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Why do people commit evil?  How does one get from being an ordinary citizen to someone who oversees the genocide of their neighbours?   What are the psychological states that premeditate acts of violence on the personal and societal level?  Noga Arikha is a historian who has looked into the research on how we foment and propagate evil institutions and evil acts.

 

“This is what the neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried at the University of California, Los Angeles did with his article ‘Syndrome E’ (1997) in The Lancet. A syndrome is a group of biological symptoms that together constitute a clinical picture. And E stands for evil. With Syndrome E, Fried identified a cluster of 10 neuropsychological symptoms that are often present when evil acts are committed – when, as he puts it, ‘groups of previously nonviolent individuals’ turn ‘into repetitive killers of defenceless members of society’. The 10 neuropsychological symptoms are:

1. Repetition: the aggression is repeated compulsively.
2. Obsessive ideation: the perpetrators are obsessed with ideas that justify their aggression and underlie missions of ethnic cleansing, for instance that all Westerners, or all Muslims, or all Jews, or all Tutsis are evil.
3. Perseveration: circumstances have no impact on the perpetrator’s behaviour, who perseveres even if the action is self-destructive.
4. Diminished affective reactivity: the perpetrator has no emotional affect.
5. Hyperarousal: the elation experienced by the perpetrator is a high induced by repetition, and a function of the number of victims.
6. Intact language, memory and problem-solving skills: the syndrome has no impact on higher cognitive abilities.
7. Rapid habituation: the perpetrator becomes desensitised to the violence.
8. Compartmentalisation: the violence can take place in parallel to an ordinary, affectionate family life.
9. Environmental dependency: the context, especially identification with a group and obedience to an authority, determines what actions are possible.
10. Group contagion: belonging to the group enables the action, each member mapping his behaviour on the other. Fried’s assumption was that all these ways of behaving had underlying neurophysiological causes that were worth investigating.Note that the syndrome applies to those previously normal individuals who become able to kill. It excludes the wartime, sanctioned killing by and of military recruits that leads many soldiers to return home (if they ever do) with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); recognised psychopathologies such as sociopathic personality disorder that can lead someone to shoot schoolchildren; and crimes of passion or the sadistic pleasure in inflicting pain. When Hannah Arendt coined her expression ‘the banality of evil’ in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), she meant that the people responsible for actions that led to mass murder can be ordinary, obeying orders for banal reasons, such as not losing their jobs. The very notion of ordinariness was tested by social psychologists. In 1971, the prison experiment by the psychologist Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University played with this notion that ‘ordinary students’ could turn into abusive mock ‘prison guards’ – though it was largely unfounded, given evidence of flaws in the never-replicated experiment. Still, those afflicted with Syndrome E are indeed ordinary insofar as that they are not affected by any evident psychopathology. The historian Christopher Browning wrote of equally ‘ordinary men’ in the 1992 book of that name (referenced by Fried) who became Nazi soldiers. The soldier who killed my grandfather was very probably an ordinary man too.

Today, biology is a powerful explanatory force for much human behaviour, though it alone cannot account for horror. Much as the neurosciences are an exciting new tool for human self-understanding, they will not explain away our brutishness. Causal accounts of the destruction that humans inflict on each other are best provided by political history – not science, nor metaphysics. The past century alone is heavy with atrocities of unfathomable scale, albeit fathomable political genesis.”

I pondered the conclusions of this essay and am reminded of the work “Ordinary Men” by (also referenced in the essay) by Christopher R. Browning that describes the psychological and sociological contagions that bring out the evil that exists in all of us.  I’m struck by, even as I write, the tendency to pathologize evil as if it were disease that somehow takes root and manifests itself on ‘good people’.  This socially sanctioned frame, looking at the literature, is shockingly incorrect as the data points to the fact that we all possess the capacity to commit heinous acts of violence, even genocide, if the conditions are right.

Arikha states that “empathy is rarely universal” and that “Family belonging and social belonging are separate. When they meet, as happened in Bosnia and Rwanda when families turned on each other, the group identity prevails”.   Chilling statements such as these implode the ideas we carry around about common human decency and common human morality and empathy.  The story we tell ourselves, about ourselves, is bullshite and these bullshit assumptions are what we run ‘civilized’ society on.  I think this false narrative allows people to be repeated shocked and horrified when tales of wanton bloodshed and genocide hit the news – it is seen as a huge deviation from the norm.  Yet, if we look at humans, it isn’t a particular large leap from our observable behaviours.

We – ‘the good guys’ – ran a government sanctioned torture program.  Oh, certainly we had our legal pretzelese to mask and make torture palatable for the general public. Never the less, dodgy legal justifications do not nullify the social and psychological ramifications of one’s nation endorsing the institutional infliction of pain on others.  I think we are still seeing the negative effects of the torture revelations running through our western societies .

Essay’s like Arikha’s make me contemplate how much projection we engage in as a society to protect ourselves from the rather brutish reality of our societal and geo-poltical existence.

(*edited for early morning writing)

 

The need for social connection and community support for the people of our society has never been greater.  Being alone, atomized, and unable to relate to the rest of society and those inhabit it opens people up to harmful ideologies and an movemet toward totalitarian thoughts and impulses. Nabeelah Jaffer has written a thoughtful essay about the factors that can herald people into the extremist totalitarian fold.

If nothing else this essay highlights the human need for social interaction and connection.  We crave to make sense of the world and it has been demonstrated repeatedly in history that we are willing to forgo our rational critical selves to find comfort in an absolutist worldview which may indeed be terrible, but offers the warm comfort of having all answers necessary to make life understandable and comprehensible.

We pick up with our excerpt here referring as Jaffer is talking about Jeff an individual who has accepted a anti-Muslim white supremacist world, yet is still friends with the Muslim author.

“Knowing me has made little difference to Tom’s broader ideology, and to his conviction that immigrants in general and Muslims in particular are the great enemy of our time. Factual debate also makes no impact. When our mutual friends disagree at length with Tom’s extreme opinions, he hardens into polarised opposition. He is quiet but stubborn, retreating into his shell with a wounded air. Of course, all of us suffer at times from confirmation bias – a tendency to favour information that supports our existing beliefs. But Tom does not simply prefer certain facts to others – he seems almost uninterested in them. Instead, he returns repeatedly to cliché (something Arendt also noted in Eichmann). ‘Religion taking over like it always has,’ he writes in a typical post, ‘sharia will creep to power and form an Islamic State.’ This is beyond the common run of immigration-skepticism and the distaste for religion that any decided atheist might have. It drums out a single narrow account of the world – past, present and future.

There is chilly logical consistency to Tom’s ideas. If you presume that Western culture represents a single (and singularly enlightened) worldview, then it follows that non-white immigrants attached to less perfect cultures are a threat that must be stopped. If you are convinced that Islam also entails a single worldview that is coincidentally the total antithesis of the consummately enlightened Western approach, then it follows that it must be fought. If you have already decided that civilisation is all that matters in this story, then what need is there for anything else? In ‘Ideology and Terror’ (1953), Arendt suggested strict self-evident logicality was the main capacity left to those who could not engage in true thought: the fact that two and two equals four cannot be denied ‘even under the conditions of absolute loneliness’. Such logical reasoning becomes ‘the only reliable “truth” human beings can fall back upon’ once they have lost the sense of mutuality needed to know their way in a common world. (Though there might be other reasons for this correlation, it has often been noted that a disproportionately large number of violent Islamist extremists have backgrounds in engineering, science or maths.) Logic, after all, needs neither the self nor the other in order to function. Only one premise matters – and it must be allowed to race freely through mankind, executing its inherent law.

Truth is simply not as relevant as what seems to be the truth

Tom’s narrative has no need of facts. They are beside the point. Like other ideas that aspire to ‘total explanation’, the narrative pretends ‘to know beforehand everything that experience may still have in store’. Armed with omniscient knowledge of the ‘true’ cause for all events, believers are relieved of their sense of insecurity. Here, at last, is a consistent explanation for everything. Totalitarian ideas emancipate their believers from reality: their worth lies in presenting a coherent absolute narrative of the world, which, as Arendt noted in Origins, is ‘more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself’. Experience is irrelevant: there is nothing new to be learned about the situation. The idea of a Jewish world conspiracy was once made to seem more true than reality by the Nazis, who simply acted ‘as though the world were dominated by the Jews and needed a counterconspiracy to defend itself’. Truth is simply not as relevant as what seems to be the truth.

When Arendt argued that loneliness was the common ground of terror, she was not thinking of individual acts of terrorism perpetrated by those on the margins – but of the terror of authoritarian ideologies and governments being slowly embraced by society’s dominant majority. The ideal subject of these governments, she argued, was not a convinced extremist but simply an isolated individual, too insecure in himself to truly think: someone for whom the distinction between true and false was beginning to blur, and the promise of a movement was beginning to beckon.”

I see the level of atomization in our society and I am deeply concerned to the extent that extremist ideologies can (and have been) make inroads into the general populace.  The most worrisome part is that once people/populations are committed down the totalitarian road – facts simply don’t matter – and therefore rational dialogue and debate becomes irrelevant.  And there there is nothing left but bloodletting and the frenzied decent in chaos.

This is a great essay, I recommend reading it in full but also having a cheerful tonic at hand to chase back the gloomy implications for our society.

 

 

Ever find a spot where you could pinpoint where something went wrong and broke-shit on such a massive scale that the damage is still being undone? See Freud on incest…

 

“THERAPISTS AND EVALUATORS
We need to take a large step back in time for a
moment, to the early part of Freud’s era, when
modern psychology was born. In the 1890s, when
Freud was in the dawn of his career, he was struck
by how many of his female patients were revealing
childhood incest victimization to him. Freud
concluded that child sexual abuse was one of the
major causes of emotional disturbances in adult
women and wrote a brilliant and humane paper

called “The Aetiology of Hysteria.” However,
rather than receiving acclaim from his colleagues
for his ground-breaking insights, Freud met with
scorn. He was ridiculed for believing that men of
excellent reputation (most of his patients came
from upstanding homes) could be perpetrators of
incest.
Within a few years, Freud buckled under this
heavy pressure and recanted his conclusions. In
their place he proposed the “Oedipus complex,”
which became the foundation of modern
psychology. According to this theory any young
girl actually desires sexual contact with her father,
because she wants to compete with her mother to
be the most special person in his life. Freud used
this construct to conclude that the episodes of
incestuous abuse his clients had revealed to him
had never taken place; they were simply fantasies
of events the women had wished for when they
were children and that the women had come to
believe were real. This construct started a
hundred-year history in the mental health field of
blaming victims for the abuse perpetrated on them
and outright discrediting of women’s and
children’s reports of mistreatment by men.
Once abuse was denied in this way, the stage
was set for some psychologists to take the view
that any violent or sexually exploitative behaviors
that couldn’t be denied—because they were
simply too obvious—should be considered
mutually caused. Psychological literature is thus
full of descriptions of young children who
“seduce” adults into sexual encounters and of
women whose “provocative” behavior causes men
to become violent or sexually assaultive toward
them.
I wish I could say that these theories have long
since lost their influence, but I can’t.”

-Lundy Bancroft.  Why Does He Do That? p. 684 (of 1020)

  Interesting article from the folks over at JSTOR.

 

     “According to Willinsky, “The schooled representation of meaning sets language in the hands of those who hold the proper definitions.” In other words, appeals to the dictionary serve a political purpose; they preserve existing power structures, and fortify the way things are at the expense of the way things can be.

     It can appear trivial to expend so much energy on worrying about how we speak, because speech seems less tangible than physical action. But definitions always matter. In the judicial system, for example, they are key in assigning blame. The “reasonable person” standard is applied in self-defense cases to determine culpability; in this context, “reasonable” means average, ordinary. As legal scholar Jody David Armour writes in Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism, this definition of reasonable “takes the merely typical and contingent and presents it as truth and morality, objectively construed,” a pretty low bar for justice. Consider how a “rational person” test or an “omniscient person” test might change the meaning of criminality.

     Similarly, there was a time in the American South when blackness, that thing that determined where one could eat, drink, and sit, was codified into law as having “one drop” of black blood. And migrants fleeing violence in Central America are rarely granted asylum in the United States because of the legal definition of “refugee.” There are profound consequences from definitions, and they should not be ceded to the staff of a reference book.

     Even words without legal import can hold incredible power. Speech can’t bruise skin, but it can break a spirit. Is a feeling any less real because it happens “under the hood?” Is heartbreak not real pain? Why do we describe hurtful words as a punch to the gut or a slap to the face? For so long, the free speech debate has been built upon an incoherent premise: that speech is powerful enough to solve social ills, but can’t inflict as much damage as a fist.

     When is speech violence? It depends on how we define it. If we define violence as a physical act, then speech is never violence. If we choose to define violence as causing harm to a person, then speech is often violence. If we choose to define violence as intentionally causing harm, then sometimes speech is violence.

     If there is to be one takeaway from the work of Wittgenstein, it’s that nothing is essential in language. He spent his entire life feeling around for the atoms of speech, only to discover that he was grasping at an illusion. Language is what we say, what we mean, and what we understand—different meanings for different people in different contexts.”

Interesting stuff.  I think I’ll have to read some more Wittgenstein.

trees    Trees on streets and boulevards reduce crime.  Do we know the how or why of this particular correlation, nope.  But we do know that trees on private lots also tend to reduce criminal activity, with the proviso that they are over 42 feet high.  The studies linked are quite fascinating and most definitely worth a read.

But recent research suggests the opposite:  trees don’t give burglars and highwaymen a place to hide, rather they may reduce crime in a neighbourhood.

One piece of research from 2001 focused on a public housing project in Chicago, where some buildings had trees out front, others did not. The research found that buildings with fewer trees or barren yards had more crime reports, while buildings with trees had fewer crimes. Because residents of the project were randomly assigned to various apartments, the differences in crime couldn’t be attributed to factors like income.

A more recently published article in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning focused on Cincinnati. The city’s trees were being killed by the Emerald Ash Borer beetle. Researchers took advantage of the spread of the beetle to study the relationship between trees and crime. They found that when a tree is killed and removed, crime in the area tends to go up.

[Source: CBC radio]

cogntivebiasDon’t feel bad about this, we are all in the same boat when it comes to making bad decisions or being unduly influenced.  The science behind advertising and persuasion has come a long ways, and knowing how they manipulate you and the rest of the public is valuable knowledge.  James Garvey lists three of the ways we are vulnerable to persuasion the Representative Heuristic, the Availability Heuristic, and the Anchoring Effect.  Before we can discuss these systems though a brief overview of how we think and the short cutting our brain does that makes life generally go well but not always thoughtfully.

[…] by distinguishing between two kind of thinking:fast, automatic, intuitive thinking and slow, reflective, rational thinking.  You can imagine that these two kinds of mental activities are the work of two parts of your mind, two systems that swing into different kinds of action to accomplish different tasks.  The part that is responsible for first kind of thinking is called system 1 or the Automatic System, and the part the engages in slower, more careful thought is called system 2 of the Reflective System. 

     System 1 operates quickly and automatically,  This feels instinctive and intuitive, and it requires no effort on your part.  System 1 is in charge when you orient yourself to a sudden sound, wince involuntarily when you see something that disgusts you, read anger in the lines on someone’s face, and recognize written words in your native tongue – it all just clicks fluently and automatically, without you thinking about it at all. 

   The work of System 2, the Reflective system, takes effort, an act of deliberate concentration on your part.  Your deliberative efforts are limited and cannot be sustained for very long without degradation, a phenomenon called ego depletion.   System 2’s work is voluntary, slower that your gut reactions, and associated with the experience of choice and agency. 

[…]

   The two systems interact with each other in a number of surprising ways,  System 1 typically engages in a kind of constant monitoring, throwing up a series of impressions and feelings that System 2 might endorse, ignore, check, focus on, act upon, or simply go along with.  Much of the time System 2 is in a low power state, aroused only when the Automatic system encounters something it cannot handle. 

[…]

  Our mental resources are therefore limited.  It is an effort to bring System 2 into play, and it can be overloaded by trying to do too much.  So evolution has taught us a number of shortcuts, rules of thumb or heuristics, which conserve our mental energies and serve us well most of the time.

[…]

  But it also means that we go wrong in systematic, predictable ways – we are constitutionally susceptible to cognitive biases, and in turn, we can be nudged.

[…]

   We use shortcuts to arrive at judgments too.  […] It’s a large part of the theoretical framework behind contemporary persuasion, and it’s already shaping our world and changing our lives. 

 

   Consider this description of Steve. 

   ‘Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful, but with little interest in people, or in the world of reality.  A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail’

   What do you think Steve does for a living?  Is he more likely to be a farmer, salesman, airline pilot, librarian, or physician?  Once you have an answer to that question , ask yourself what job he is least likely to have.

[…]

    Very many people, including me when I first read that description , conclude that Steve is most likely a librarian – how could this shy guy like that possibly be a salesman? – and in coming to this conclusion we make use of what Kahneman and Tversky call the representativeness heuristic.   We let our automatic faculties rip and take a short cut to an answer.  If one slows down and thinks about it, though, there are a lot more farmers than librarians in the world.  That’s extremely pertinent information if you are trying to guess which job on a list is most likely for anybody, and it should lead us to conclude that it’s most likely Steve is a farmer, maybe a shy and withdrawn farmer, but still a farmer.  The probability that Steve is a librarian is instead assessed by the extent to which the description of Steve matches up with or is representative of stereotype of a librarian we have in our heads. 

[…]

  We do this entirely automatically, and it has an effect on a host of judgments – how likely we think politicians are to be good leaders, how likely a new business is to succeed, and how likely our doctor is to be competent. 

[…]

   People who understand persuasion will take care to fit the right stereotype and make it easier for us to come to conclusions about them automatically. 

 

A second set of biases result from what Kahneman and Tversky call the availability heuristic.  When we think about how likely some even is, we’re affected by how readily examples come to mind. 

[…]

brain   We are likely to over-estimate the number of wayward politicians, shark attacks and meltdowns at nuclear plants because we can probably easily recall instance of such things.  The problem is that how easily we can recall something has less to do with how likely or common or worrying an occurrence is and more to do with what we happen to have heard about in the news recently and how striking that news was to us.  The news you choose to watch therefore has a lot of power over you,  The stories it repeats reinforce your susceptibility to the availability effect. 

[…]

   We over-react at first, then under-react as time goes on.  […]  Because of its salience, we think homicide is more common that suicide, but it isn’t.  In fact, Americans are more likely to take their own lives than be murdered or die in a car crash, but because murder and car accidents are more newsworthy, dramatic and available that suicide, we concern ourselves more with home alarm systems and airbags than the signs of depression. 

   A final kind of bias identified by Kahneman and Tversky, perhaps the most interesting and difficult to accept of the three, is called the anchoring effect.  When people first think about a number and try to estimate an unknown quality, the initial number affect their guess, anchors it – the estimate they make tends to stay near by.  Again, the rule of thumb in play isn’t too bad a guide, and we use it all the time.  What’s the population of Pittsburgh? If you don’t know, but you do know that Philadelphia is the largest city in Pennsylvania, and it has about 1.5 million people in it, you might feel able to guess about Pittsburgh.  It’s certainly smaller than Philadelphia – maybe it’s half the size, so perhaps Pittsburgh has a population of few than 750,000,  Maybe 600,000?

    anchoringThere are two very weird facts about this familiar process of guessing a quantity,  First we tend to undercook the adjustments we make from the original guess.  Once we have a number and begin adjusting in the direction we think is right, we tend to stay too close to the anchor, possibly because once we find ourselves in uncertainty, we can’t think of a good raise to carry on, so we play it safe and stop too soon.  Pittsburgh is smaller that Philadelphia, so we adjust downwards, but how far downwards?  In fact, this example we stayed much too close to the anchor, as we usually do.  Just 300,000 people live in Pittsburgh.

    Second, it doesn’t matter where the first figure comes from, it will still anchor our estimates, even it has nothing at all to do with the domain in question.  According to at least one understanding of what’s going on in such cases, sometimes System 2 is in charge, finding what it hopes to be a reasonable anchor and adjusting off it to estimate an unknown quantity.  But sometimes System 1 gets hooked on an anchor and freely associates, without our conscious control, and the cascade of associations ends up affecting our later estimate, whether it’s reasonable or not. 

   Tversky and Kahneman illustrated this second kind of anchoring with a rigged roulette wheel – it showed numbers from 0 to 100 but it actually stopped on either 10 or 65.  They spun the wheel and asked a group of students to write the number down, and then answer two questions.

   ‘Is the percentage of African nations among the UN members larger or smaller than the number you just wrote?’

  ‘What is your best guess of the percentage of African nations in the UN?’ 

    The average guess of those who saw the number 10 was 25 percent.  The average guess of those who saw the number 65 was 45 percent.  A roulette wheel is not a particularly informative thing if you’re trying to work out how many African nations are members of the UN, but still, those who saw the high number guessed higher than those that saw the low number.  Even ludicrous anchors have an effect on us”

-James Garvey.  The Persuaders pp. 55 – 66

 

Yeah, so being wary of your System 1 answers is probably a good thing.  Bad news for the anchoring effect, as even when you’re told about it, it still works on you. :/

hindsight

 

mechanicaldoping   The competitive cycling world is being shaken as riders during competitions have be discovered using mechanical assists to help them perform better.  From the AP:

“Caught using a hidden motor at a world championship race, cyclo-cross rider Femke Van Den Driessche of Belgium has been banned from cycling for six years.The sanction imposed Tuesday by the International Cycling Union is a first using its rules on technological fraud.

This case is a major victory for the UCI and all those fans, riders and teams who want to be assured that we will keep this form of cheating out of our sport,” UCI president Brian Cookson said in a statement.

 The UCI banned Van Den Driessche through Oct. 10, 2021, stripped her of the Under-23 European title she won last November and fined her 20,000 Swiss francs ($20,500).
 She must return all prize money and trophies, including her Belgian national title, won since Oct. 11, the UCI disciplinary tribunal ruled.

The 19-year-old rider had said she would skip her disciplinary hearing at the UCI’s Swiss offices and retire from racing.”

Isn’t technology grand?  We have miniaturized engine components enough to fit into a skinny bike frame and at the same time have improved battery performance enough to make this sort of cheating worthwhile.  In the video below, see how it works and possibly see it in action on during professional racing.

I’m not a fan of bike racing or anything but what I find interesting is what the ‘competitive spirit’ can do to people and their moral/ethical character when it comes to high reward activities.

Competition should bring about the best of us, whether it is competing against a time or someone else in an endeavour.  I see nothing wrong with this concept as being committed to a goal and focusing time and energy on it is how many things are accomplished in the world.  However when the stakes are too high, and too fraught with competition, then unethical activities can be realized.

“There may be no Olympic sport as dependent on technology as cycling, whose space-age, feather-light carbon fiber bikes can cost more than a car and make the difference between a gold medal and nothing.

That has also made the sport ripe for an entirely new kind of doping: mechanical.

It has long been rumored that riders were finding ways to hide tiny electrical motors in their frames, or were using magnets in their wheels, to produce a couple of extra watts of power. But it was not until a young cyclocross racer was discovered to have a motor hidden in her bike frame last year that it became a prominent issue.”

   Can we think of cheating as a indicator of when a sport has become too competitive?

   The Cycling Union is taking this threat to the legitimacy of the sport seriously as they are using MRI scanners for the Olympics to ferret out the mechanical dopers.

“The group will work with the International Olympic Committee to test bikes in Rio; both will use proprietary software that the governing body developed for iPads. The system essentially scans a bike for magnetic fields that could indicate the presence of motors, and it is advanced enough to distinguish between illegal technology and the electronic shifting systems that have become common among elite riders.”

   It seems that there is a limit to the usefulness of competitiveness as a motivator to many human endeavours as once a critical moral threshold has been breached, the allure of cheating becomes too strong.  Thus the legitimacy of the sport, built on competition, is undone by that very same factor.

    Similar analogs can be seen in the world of business and trading.  The market works fairly well until rampant greed ruins the party for everyone.  I smell a sociology paper flitting about on this topic as to how the limiting aspects of cheating interact with competitive sports and other activities.

[Source: NY times]

[Source: Associated Press]

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