Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side

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Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side

Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side

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Your next choice is very pertinent – this is Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil by Peter Maass. In one fascinating set of experiments, he asked people to think about the worst thing that anyone has ever done to them, describe what happened, how they felt as victim of this, and so on. Then he asks people to think about the worst thing that they have ever done to someone else. The two get described in completely different terms. When evil is done to you, you see it as a terrible injustice, you see its effects as long-lasting. But when you describe something that you have done to someone else, there are always mitigating circumstances, explanations and justifications. The language is different. No matter how extreme the act of cruelty, the perpetrator’s story always introduces some factor that explains it: he was forced, or under great pressure, and besides, it wasn’t as serious as the victim says it is. As I said, this is the mirror image of the very convenient, very palpable message in the dehumanisation work. What Manne is saying is that when you recognise people’s humanity—she links this with Peter Strawson’s notion of reactive attitudes—there are all sorts of moral risks. There’s a lovely passage on this in her book where she points out that to see someone as human means it is possible for that person to be a true friend or a beloved spouse, but it also means that he or she can compete with you, or disagree with you, or humiliate you, or betray you. Men and women often live together, and so you’re nose to nose with an independent cognitive agent, and this, along with misogyny, makes possible all sorts of cruelty and violence. So its interest lies in the details that emerge in conversation, and about how the perpetrators understand what they have done. But surely much of that is a question of memory. It’s not as if he’s interviewing them as they come off the battlefield. The events they recount happened a long time in the past. Do you see this inability to let people get close as a common human trait? For example, I think there are similar types of characters in your book, Union Atlantic, with the 21st-century hard-nosed power-hungry New Yorkers.

Yes, this was written before the spill in the Gulf but it is a very well-written and detailed account of how countries have been affected and infected by the oil industry and how their politics have been distorted. It covers places like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, New Guinea and Ecuador.

There’s a passive defence for everything from pedophiles and bestiality to the idea that words like “murderer” and “rapist” are hypocritical and heinous definitions we as a species label people unfairly with when really we’ve all made mistakes as humans. The Holocaust was primarily an ideologically-driven phenomenon that drew in far too many otherwise ordinary people as perpetrators. It’s a predicament that Aziraphale, a somewhat fussy angel, and Crowley, a fast-living demon now finds themselves in. They’ve been living amongst Earth’s mortals since The Beginning and, truth be told, have grown rather fond of the lifestyle and, in all honesty, are not actually looking forward to the coming Apocalypse. Manne’s proposal is that in cases of misogyny, it’s not that men don’t see women as people. It’s not that they lose control in some way. It’s rather that men are morally outraged. They expect things from women: they expect nurturance, they expect sex, they expect love, they expect care, and they get enraged when these expectations aren’t being met. So, for Manne, the husband who strangles his wife out of rage, it’s not that he doesn’t think of his wife as a person, it’s not that he’s lost control in some way; it’s rather that he is morally driven, he feels his wife has done something horribly wrong by not being a good wife and she deserves what’s coming to her. Shots rang out in Savannah's grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt's sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case.

Beginning with a short story appearing in "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction" in 1978, the publication of Stephen King's epic work of fantasy-what he considers to be a single long novel and his magnum opus-has spanned a quarter of a century. That’s the received opinion about some of the worst atrocities, isn’t it, that they were only possible because the perpetrators refused to see the humanity in their victims, or were duped by propaganda into believing that a whole group of people were less than human? It doesn’t seem absurd to see dehumanisation as at the root of evil.

One of the most revealing insights into the minds of actual perpetrators and architects of the Holocaust can be obtained from the speeches of Heinrich Himmler. Himmler was leader of the SS and one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany. As "Architect of the Final Solution", he was one of the people most directly responsible for the Holocaust. In October 1943, in Posen (Poznan), Poland, Himmler delivered secret speeches to officials of the Nazi party, including SS officers—the “most secret circle”. In these speeches, Himmler spoke explicitly of the extermination of the Jews, dispensing with the more usual veiled or euphemistic terms. He framed the extermination program as a very difficult but necessary historical mission of the Nazis, the necessity for which would be more fully understood and appreciated by future generations but must remain secret at the time. In these speeches, extracts of which are quoted below, he is talking to fellow officials who are involved in the extermination program and is essentially praising them for their unflinching commitment to this difficult undertaking. He remarks about how others who are less directly involved in the program and who think of it more abstractly and theoretically, tend to underestimate its magnitude and its difficulty: One unexpected situation in which our sadistic tendencies seem to show themselves is in the presence of cute animals. Have you ever seen a puppy that was so adorable that you just couldn’t handle it? Where you felt like you wanted to take your hands and squeeze it’s floppy little face really hard? Some animals are just so cute that we feel a bit like we want to hurt them.”

I resonate to her way of thinking because it chimes well with my own interest in the ‘moral’ quality of violence: when people who do bad things think they are doing the right thing, out of a sense that they are morally right. Morality explains a lot of the terrible things that we do to one another. This claim isn’t unique to Manne or to me, of course. Another book that could have ended up on my list is Virtuous Violence by Alan Fiske and Tage Rai which argues that a lot of violence is motivated by moral principles—it summarises a lot of interesting research in this area. What is particularly interesting here is his point about remaining “a decent person”—what he is saying is essentially that they are doing the dirty work, the unpleasant job of eliminating this scourge (the Jews) which, if not eliminated, would ultimately bring down society. He is speaking of the psychological strain that the extermination program puts on those carrying it out. The Nazis had convinced themselves that the Jews were a conspiring and contaminating force which was responsible for Germany’s loss of World War I and for many of their and the world’s societal and economic problems. He speaks of the Jews elsewhere as a “ bacillus” (bacteria), They are the main obstacle to achieving a utopian future of a pure, noble and decent super-race of pure-bred Aryans. My biggest problem really comes down to the fact that this book is not about the science behind humanity’s dark side, as the cover suggests. Here are some quotes from the first 10% that should have been a sign to slam this book shut and walk away.The sociologist Nicholas Christakis takes a more positive view of human nature in Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society (New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2019), arguing that the evolved human proclivity for cooperativeness (and learning, love, selflessness, and other prosocial traits) outweighs our capacity for aggression and has adaptive advantages over it. Christakis provides diverse examples of historical and contemporary societies and social groups to illustrate his point. Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side, by Julia Shaw, is a light, mostly superficial treatment of a dark topic. Her upbeat, contemporary and conversational writing style is enjoyable but at times detracts from the gravity of the topic. Inhibitory control or self-control is largely a function of the frontal lobes of our brains (especially the prefrontal cortex). As the neuroscientist and biological anthropologist Robert Sapolsky pithily puts it: The frontal lobe helps us do the harder thing when it's the right thing to do. 15

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