The general consensus amongst many psychologists and philosophers is that humans start off neutral without any predispositions. Essentially, we are products of our environments and experiences, so our thoughts, feelings, and behavior reflect our socialization. Others hold the view that we have predispositions to be good. This is common in many religious views as well; that humans are intrinsically good and must be protected from evil. Some are more pessimistic and believe that humans are naturally evil.
Evolutionary Psychology (EP), which is a newer field, argues that humans do not start off neutral and that we have many psychological mechanisms that have evolved over time. EP says that the psychological tendencies are what motivate much of our behavior.
Many agree that humans have collective nature, meaning we are prone to lose our individuality in group settings. Sigmund Freud, known for psychoanalysis, said that in groups individuals tend to lose their own opinions and don’t control their feelings or instincts, acting in ways that surprise them. Reinhold Niebuhr, author of Moral Man and Immoral Society, says individuals are capable of goodness and morality but groups are inherently selfish and uncaring. Robert Zajonc, a social psychologist, says groups have the capacity to unleash our worst impulses. Overall group dynamics influence thoughts, feelings, and behavior of individuals within groups.
Four psychological elements that motivate genocidal behavior are narcissism, greed, fear, and humiliation. This can lead groups to the process of dehumanization and becoming violent or abusive towards one another. One group sees the other group as being “less than human” as a way to justify their actions.
Motivation Behind Genocide
An individual has a distorted sense of importance of self. One feels the need to be validated by others and if not then it undermines the self. There is a lack of empathy for others. Human destruction is insignificant if it will increase their personal power and glory.
A group feels grandiose or innately superior to another group. They may think they were chosen by God or destiny. They feel entitled and will rarely accept responsibility for their actions. Arrogance combined with rage can lead to anti-social behavior along with covering up criminal activity.
Intense desire for power, domination, and prestige. If there is an opportunity to strip victims of their wealth and property they will do so. There are acts of looting personal items and property, illegally taking land and selling it to others, or stealing livestock and cattle. Some see it as a chance for social mobility if they are living in harsh conditions. Once greed is fed one feels validated and successful.
Two aspects of fear are mortal terror and existential dread. Mortal terror is an animalistic response to a perceived threat to one’s physical survival and integrity. Existential dread stimulates feelings of shame, anxiety, or dishonor.
Perpetrators that refuse to kill or protesting the killing of others are usually at risk for being killed themselves so they resort to peer pressure. They may also fear being rejected by the group and becoming ostracized by society; they would rather kill or abuse others than to feel shame and lose respect from their peers. This also leads them to believing others are subhuman; many resort to mutilation of body parts even after others have died because their bodies still resemble the living.
This is the primary force of violent behavior. It is the lowering of a person or group that damages or strips away their pride and honor. It involves feelings of shame, disgrace, and helplessness in the face of abuse at the hands of a stronger party.
Obedience to Authority
Another psychological aspect of genocide is obedience to authority. There were many perpetrators that were ordinary, everyday citizens that didn’t have negative motives behind genocide. It was their “good” conscience that urged them to follow orders of their superiors. They did their jobs without question because they were used to submitting to authority without giving it much thought. They were not sadistic in any sense and actually quite normal.
Psychological Construction of Other
As a way to exclude the victims from morality, the perpetrators see them as objects of their actions. They create a psychological construction of the “other” with three central components – us vs. them thinking, moral disengagement, and blaming the victim.
It’s human nature to form into groups, differentiate our group from others, and even favor those in our groups.
Two psychological adaptations that underlie the us vs. them thinking are ethnocentrism and xenophobia.
Ethnocentrism is the tendency to see one’s own group as superior to another and as the “right” one. One’s own group is the center of everything and other groups are scaled in reference to it. This tends to happen early in life; around the age 6 or 7 children usually have a strong preference for their own nationality. By defining what is one’s group it also requires defining what is not. Once one forms a bond with their group outsiders can become excluded.
Xenophobia is the tendency to fear outsiders or strangers. Groups tend to have xenophobic group loyalty. These social instincts are what primes us for an us vs. them thinking. It won’t necessarily lead us to hate other groups, social exclusion, or even genocide. It is the societal level of government, propaganda, the military, etc. that can evoke our capacities for ethnocentrism and xenophobia which at an extreme can lead to genocide.
Peter Singer, a philosopher, says that each of us has a “moral circle” of what we consider to be worthy of moral consideration. In times of fear, hatred, and ignorance the moral circle constricts rapidly and the victim moves from person to nonperson. The perpetrator believes not only that it is right to harm the victim, but that it would be wrong not to. The victim moves outside of the perpetrators circle of moral obligation. Albert Andura, a social psychologist, says people tend to refrain from behaving in ways that would violate their moral standards because it would bring self-condemnation, but moral standards don’t operate unless activated.
Moral disengagement has three necessary practices that the perpetrator does to make their behavior acceptable – moral justification, dehumanization of victims, and euphemistic labeling of evil actions. Perpetrators will engage in genocidal behavior once they have justified the morality of their actions. They see it as socially acceptable, justifying that they must protect their community, fight ruthless oppressors, and even preserve peace and stability. In cases of genocide, dehumanization of victims requires categorizing a group as subhuman creatures (such as animals) or unhuman creatures (such as demons or monsters).
This usually happens when the target group is seen as belonging to a distinct racial, ethnic, religious, social or political group that the perpetrator sees as inferior or threatening. They deprive the victims of their identity and then exclude them the community of being human. With euphemistic labeling of evil actions, perpetrators use more neutral language to make their evil respectable. A soldier might say they “waste” people rather than using the term kill or bombing missions might be described as “servicing the target”. In the Holocaust, the Nazi’s used the words “final solution” and in the Rwandan genocide it was called “bush clearing”. Perpetrators don’t literally believe the euphemistic labels, but it gives them permission for their behavior.
There is a general tendency to assume that victims deserve and should be blamed for their fate. Perpetrators see the victims of having earned their suffering from their actions or character. It’s easier to blame the victim when one is frustrated because it’s convenient to blame someone else than to confront one’s own frustration. Victims are often seen as scapegoats, and scapegoating offers false understanding to the cause of one’s problems. Perpetrators see their actions against the scapegoat as a solution to their problems.
Social Construction of Cruelty
Overall social psychologists believe actual current social situations are more significant than personality factors; personality only gives forecasts based on similar situations. Perpetrators of genocide are created by their immediate social context, which is what makes them believe they are capable of their behavior. Three features of social construction of cruelty are professional socialization, group identification, and binding factors of the group.
Most people believe that military or similar forces are legitimate; the process of professional socialization reinforces this. Anyone new will typically have to learn which behaviors are appropriate or not in the organization. Even cruel behavior can be socialized and most people can easily slip into roles that society offers.
Group identification can be intensified by two mechanisms, repression of conscience and rational self-interest. Repression of conscience is when outside values are excluded and inside values overrule which can happen in several stages. For example, the agenda of the perpetrators must be hidden from those who aren’t participating in it and whomever did know had to participate. The process of repression is continuous and has a desensitizing effect on the perpetrator. At first it may be shocking for them to behave cruelly towards others, but after a while it becomes routine. Desensitization is what allows someone ordinary to commit atrocities in excess. Group identification can shape the perpetrators’ self-interest. For example, affiliations with military organizations can feed one ego or enhance their self-esteem.
Binding factors of the group refers to pressures of group dynamics to stay within the group. Conformity to peer pressure is what helps the perpetrator to cope with their involvement in genocide. People are more prone to help kin than non-kin, which is also a factor. Lastly, gender plays a role. Many examples of the violence in genocide are by men, which imply women may not have an equal capacity to men for violence. However, some newer research argues that women may not have had an equal opportunity to perpetrate violence. But gender stereotypes can restrict interpretation because people tend to see women as innocent by nature, which can undermine their acts of cruelty.
It’s important to remember that ordinary people will do acts of brutality because of where they are, not who they are. Social context can trigger our capacity to behave sadistically. Understanding how one can commit to becoming malicious does not excuse or condone it in any way; it just gives us reasoning to why and how it happens.
Waller, James. Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. Oxford Univ. Press, 2007.
Complexity of Genocide
Genocide is complex because there isn’t one single factor that attributes to why a group of people can so willingly destroy another group of people. On one end, we have the societal influences and then on the other end there are the personal motives of narcissism, greed, fear, and humiliation. There’s also the psychological aspect of obedience to authority. Then there’s the issue of morality and how perpetrators believe in their minds that their behavior is not only acceptable, but would be wrong not to do so.
So, what does this mean for humanity? Will society change? Are we naturally selfish and greedy? Can we change our morals and beliefs?
It doesn’t matter whether we start off neutral, good, bad, or even if we have psychological mechanisms that have evolved with us over time. It doesn’t matter if we are naturally selfish and greedy. What we do know is that our environment plays a big part in shaping us and so we should all learn to be more concerned in the welfare of others. We should strive to become more selfless, caring, giving, and loving. We can change our morals and beliefs. This is what will benefit humanity now and in the future.
If we’re not directly affected by the violence of genocide it might hard to see why we should even bother, but continuing to let thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of people get killed, injured, or abused would be selfish on our part. Genocide has been happening for centuries and it’s had lasting effects on us today. It might be hard to see how we can even make changes when there are people who have political and governmental power over us. But we can’t be so willing to submit to authority and assume that they have our best interest at heart. We need to question them and think critically as to whether their actions are what are best for us in the long run.
To fully understand the impact and magnitude of historical trauma, it is important to examine the diagnostic characteristics of trauma. What does trauma look like and how does it manifest itself?
The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V, describes features of disorders, reports the conditions that may give rise to them, and lists each disorder’s symptoms. These helps clinicians with making accurate diagnosis once an individual shows evidence of all listed symptoms.
Diagnostic criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:
Criterion A: Stressor
The person was exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence, as follows: (1 required)
- Direct exposure.
- Witnessing, in person.
- Indirectly, by learning that a close relative or close friend was exposed to trauma. If the event involved actual or threatened death, it must have been violent or accidental.
- Repeated or extreme indirect exposure to aversive details of the events(s), usually in the course of professional duties (e.g., first responders, collecting body parts; professional repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse). This does not include indirect non-professional exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or picture.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders symptoms include:
- Recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive memories
- Traumatic nightmares.
- Dissociative reactions (e.g., flashbacks) which may occur on a continuum from brief episodes to complete loss of consciousness
- Persistent negative trauma-related emotions (e.g. fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame)
- Trauma-related external reminders (people places, conversations, activities, objects, or situations)…
These are just some of the symptoms that an individual may exhibit having had direct or indirect exposure to a single traumatic event. What about those who experiences a lifetime of slavery, fear of death and displacement?
Despite the trauma of surviving the genocide era (1904-1907) by the Germans, nobody came to us to have group therapy to help us heal from the atrocities and fear that we had endured. Coupled with that we had the South African government take over, where a white Afrikaans person was accompanied by a soldier, with a gun, thus instilling fear and anxiety among the learner. Trauma on its own. What we are is a miracle as a community.
Intergenerational trauma is the trauma experienced across one generation that has the potential of being passed down to other generations (Whitbeck et al., 2009). Collective Trauma is the examination of the psychological and social damaging effects of trauma to a society as a whole, where the focus is on the societal effects as opposed to only the effects on the individual, family or community (Luszczynska, Benight, & Cieslak, 2009).
The cure to historical trauma for persons of African ancestry lies in the dismantling of deep rooted societal lies, propaganda, biases, and discriminatory systemic practices based on false beliefs of Black inferiority and White supremacy (Grills, Aird, & Rowe, 2016). An awareness, dismantling, and rebuilding of systems of equality on a national and global level would lead to the cure of historical trauma for persons of African ancestry.
Historical trauma refers to cumulative and collective emotional and psychological injury over the life span and across generations, resulting from a cataclysmic history of colonialism, bondage, war, or genocide, specifically the trauma endured by Africans since the arrival of European explorers and settlers to Africa as it relates to enslavement and colonization, through the destruction of culture, language and religion, and imposition of non-inclusive systems of education, government and law (Sotero, 2006; Struthers & Lowe, 2003).
ILLUSION OF FREEDOM AND EQUALITY
The illusion of freedom and equality loomed over us and yet we had lost everything, land and cattle. We became free yet we had curfew, this creating more anxiety and a sense of being controlled. This caused learned helplessness and perceived self-inefficacy.
Perceived self-inefficacy = The inability to influence events and social conditions that significantly affect one’s own life can give rise to feelings of futility and despondency as well as anxiety.
According to Seligman (1975) learned helplessness occurs when an individual perceives independence between performance and/or reinforcement outcome. Under this condition, whether an individual responds or not, the probability of a particular outcome is the same. (Maier & Seligman,1976) In this situation, the individual perceives that his behavior cannot control the outcome or events; one cannot terminate or reduce the probability of an adverse event nor produce or increase the probability of a positively reinforcing event.
So who are we? As the Germans believed us, the Ovaherero people, to be violent, immoral and undisciplined. These were the terms used to terms us so as to create some form of cognitive dissonance so that they (Germans) could justify their ‘ethnic cleansing’ upon us.
We are first and foremost the Mighty Ovaherero people, we are humans and to be human is to have emotions and to care for oneself and others, making us empathetic.
Secondly we are a strong and seemingly infinitely resilient people and cattle herders who are proud of farming.
We are an industrious people, we have built the railroads and communities despite being around concentration camps and the death island -Shark island.
We are spiritual, loving and hopeful people.
We as a people, want to heal and the first thing that guides healing is when the offender takes into account their wrong doing and apologise to the survivors, which will then lead to further reparations.
This requires social justice and public health for the survivors. We are at our full circle of life. We are because of our ancestors and our ancestors died for us and for this course.