Monday, May 11, 2009

Evoking Genocide

Evoking Genocide looks like an interesting book. A friendly acquaintance of mine, Benjamin Whitmer authors one of its essays. Although my contribution to genocide studies are just on the horizon - my interest in the topic goes back about three decades. There are several sources for that interest. First, my dad was (and still is) a WWII history buff, so I ended up reading quite a number of his books on Nazi Germany during my teenage years (by 15, for example, I'd read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich at least once, and would re-read before my teens ended). Couple that with my befriending of a number of people who had recently immigrated to the US from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia - some might remember the term "boat people" which was often used as a pejorative to describe these brave survivors. The stories my friends would tell me were harrowing - especially the stories told by my Cambodian friends who had to survive Pol Pots genocidal regime. Those narratives had me wondering at an early age what would possess people to engage in such horrific violence. That's a question that has continued to haunt me.

In my junior year in high school, perhaps as much out of boredom with regard to the rest of what passed for "education" as anything else, I signed up for a psychology class. At the time, my impression of psychology and psychologists was that they were the folks who psychoanalyzed people (I would be quickly disabused of that misconception). What grabbed my attention was the unit on social psychology, when our class was exposed to the research of Stanley Milgram. As I'm sure anyone who has taken a general psychology class in high school or college will know, Milgram's infamous obedience experiments were inspired by the Nazi genocide. Between a film on Milgram's research (I seem to recall seeing the dramatization that starred William Shatner) and the assigned reading I had an "aha" moment. The basic gist of Milgram's work amounted to this: people engage in destructive obedience not because of some personality disorder or defect but because of a confluence of very powerful social stimuli. I began to realize that there was something analogous between not only Milgram's findings and something about the Nazi genocide, but also the genocide perpetrated by Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia. Like the test subjects in the Milgram experiments, the perpetrators of genocide at the behest of the likes of Hitler and Pol Pot were not psychopathic monsters, but rather were strikingly average people who simply ended up committing monstrous acts.

One of those factors that I keep coming back to again and again is the concept of banality of evil - namely that evil behaviors often result from a failure of the perpetrators to reflectively, critically think about what is being expected of them. That seemed to be the crux of the infamous "Nuremberg defense" (i.e., "I was just following orders;" "I had no choice but to continue"): a form of Sartrean bad faith in which those who thoughtlessly engage in genocidal acts objectify themselves as if driven strictly by the forces around them much like puppets; when in truth had they critically thought about the situation they in which they had been thrown there was the possibility of refusal (a possibility acted upon by others thrown in similar situations). I've also over the years realized that the potential to commit genocide requires not merely a the victims as "Other" but as less than Other (e.g., vermin, fauna) - a form of deception required not only at the individual level but on a cultural level as well. Of course that the denial that makes up the final phase of genocide requires such deception should go without saying.

The theory and research required to make those inferences would of course come later in life. Had it not been for the combination of the influences of family, some friends who'd just escaped some horrifying situations, and in introduction to the work of Milgram in my teenage years, the mere thought of studying genocide would have never occurred to me. There is a debt to these influences that I will never adequately pay. I'll continue to do my best to honor those influences to the fullest, however.

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