Category Archives: religion

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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Gay Pride compared to KKK

Today’s post on Cubik’s Rube was about the recent comments by Cardinal Francis George, the Archbishop of Chicago, in which he expressed concern that the Gay Pride Parade in that city might “morph into something like the Ku Klux Klan”.

There’ll be a more prominent article on this site about gay rights in due course. More pertinent at the moment is this quote, part of a statement in support of the cardinal that was offered by the Illinois Family Institute:

The salient question for conservatives is, “Does the analogy work?” … Whether it offends the sensibilities of those who choose to make their unchosen homosexual attractions central to their identity is irrelevant.

The explicit declaration of this organisation is that whether what they say offends or hurts gay people, or adds to the general atmosphere of their oppression, doesn’t matter in the slightest when they choose their words. They’ve neatly blinkered themselves to the feelings of this bloc of fellow human beings, so that they get to denounce anyone who commits “indecent, degrading, undignified” acts, without having to feel a shred of empathy toward the people they’re demeaning.

Even leaving aside the question of the morals of homosexual behaviour, this method of treating people is unkind, and not conducive to achieving any humane goals. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a phrase commonly heard from some Christians, but if it’s a homily the Illinois Family Institute are trying to abide by, they don’t seem to be having much success with the first part.

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Israeli extremists harass children

Here’s a saddening example to start us off: An eight-year-old girl is among those being mocked and assaulted by religious extremists in Israel.

She is being treated as less than human, and undeserving of decency and dignity, and this is wrong.

Naama herself is Jewish, and goes to a religious school, but she is not part of the ultra-Orthodox community. These Haredi Jews hold to the strictest, most conservative interpretation of Jewish law, and object to Naama’s “immodest” form of dress – which includes “long sleeves and a skirt”.

Regardless of the nature of their objection to what seems (to me) entirely reasonable behaviour and unremarkable attire, these extremists’ methods of expressing themselves include calling an eight-year-old child a whore, spitting on her, and throwing rocks at journalists who come to report on the case.

The othering techniques being used by the religious extremists in this case are clear. The children attending this school are probably not even making their own decisions about how to dress; expecting them to already adhere to your own set of principles is unreasonable, and abusing them for this difference is unconscionably cruel. But they’re part of an out-group, and so these zealots have conveniently labelled them all in their minds as undeserving of decent, humane treatment. Because they’re of a different religion, it’s easy to dismiss their autonomy, and rationalise any suffering laid upon them as merited.

Unsurprisingly, this rationalisation is easily extended to anyone connected to these young people, regardless of their motivations or diversity of views. Children, parents, journalists: they’re all the enemy, a big homogeneous mass of other.

Looking in the other direction, I disagree with the Israeli cabinet minister who described the religious extremists in question as “psychopaths“. I suspect (from an admittedly uninformed standpoint) that it’s unlikely that most of them possess that particular personality disorder. They’re human beings too, who’ve arrived at what seems to us a bizarre set of priorities, and who have successfully dehumanised these children in their minds to an extent that enables them to commit extreme cruelty, while distancing themselves from any feelings of guilt. This, sadly, is all too natural a set of human behaviours, and by no means requires any abnormal mental health condition.

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

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