A Long String of Atrocities
Published on: October 12, 2011
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  • A Reader

    Nicely done: turning the traditional argument on its head.

    Similarly, a rational society can (and perhaps must) overcome other aspects of evolution.

  • I seem to recall that chimpanzees are also violent and homicidal. They just aren’t smart enough to invent gas chambers and nuclear weapons.

  • Professor Berger,

    Many thanks for both a fine and thought-provoking essay. For some reason, though, I found the note on which it ended, while clear and hopeful, to be a bit oddly out of keeping with the main thrust of your exploration. it could be I found it just a mite too categorical for my (far from exemplary) tastes. But I wonder, too, if a large part of our propensity to violence and cruelty isn’t also the result, not just of a failure to socialize, but of an equally “natural” human tendency to MIS-(or even ANTI-)socialize. In any case, I’d like to invite you to consider three hopefully tangent possibilities:

    Suppose the Khmer Rouge had considered human beings to be naturally good, and yet improvable ad infinitum by means of the right institutions. Imagine them arguing, say, that it is part of man’s nature – and of his natural goodness – to create institutions. And that therefore, even as it would be unnatural for man to remain in his pre-institutional “natural” state, so it is both natural and good for man to allow himself to be modified and “improved” ad infinitum by the “good” institutions he’s created. What kinds and degrees of violence can you imagine the Khmer Rouge permitting themselves to have recourse to, in order to produce the desired result (a result, bear in mind, that has no limit)?

    Now suppose the reverse to be true: The Khmer Rouge had regarded man as both naturally and violently evil, and yet as all but irredeemably corrupt. So that even as man is bad, so likewise are the institutions designed to improve him. And yet these same misanthropes find, in the course of the simple trial and error of trying to maintain order, that application of the right kinds of systematic, controlled (albeit sometimes extreme and terrifying) violence can be very effective in restraining man’s more “naturally” – i.e., spontaneously – violent episodes. And even better at terrorizing those who might otherwise be contemplating revolt. Insofar as these Rogues believe man to be mostly if not utterly worthless – perhaps even, in his abject state, mostly expendable to the degree he can’t be controlled – what limiting, mitigating effect is that belief likely to have on the ways they might apply “artificial” as a remedy to “natural” violence?

    Finally, a third but equally extreme possibility: Man (in the Rouge view) is largely if not entirely wicked and worthless in his pre-institutional state. And yet he is, again, infinitely improvable by means of the right institutions. In other words (and let’s be clear about the implications here) man is not just mostly worthless, but evil, in terms of what he has been created. And yet there is no limit to how much he can be improved – can be made right – by things he himself creates. Including, of course, the right institutions, measures, perhaps even technologies, tasks, procedures, enhancements, etc. My question, again: If a given human being is essentially trash in her given state – and yet improvable beyond measure if co-operative, and so immeasurably culpable if she is not – how will these two premises limit, or humanize, the application of violence (or other pressure)that may be deemed necessary to bring her around? Especially when you consider the “natural” – or is it “artificial”? – tendency of both our impulses and our institutional projects to run away from us? Given how useless we are at the start, and yet how illimitably useful we can become (given the right pressure), could we humans ever be TOO hard on ourselves? And how much more on each other?

  • Anthony

    Man’s inhumanity to man millennial problem; addressed by religion, institutions, social arrangements (nations, groups, tribes, etc) that never quite quell its lurking within the souls of men. Atrocities of which essay speak beg the question of our living together sans “Enlightenment project”.

  • ironmike

    It seems to me that a quick review of the 20th century reveals that it is institutions that are the progenitors of, and not an impediment to, genocide. Individuals, when not packed too tightly together, in general tend to co-exist with relative ease. In time any group will develp a sense of cohesion through the effect of business and labor alliances, defensive leagues and marriages. Those who are prone to violence are usually dealt with by the group in a rough and hasty manner. These cozy set ups tend to only get upset when some outside force, some outside institution, allows for the release of suppressed violence. Usually these violent behavior become manifest because the perpetrators believe their acts are condoned by the institution, the community will not be wholly disrupted by the violence and the perpetrators will not be held accountable. This is exactly the opposite of the situation in a small self governing community. Once these stumbling blocks are removed then every minor urge spurred by envy, covetousness or disgust is armed and given free course. An individual Man is sinful and prone to violence. But only the institutions produced by men can slaughter on an industrial scale.

  • Daniel Kinoshita

    The problem of evil and the true nature of man…this is one of the oldest of the oldest of philosophical questions. For example, it can be found in Greek and Confucius thought and those of most other past and existing civilizations. For Aristotle, “The man who is isolated, who is unable to share in the benefits of political association…(and who) is no part of the city, and must therefore be either a beast or god…That is why, if he be without goodness, he is a most unholy and savage being, and worse than all the others in the indulgence of lust and gluttony.” Confucius said something similar in that any man or society that does not follow three principles, the “Way (Dao),” proper ritual, and humaneness or benevolence) is destined to live at the bestial level. G.W.F. Hegel was famous for his phrase describing history as a “slaughter-bench.” You can say that this question of the true nature of man is one that underlies the cultural wars of today—between the followers of Rousseau and progressives of today, who believe in the innate goodness and perfectibility of man and society through social engineering and those who who believe in what Thomas Sowell calls a “constrained” vision of human possibilities, based on the Augustinian concept of original sin. It is also related to what Leo Strauss and George Orwell believed to be by far the most important philosophical question of today, whether there is a God and whether there is for mankind the possibility of immortality (heaven and reward for good). If there is no God nor the possibility of immortality and man is basically evil, then utopian and much of progressive ideals are unachievable and the progressives face what Agatha Christie called in a novel, an “endless night” of meaningless suffering and no sure or permanent redress. “Life is a bitch and then you die.”

    Across the United States one can find at many universities special courses on the topic of genocide. I took such a graduate course. The required readings that described the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, the Khmer Rouge, as well as some of the lesser known ones such as the British wars against the Irish, were mind-numbing in the sheer numbers of victims. Sometimes, one, such as Anne Frank, is meaningful, while millions upon millions become incomprehensible.

    To express a contrary view progressives’ view of their benign concept of human nature is to invite a counter-attack. I remember when a slew of books came out from the socio-biologists about forty or fifty years ago, including one describing man as the descendent of “killer apes.” There was a front-page article co-signed by a dozens of the most famous “public intellectuals” of the day decrying the findings of sociobiology regarding the origin of aggression in humans. They based their objections, not on scientific grounds, but on their implications for social and political policies. At that time I too was skeptical of some of the socio-biologists’ speculation, for example, that lemmings commit mass suicide because of overcrowding and the resultant “mass insanity” resulting. There was speculation that this could be applied to humans and this will be one consequence of the pending overpopulation of the planet. I thought that was a big stretch. I believed such speculations should be based on research, a study highly overcrowded cities, such as Hong Kong and Tokyo.

  • James Lane

    @Daniel Kinoshita
    The fact that you can take courses in genocide means that someone assumes that at some level, genocides are understandable and therefore rational. As someone deeply influenced by a neo-orthodox (Barthian) theology, two things come to mind:
    1) That genocides are rational implies that the still participate in the divine logos. This I find very disturbing.
    2) That genocides are rational implies that even in humanity’s most evil acts, God has not abandoned the world.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    In view of the current “Occupy Wall Street” movement in the U.S., have genocides over race, ethnicity, territory, or social class resulted in the greatest mass murders?

    The Kulaks – farmers – in pre-Communist Russia were exterminated as a class, as was anyone who was a Bourgeoisie. Millions of people have been mass murdered on the basis of their social class, perhaps even more than on the basis of race, ethnicity or territory.

    Given Dr. Berger’s prescient observation about the importance of institutions in making it possible for people to live together peaceably without atrocities, what institutions are presently in place in the U.S. to socialize people about the historical importance of Capitalism, about the value of entrepreneurs, and the advantages of the Bourgeoisie family? What current liberal “Enlightenment Project” would allay any fear about reprisals against those on Wall Street?

    I know the Acton Institute has such a project, which is mostly Catholic based. But what secular “Enlightenment” project serves as a counterpart? What public school or college textbooks teach about social class genocides? What the “Occupy Wall Street” movement may reflect is an institutional void in our social fabric.

    In 1991, Dr. Berger’s sociologist wife, Brigitte Berger, wrote a rather unique book for a sociologist — The Culture of Entrepreneurship — which I believe is possibly out of print and without any updated accessible digital version. Perhaps there is some foundation that would dedicate some resources to resuscitating this valuable work in digital form.

    It is interesting that economist Deirdre N. McCloskey’s book Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World advanced a competing explanation to the Protestant Work Ethic explanation of sociologist-historian Max Weber, which singles out a Bourgeois ethic of dignity as the jumpstart to the modernization of the world. While McCloskey’s argument seems circular – the Bourgeois made Bourgeois industrialization and the Birth of Capitalism – the book would be a welcome tonic to what is going on in Zuccotti Park, formerly called Liberty Plaza Park across the street from Four World Trade Center. If the Occupy Wall Street crowd were all Muslim would we have a different social definition of the social situation in Zuccotti Park?


  • My project on how Christian prayer responds to pain, suffering and evil, developed under Dr. Berger’s advisement at the Boston University School of Theology, addresses these themes from a historical/spiritual point of view. See http://www.spiritualityandhistory.com.

    Thank you, Dr. Berger for your continued insights.

  • Toni

    Dr. Berger, I’m a newbie here, but I don’t believe the answer is “institutions…in place to socialize individuals to behave peacefully and to punish those who act otherwise.”

    Because that’s too vague. In every case you cite, there had been institutions in place which had previously kept one side from slaughtering the other for decades and even centuries. Even in Cambodia.

    I would ask a different question. What circumstances encourage and/or permit one people to undertake the slaughter of a companion people with whom the first had lived peaceably for decades or centuries? Opportunity is clearly a factor. But what else? And THEN how does one develop or improve institutions so as to prevent those factors from escalating to genocide?

    I realize that I’m looking at this as a mechanical challenge. But the problem can’t be solved only by those who understand that theirs is an Enlightenment project.

    Also, the mechanical process I described depends upon the willingness of a society to discover and install the aforementioned “improved institution(s).” Given the millenia-old history of genocide, it may be that genocide is a form of the madness of crowds that will be with us as long as homo sapiens exists.

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