1. Religion & Spirituality
Send to a Friend via Email
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Discuss in my forum

Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, by James Waller

Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, by James Waller

Image Courtesy PriceGrabber.com
Humans have committed great evil against each other over the course of millennia, often in the name of religion but also often in the context of secular ideologies — especially during the 20th century. Such evil is not the standard means by which people relate to one another because we are usually quite a bit more civil and kind to one another. How is it that kindness is left behind and heinous barbarism develops — especially among those whose religion ostensibly promotes kindness as a virtue?


Title: Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killingbr] Author: James Waller
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 9780195148688

•  Provides a wealth of information on sociological and psychological studies into human evil
•  Offers a very interesting explanation of extraordinary evil which provides much food for thought

•  None

•  Explores ways in which extraordinary human evil has been explained
•  Offers own explanation for social and psychological causes of genocide and mass killing
•  Includes eyewitness accounts of atrocities over the past century


Book Review

These sorts of questions have been the subject of a great deal of investigation in the social sciences ever since World War II and the Holocaust revealed just how enormous and overwhelming our capacity for evil really is. Although examples of such evil in the past have tended to involve state-sponsored terror, recent history has shown that such evil can also come from "below" in the form of some of the more vicious terrorist groups and acts of faith-based terrorism. Sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and other scientists have actively sought out various competing and complimentary explanations for human evil. The amount of research which has been produced would be daunting to even the most committed student.

Fortunately for the rest of us, James Waller, a social psychologist and chair of the Department of Psychology at Whitworth College, has written a fascinating and thorough introduction to these questions and research. Written for both scholars and lay people, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing has both a negative and a positive agenda. On the negative side, it explains the flaws in many of the most common explanations for human evil; on the positive side, it agues for a more comprehensive understanding which draws from the insights provided by the explanations Waller shows are unable to stand on their own.

The common explanations of "extraordinary human evil" (specifically: genocide and mass killing) which Waller rejects include things like uniquely violent cultures, group think and mass psychosis, and psychopathology. This is not to say that none of these explanations have anything to offer; rather, they simply don't fit all of the facts as we know them. Neither social nor psychological explanations alone suffice. In their place, Waller offers four interdependent layers of both social and psychological factors.

The first layer he calls our "ancestral shadow" and relates our biological, evolutionary heritage which has encouraged things like xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and patterns of social dominance. The second has to do with the the social forces which mold the perpetrators of evil: cultural and religious beliefs, moral disengagement, and the role of rational self-interest.

The third layer deals with the development of a "culture of cruelty" that allows extraordinary evil to exist: socialization, group cohesion, religious dogma, and the merger of role and person. The fourth and final layer involves the "social death of the victims" — their removal from the "moral universe" through us-them thinking, dehumanization, demonization, and blaming them for what is done to them.

One potential problem which Waller's work has in common with all of the preceding work in this field is the that such explanations might serve to excuse people's heinous acts. Waller takes this potential problem very seriously and is careful to avoid providing an explanation without also condemning the acts from a moral perspective. At the same time, however, he argues that condemning them without seeking to understand how they could occur would be just as irresponsible:

To offer a psychological explanation for the atrocities committed by perpetrators is not to forgive, justify or condone their behavior. Instead, the explanation simply allows us to understand the conditions under which many of us could be transformed into killing machines. When we understand the ordinariness of extraordinary evil, we will be less surprised by evil, less likely to be unwitting contributors to evil, and perhaps better equipped to forestall evil.
Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, by James Waller

Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, by James Waller

Image Courtesy PriceGrabber.com

The desire to see extraordinary evil condemned does not seem to be the only reason why people object to attempts to explain how and why it occurs. Many explanations, including Waller's, tend to argue that such evil is not something unique, unusual, and wholly "alien" to "normal" people. Instead, much research demonstrates that even the most ordinary and well-adjusted people are capable of committing gross acts of barbarism under the right conditions.

Such findings make people uncomfortable — and they should make us uncomfortable. It should be harder to sleep at night once we understand that such evil isn't simply perpetuated by lunatic cultures, lunatic religions, or lunatic individuals on the fringes of society, but rather that it is perpetuated by people like you an me. We aren't all nearly so dissimilar as we might imagine. We and whatever culture or religion we belong to aren't as superior and enlightened as we like to believe.

Waller's book reveals that the only thing "extraordinary" about extraordinary evil is perhaps that it is extraordinarily ordinary. Neither a unique culture, nor a unique religion, nor even a unique psychological mindset are necessary for humans to cause suffering for others. All that is required is an ordinary human being in certain circumstances that are not at all uncommon.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.