What If Most People Love Violence?

For decades, I’ve investigated and promoted nonviolent action as a means to help create a better world. Although there are signs of hope, the obstacles remain enormous. For example, military systems seem as powerful as ever, and nationalism is not fading away. The capacity of humans to harm each other and the environment is frightening. Just think of child soldiers, torture and climate change.

Because the problems seem so huge, I’ve long been on the lookout for insights about what activists are up against, including deeply rooted driving forces. Recently, I made contact with Steven James Bartlett, a philosopher and psychologist who has spent his career investigating dysfunctional features of the thought and behavior of “normal” humans. One of his books, “The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil,” offers startling assessments that I think are relevant to nonviolence.

“The Pathology of Man,” which came out in 2005, is the result of a decade’s immersion in writings and research related to human evil. To be clear, the word “man” in the title refers to the human species, not just males, and — in addressing evil — Bartlett develops a scientific rather than a religious definition. For him, evil refers to the human capacity to harm and destroy other humans, as well as other species and the environment, which supports all life.

“The Pathology of Man” is a mammoth work, addressing a wide range of writings and evidence relating to human psychology and behavior. Bartlett examines the ideas of psychiatrists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, the work of mathematician and peace researcher Lewis Fry Richardson, the observations of ethologist Konrad Lorenz, and many others who are less well known today. He examines evidence from genocide (especially the Holocaust), war, terrorism and ecological destruction.

Bartlett’s conclusion is stark and disturbing. He says humans are pathogenic, namely destructively harmful, towards themselves as well as the environment. The pathological features of human behavior and thinking enable violence, cruelty and ecological destruction.

Reading through the extensive evidence and careful arguments in “The Pathology of Man,” I decided Bartlett’s ideas deserve greater attention. The book did not have a big impact when it was published over a decade ago, in part because its message is so disturbing. Yet, to be more effective in bringing about positive change, it is valuable to understand the dark side of the human species. Inspired by Bartlett’s study of evil, I offer here some insights relevant to nonviolent campaigners.

Lessons from the Holocaust

The Holocaust was not the deadliest or the quickest genocide, but it is the best documented. It is useful to remember that Germany in the 1930s and 1940s was one of the most “civilized” cultures in the world, with advanced technologies and leading artists and intellectuals.

In this April 19, 1943, photo, a group of Jews is escorted from the Warsaw Ghetto by German soldiers.(FILE 1943/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Bartlett examines evidence about the psychology of people in Germany during the genocide, looking at five groups: leaders, doctors, bystanders, refusers and resisters. Nazi leaders engineered the Holocaust, yet despite overseeing horrific deeds, most of them were psychologically normal. Likewise, most of the doctors involved in the genocide were psychologically normal — in fact, many were model citizens in their home life. Bystanders were those Germans who knew about the killings but did nothing. They constituted the majority of the population, with the same psychological diversity.

Then there were refusers. When men were called up to join killing squads, they could decline to participate, and there were few penalties for opting out. Yet most of these raw recruits decided to remain, seemingly preferring conformity in killing over nonconformity in refusing. Finally, there were resisters — those who actively opposed the genocide. They were a small minority.

Bartlett’s conclusion from this, and much other evidence, is that most of those who participate in or tolerate evil are psychologically normal. It seems that, in Nazi Germany, to actively resist evil was to be different from the norm.

Hannah Arendt, in writing about Nazi Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann, famously introduced the concept of the banality of evil. Bartlett says the problem is broader than this, and has referred to “the evil of banality.”

Mass murder, according to Bartlett, draws on the satisfaction humans derive from killing others. This is connected to the psychological process of projection, in which negative aspects of one’s own psyche are denied and instead attributed to others, who then may be attacked. In collective violence, projection is allied to the human urge to conform to the in-group. The out-group, or the enemy, becomes the embodiment of evil and is seen as deserving extreme adverse treatment, while the in-group is seen as innocent, and being part of it is satisfying.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman raises a noteworthy counter-argument in his 1995 book “On Killing.” He points to a military study that found most U.S. soldiers on the front lines during World War II did not fire their rifles at the enemy, even when their lives were in danger. Grossman found evidence from many earlier wars of the same reluctance to kill, concluding that there is “within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man.” This applies especially in front-line combat — killing at a distance, for example by using artillery or aerial bombing, generates far less revulsion.

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Furthermore, as Bartlett notes, Grossman reported that the U.S. Army developed new training techniques using operant conditioning that ensure that nearly all soldiers kill, leading to a dramatic increase in the rate of PTSD among veterans. Many of these methods — such as playing violent video games that associate killing with pleasure — are widely used throughout U.S. society, influencing children and adults.

War as a ‘functional pathology’

Bartlett cites ample evidence that most of those who participate in and support war are normal. His observations highlight features of human emotions and social systems that may be familiar to peace activists but are revealing when placed in the context of a study of evil.

As well as examining the psychological factors that enable war, Bartlett also looks at the factors that restrain people from resisting war. His conclusion is that wars, and war-making, continue because most people choose not to do anything differently. For example, consider the wars in Afghanistan over several decades, at least since the Soviet invasion in 1979. Since then, most people in the countries involved — including Pakistan, the Soviet Union, the United States, the United Kingdom and many others — have not made special efforts to stop the war-making. Most continue in their usual roles: only a few engage in agitation against the war.

Bartlett observes that “If men and women were desirous of peace, they would invest significant resources to further the causes of peace, but hardly a country in the world reserves a significant part of its national budget to study ways to foster peace.” To this might be added that budgets for the military are enormous, while there is only minuscule funding for nonviolent action. Few people pay much attention to military budgets or spend time exploring nonviolent alternatives. It is this very complacency that enables the evil of war systems to continue.

Bartlett’s conclusion is that war is a “functional pathology.” In other words, it is like a disease that most people don’t want to cure because, when it flares up, it provides great psychological satisfactions. For soldiers, there is an intense experience of bonding, so strong that many remember combat as the most meaningful part of their lives. For those on the home front, war can provide meaning too. Being part of the cause puts humdrum daily life into the shadows, replacing it with something more dramatic and urgent.

Peace activists have long had to deal with the power of patriotism. It is a psychological force seemingly immune to rational argument, and the label “unpatriotic” is the ultimate insult. Patriotism provides a way of merging with the whole, of relinquishing one’s own responsibility and putting one’s trust in a greater power. The attachment of patriotism to organized violence is one of the major psychological obstacles to ending war.

For most people, vicarious experiences of violence provide satisfaction, including violent video games, war movies, violent sporting events and even the daily news. Most people are willing to watch lethal violence, finding it thrilling or satisfying, especially when the baddies are the ones being hurt. Few are so repelled that they have to look away. Fictional portrayals of violence, from cartoons to murder mysteries, are seen as exciting and enticing, not repulsive.

War provides an escape from everyday morality. Religious leaders preach about the sanctity of life, but few do much to resist the war system, revealing how moral principles can be compromised to enable preparation for mass violence. Bartlett concludes that war “is one of the most evident expressions of human evil” because it causes enormous harm, provides justification for killing without penalty, suspends compassion, fosters hatred and cruelty, and is a source of meaning and gratification.

It has been argued that — especially prior to the development of agriculture and industry — many human societies have shown the capacity for living in harmony with each other and the environment. So is human destructiveness primarily a result of current social institutions, including states, militaries and massive corporations?

Bartlett recognizes that there are numerous examples showing that humans have the capacity to do good. His argument is that there is also a widespread capacity for evil. Some social institutions, such as the military, seem designed to harness and facilitate that capacity. So it might be asked, what is it about humans that enables the rise and perpetuation of institutions that harness and amplify some of the worst sides of human behavior and thinking?

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No ready alternative or simple fix?

Bartlett does not propose any solutions to the problem of human evil, in part because he does not want to provide false hope. Indeed, provocatively, he argues that hope is part of the problem because it causes people to avoid acknowledging the immensity of the challenge.

The central lesson from Bartlett’s study is that the capacity for cruelty and violence is deeply rooted in human thinking and feeling. War and violence provide many deep satisfactions to people who are psychologically normal, and there is no ready alternative. No simple fix, not even the promotion of nonviolent action, is likely to be effective in the short run.

In the early 1980s, when I first became involved in a group advocating nonviolent alternatives to the military, I imagined that significant progress was possible, even recognizing that social institutions are highly entrenched. Today, despite the efforts of many dedicated campaigners, the military seems just as widely accepted and alternatives just as far away.

To a large extent, acceptance of systems based on violence is widespread due to indoctrination, including thinking of the world as necessarily divided into countries, each with a central government that uses force to maintain power. The indoctrination includes acceptance, and often passion, for overcoming those designated as enemies. Also important is the constant attention to violence in news and entertainment.

To foster development of different attitudes and values, there are several possibilities. One is interventions to create a different media environment, one that counters nationalism, domination over nature, enemy-creation and violence as the solution. There have been many worthwhile initiatives, but the challenge of creating full-scale alternatives — from child rearing to rituals honoring contributions to society — is immense.

One lesson from history is that persuading people that war and violence are bad is inadequate. Knowledge and logic are not enough. If they were, the horrors of war, and the devastation of a future nuclear war, would be more than adequate to impel masses of people to join peace movements. Warning people that nuclear war could annihilate much of the world’s population should be all it takes. However, despite warnings since the early 1980s that nuclear war could trigger a globally devastating “nuclear winter,” most people take no special action against nuclear arsenals.

Awareness of the damaging effects of violence is not enough to turn more than a few people towards a rejection of violence. The implication, following Bartlett’s analysis, is that those who make efforts against systems of evil may need to be different from the norm via greater moral intelligence. Beyond distinguishing right from wrong, this means having the capacity to link reason and emotion to enable doing good. Morally intelligent people need to be able to act against oppressive authorities rather than going along with the crowd. They need to be willing to stand up to persecution.

Rather than just telling people about nonviolence, it may be more effective to show them through actions. Activists have long known that participation in social action is a powerful way to forge commitment. Social movement scholars have shown that more people join action groups by being invited along by a current member than by moral outrage. Essentially, this is to rely on the common human urge to join with others. This is fine, but insufficient, because systems based on violence, such as the military, use the same techniques and have far more resources to deploy them.

Schools promote intellectual development, but there is no institution systematically helping people to achieve the most advanced forms of moral development — ones that involve seeing beyond self-interest, attachments to organizations and countries and our species. The challenge for nonviolence supporters is to help develop forms of learning through practice that foster moral development. For example, it would be useful to study whether extensive training and practice in nonviolent action causes participants, in other circumstances, to become more compassionate to humans and nature.

What can be done to counter the satisfactions many humans gain from participating directly or vicariously in violence, and the willingness of most humans to tolerate the existence of social and technological systems designed to cause death and destruction? Almost certainly, nonviolence is part of the answer. Participating in nonviolent actions can provide powerful psychological satisfactions and may be an alternative to the appeal of violence. However, despite the dedication and sacrifice by millions of people over the years, there has not yet been a mass shift in commitments to reject violent systems in favor of nonviolent action.

Nonviolent strategists emphasize the importance of innovation, of testing out new methods of struggle. To this should be added a wider search for innovative methods of broadening participation in challenges to human evil and the systems built on it.


Brian Martin

This feature originally appeared in Waging Nonviolence.

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