Thursday, June 6, 2013
Guernica - Pablo Picasso
This morning on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program, The Current, Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed American author, James Dawes, on the subject of the evil men commit. To listen to the podcast, hit the Listen button..
cbc link: the evil men do
This interview really drew my attention. The subject of evil invites "philosophical" reflection: not on one act of evil in particular but on all evil acts, on the very nature of evil itself and of humanity's nature..
James Dawes is an author and professor of English. He is founder of the Human Rights Program at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. For his book, Evil Men, prof Dawes interviewed Japanese vetrans of World War II who had engaged in war atrocities. These were now "sweet, frail old men in their 80s and 90s". But these were special veterans: not only had they participated in atrocities but had they were subsequently "brainwashed" by the Chinese Communists.
Most people do not understand what brainwashing as practiced by the Chinese and North Korean Communists was really all about. It is NOT about torture. Prior to be being turned over to the Chinese, the Japanese vetrans were, in fact, tortured and otherwise maltreated by Russian captors. But brainwashing is something different. It's true intention is social reprogramming: changing the life values and goals of the subject, turning him or her into a socialist "new man" or "new woman", a builder of a new world order. Since the goal of brainwashing is to turn an enemy into a friend, the subject is led to sympathize with the sufferings of his captors at the hands of his own country. He is led to develop bonds of sympathy and solidarity with his former enemies. He is enticed to join the socialist movement to build a better world. Inclusion, cooperation and comradship become instruments and goals of social reprogramming.
Studies of subjects of communist brainwashing show curious aftereffects. The subjects almost invariably return to their home country. Yet they are changed. They are sympathetic to their captors and their goals. The attitudes and values of brainwashed American prisoners of war (Korea) were definitely shifted to the left. Compared to non-brainwashed colleagues, they were far more likely to embrace liberal, progressive causes in the decades following brainwashing. Interestingly, they were more likely to further their education after their release from the army and ended up with a higher socio-economic status than non-brainwashed army colleagues.
The Japanese vetrans studied by prof Dawes were brainwashed. As happened with brainwashed American POWs, they developed an increased sympathy for the Chinese people and their struggles. They also have worked to make the Japanese government admit its role in war crimes. In their dwindling years, this has become a sort of "mission" for some of those Dawes interviewed.
Listening to the interview with prof Dawes this morning, recalled the insights my own study and reflection on the issue of human cruelty have led me. Since I have no special qualifications along these lines (except having been raised in an abusive home), I rely on the syntheses and experiences of researchers, survivors and "deep thinkers", those more knowlegeable than me..
Some tentative conclusions on the nature of human nature and its proclivity for evil seem possible:
1- Human nature is malleable. To some degree people are "shaped" by their environment. Over and over again, one learns that "atrocity training" - training people to commit atrocities - involves destroying the subject's sense of empowerment and control. One cannot do otherwise. The time's demand it. Those who refuse are beaten by their comrades forcing their herd comformity. The authors of The Authoritarian Personality - a classic early study, still cited - claim that a sense of disempowerment or "destiny" was a core, if not THE, core value of the Authoritarian Personality:
Other "authoritarian" values are imposed upon those trained or encouraged to commit atrocity: stereotypic, "black / white", "us / them" representations of society and political systems, in particular. The "enemy" is presented as unresevedly evil by nature, something less than human. The "other" is denigrated in his / her humanity..
At the risk of oversimplifying, one might say that the goal of contemporary atrocity training (Rwandan genocide for example) is to bring out the worst in human nature while the goal of Communist brainwashing was to bring out the best (co-operation, solidarity, progress..)
2- Humans are endowed with a strong innate sense of justice. The admission of guilt on the part of the Japanese vetrans allowed Chinese victims to forgive. Curiously, the admission of guilt by the guilty also had a potent "unburdening" effect for survivors of the atrocities: they felt great relief that someone had finally admitted the injustice that had been done to them and their families. We may bury our strong innate sense of justice under a cover of jaded cynicism but as I read in a novel once: cynicism is the last resort of the powerless. It is merely an (unavowed) admission of impotence. Or, as comedian Stephen Colbert sees things:
"Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us."
Once again, the cynic is the disempowered wo/man..
There is both cause for joy and sorrow in the fruits of the labors of those who have studied human evil. As the case of the brainwashed Japanese soldiers who committed atrocities and later renounced them demonstrates, human nature is malleable. This fact is a double edged sword. The malleability can bring out great good or great evil. The psychologist Carl Jung held that human nature is morally neutral but in curious way: each one of us, he said, has the capacity both for the greatest good AND the greatest evil.
In the last resort, the fact that humans have a deep innate sense of justice may be out last hope..
Some other texts I have found useful in the attempt to understand evil:
A recently published text summarizing the life work of social psychologist Bob Altemeyer. The Authoritarians is sold as an e-book and is also available for free on-line viewing at the above link at
Another classical text on the subject: Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom. This text now appears to have passed into the public domain is also available free on-line:
Erich Fromm, New York psychotherapist, social activist and author, wrote numerous texts, essays and papers on the subject of authoritarianism.
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