 99% is a useful one, which originated from a pithy summation of the state of economic inequality in the USA. But that top percentile cut-off point is an arbitrary one, with no particular reason for dividing the country into two distinct camps on either side of it. It’s important to be careful of taking it too far beyond its usefulness as a gimmick, and being led into a troublesome, entirely artificial us/them stand-off.

If it sounds like I’m generally down on the Occupy movement, or don’t support their anger and the legitimate reasons for their protest, then I wish I could reassure you that this really isn’t the case. I don’t want to make it sound like I think being mean to rich people is the most egregious injustice that’s going on here. My half-baked notions about economics and politics, among other things, are discussed in more detail at Cubik’s Rube.

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