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How The Mind Justifies Ideological Violence

“Dangerous ideologies erupt when these faculties fall into toxic combinations. Someone theorizes that infinite good can be attained by eliminating a demonized or dehumanized group. A kernel of like-minded believers spreads the idea by punishing disbelievers. Clusters of people are swayed or intimidated into endorsing it. Skeptics are silenced or isolated. Self-serving rationalizations allow people to carry out the scheme against what should be their better judgment.”

Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

We have previously described what is necessary for an unpopular belief to set in and to spread. Now we take a look at what it takes for these ideas to be turned into action-especially when that action requires active violence from the non-believers and the false believers. (The actual believers are expected to be violent, given their using people as a means to a greater good.)

The moralization gap

When a person is required to carry out violence on behalf a regime he or she may not even support ideologically – one needs a good excuse. Not to the world – to himself. It is profoundly uncomfortable to live with the thought of being a coward and submitting to evil – humans vastly prefer to have an explanation that can out their conscience to sleep. A sleep is best performed in comfort.

Perpetrator always have at their disposal a set of whitewashing arguments that they can use to reframe their actions. Say, the violence they committed was provoked, justified, involuntary, or inconsequential. Perpetrators can rationalise a harm they committed out of self-interest (reneging on a promise, robbing someone). But people also rationalise harms they have been pressured into committing in the service of someone else’s interest or at someone else’s command or pressure.

“They can edit their beliefs to make the action seem justifiable to themselves, the better to justify it to others. This process is called cognitive dissonance reduction, and it is a major tactic of self-deception.”

Tools of disengagement

We have previously touched upon the topic of how populists can end up supporting vicious violence and even genocide – by simply denying victims human status. Pinker has his own list of ingredients to aide disengagement from our own actions.

1. Euphemism

Governments, but also individuals practice the age-old method of reframing aggression in words that somehow make it feel less immoral. As Orwell has warned in his essay Politics and the English Language:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which he humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

George Orwell: Politics and the English Language (1946)

Today’s killer euphemisms that corrupt thinking and make malevolent things sound benign are perhaps alternative facts and enhanced interrogation – both designed to gloss over violence and premeditated aggression.

As Orwell said:

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.

George Orwell: Politics and the English Language (1946)

2. Gradualism

A second mechanism of moral disengagement mentioned by Pinker is gradualism. 

People can slide into barbarities a baby step at a time that they would never undertake in a single plunge, because at no point does it feel like they are doing anything terribly different from the current norm.

3. Displacement or diffusion of responsibility

A third disengagement mechanism is the displacement or diffusion of responsibility.

This is the case with the classic Nuremberg-defence when people reject responsibility for their own action – simply because it was decided and ordered by someone else. And the imperative to follow orders precedes any other consideration in organisations of law enforcement and military. This is why murderous leaders deliberately organize armies, killing squads, and the bureaucracies behind them in such a way that no single person can feel that his actions are necessary or sufficient for the killings to occur.

And a severely misplaced locus of identity does people a favour when they need it to shrug off responsibility.

4. Distancing ourselves

A fourth way of disabling the usual mechanisms of moral judgment is distancing ourselves from the victims. They are different, they are not like us. The purpose of this reasoning is not merely disengagement but also self-assurance that it could never happen to ourselves.
Of course, ti can. In fact, it will. Exactly because we did not resist when it happened to others.

5. Derogating the victim

A fifth means of switching off the moral sense is to derogate the victim. We have seen that demonizing and dehumanizing a group can pave the way toward harming its members.

The governments and extremists make a great effort to dehumanise refugees as non-people. Every war and genocide starts with the dehumanisation of the enemy or victim. Words familiar from the animal kingdom keep popping up. “Swarms” of refugees arrive. People are compared to apes, worms or cockroaches. Before the genocide in Rwanda, posters and leaflets were distributed which dehumanised Tutsis as ‘snakes’, ‘cockroaches’ and ‘animals’. Nazi propaganda used the term “rats” to Jews and explained it in detail in the 1940 propaganda film “The Eternal Jew”.

Similarly, denoting the victim’s intelligence, moral, capacity to feel serve the same purpose.

6. Belittling the harm

Distancing techniques described by Pinker include

1. Minimizing the harm:

“It would not hurt them too bad”

2. Relativising the harm:

“Everyone is punished for something every day”

3. Falling back on the requirements of the task:

“If doing my job as a supervisor means I must be a son of a bitch, so be it”

4. Advantageous comparison:

“Other people do even worse things.”

It is hard to protect minds from the peculiar harm caused by ideological world views. It is often hard to see how it impairs their capacity of rational thinking and compassion – until it is too late.

“An ideology can be dangerous for several reasons. The infinite good it promises prevents its true believers from cutting a deal. It allows any number of eggs to be broken to make the utopian omelet. And it renders opponents of the ideology infinitely evil and hence deserving of infinite punishment.”

There is no cure for ideology, because it emerges from many of the cognitive faculties that make us smart. We envision long, abstract chains of causation. We acquire knowledge from other people. We coordinate our behavior with them, sometimes by adhering to common norms. We work in teams, accomplishing feats we could not accomplish on our own. We entertain abstractions, without lingering over every concrete detail. We construe an action in multiple ways, differing in means and ends, goals and by-products.

Pinker ends on a more positive note:

“Though nothing can guarantee that virulent ideologies will not infect a country, one vaccine is an open society in which people and ideas move freely and no one is punished for airing dissenting views, including those that seem heretical to polite consensus.”

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* All quotes are from Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined – unless otherwise stated

5 thoughts on “How The Mind Justifies Ideological Violence

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