Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Mentality of Mass Murder - Part Four: Are we all Potential Mass Murderers?

This is the fourth part of a five-part review of The Killing Compartments; The Mentality of Mass Murder (Yale University Press, 2015), a new book by Abram De Swaan, Professor Emeritus of Social Science, University of Amsterdam. (Page numbers referenced are for the e-version of the book). Due to its length, the review is broken up into five parts. I hope you read it all.

Abstract: The book under review offers a profound analysis of the phenomenon of Mass Extermination. There are four types: The Conqueror’s Frenzy, Rule by Terror, the Loser’s Triumph and the Megapogrom. De Swaan provides rich and vivid case studies from past and current history. The author refutes the fundamental fallacy of situationism, which suggests that we are all potential mass murderers. He does this with a four-level analysis, the levels of macro-sociology, meso-sociology, micro-sociology and psycho-sociology. Human societies go through both the civilizing process AND the de-civilizing process - regression towards barbarism. I conclude with some speculation about the future of our species and its potential for survival as well as for self-destruction.

1. Introduction 
2. Taxonomies, Terminology, classifications 
3. How is Mass Annihilation Accomplished? 
4. Are we All Potential Mass Murderers?
5. Conclusion: Towards Armageddon for the Human Species, or the Golden Age? 

4. Are we All Potential Mass Murderers? If compartmentalization is a universal possibility, then it follows that given the necessary conditions, you, I and everyone else is a potential mass murderer.

However, according to De Swaan, this has been the “grande betise” of the century (36). It is the nearly consensually accepted cliché called “Situationism” (See Chapter Two). It is Hannah Arendt’s well-known thesis of the “banality of evil,” formulated in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, written after Adolf Eichmann’s1961-62 trial (10 and beyond).

De Swaan rejects the situationist fallacy. It is NOT true that if the situation were sufficiently conducive, any one of us would turn into a “genocidaire.” (264-265). It is not true that Eichmann was a mere “ordinary man,” just a bureaucrat following orders, as were thousands of other upper echelon Nazis who committed atrocities, having no other choice than to follow orders. In fact, Eichmann was a fanatic anti-Semite and a psychopath.

The problem with situationism is that it ignores individual psychology, while attributing all causality to sociological conditions. One of the fortes of De Swaan’s book is that it offers a multiple-level analysis. He insists that the analysis of mass extermination requires four levels of analysis, namely macro-sociological, meso-sociological, micro-sociological and psycho-sociological (11 and Chapter Eight).

To this end, he reviews the work of such social-psychologists as Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo. Milgram’s seminal research is often referred to as Obedience to Authority. Volunteer experimental subjects (“average” college students) were brought into a lab, and asked by “scientific-looking” psychological researchers dressed in white coats to administer electric shocks of increasing strength to another subject in an adjacent room. In reality, the “victim” was a confederate of the researchers, and no shocks were administered. However, the naive experimental subjects did not know this. The object of the study was to find out to what extent people would obey orders to hurt someone, particularly orders from official looking people.

 Zimbardo’s equally famous research, the Stanford Prison Experiment, consisted of simulating prison conditions. Zimbardo hired a number of college students, and divided them randomly into prisoners and prison guards. The prisoners were locked up. He then proceeded to observe how the guards treated the prisoners. Within days, some of the guards became increasingly abusive.

De Swaan notes that Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s research both support AND refute situationism: Many people have claimed that Milgram’s data prove that even your average American Joe College is perfectly wiling to inflict severe pain upon his victims, if asked or ordered to do so by an authority figure. Similar conclusions have been drawn from Zimbardo’s work. Reviewers have often said: “You see? the average American is a potential Nazi, no different from Germans or anyone else.”

However, this research demonstrates something quite different, namely that the subjects RANGED over a great variety of responses: Some of Milgram’s subjects obeyed without a blink, some protested, and some REFUSED outright to administer the electric shocks. Similarly, some of Zimbardo’s prison guards behaved sadistically, but others showed compassion for the prisoners.

Social Psychology has a rich tradition of studying such issues. De Swaan might also have included the classic work on Bystander Apathy by John Darley and Bibb Latane. These researchers showed a similar VARIATION in compassion or indifference towards one’s fellow human beings. They documented a range, all the way from utter disregard of someone else’s victimization, as when Kitty Genovese’ murder was witnessed by dozens of bystanders without one of them raising a finger to come to her help, all the way to assistance provided by bystanders even at some risk to themselves.

Clearly, then, there is more to mass murderous behavior than the macro-sociological situation. There is also disposition (p. 34). It is almost as if De Swaan wants to revive personality psychology. I find this very wholesome. Not only is situationism factually incorrect. It is also morally wrong, in that it “spreads the blame.” (p. 47).

The fact is that some of us are more prone to participate in dis-identification, compartmentalization and mass murder than others. Research on the authoritarian personality goes all the way back to Theodor Adorno’s F (Fascism) scale (218). Also, some data indicate that those who choose to become policemen are disproportionately authoritarian.

De Swaan repeatedly refers to Police Battalion 101 (for example, 220-232). This was a group of Germans specially selected in 1941 to exterminate Jews and Soviet partisans behind the Eastern Front. “When the bullets hit the victims in the back, they fell into the trench, on top of the bodies already shot. The executioners had to finish off anybody who still seemed to be moving, all the while leaving many victims who had not yet died struggling under the weight of the next rows of corpses as they were being covered with quicklime and dirt.” (221). The point is that the members of Battalion 101 reacted in several different ways: some reluctantly, some indifferently, and some eagerly.

There are those, of course, who get positive pleasure out of violence, “the raw pleasure of revenge, seeing people in fright, supplicating to be spared, the glee of destroying anything cherished by the hated enemy, the excitement, the rush of power, the triumphant sensation of killing a helpless alien in cold blood.” (137-138).

De Swaan’s analysis in terms of four levels that range from the micro to the macro is somewhat similar to a more simplistic approach which I used in my criminology classes for decades: I covered crime at the (1) biological, (2) psychological and (3) sociological levels. Inevitably, I had to deal with the nature-nurture question. While De Swaan does not regress to a cheap attempt at incorporating ethology into his argument, he does touch even upon that subject. He mentions Jane Goodall’s seminal work and the “Bonobo” chimpanzees, who seem to display “goodness.” (72).

(To be Continued)

© Tom Kando 2015

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