Are we innately cruel?

Simply put, while our surroundings play a major role in determining the kind of acts we engage in, the salience of the inherent self in guiding our actions can never be discounted.

By Khushboo Upreti

Incidents of barbarism litter history, with the Holocaust representing a nadir of sorts in the history of humanity. One often wonders how humanity could have let such morally reprehensible acts transpire. To answer this question by merely saying that some people are cruel is tantamount to stonewalling the real issue.

The de-humanisation of others

One of the episodes in the TV series ‘Black Mirror’ begins with a soldier hunting down hideous humanoids called roaches. These soldiers have brain implants that make them see their targets as monstrous. When the hero’s implant fails, he discovers that he’s a murderer of innocent people, part of a campaign to exterminate members of a despised group. This bears a chilling reminder to the systemic killings of the Jews of Europe in the 1940s.

This incident is telling of the necessity of dehumanisation of people for immoral acts to be carried out. Thus, according to Harvard professor, Herbert C. Kelman, “The inhibitions against murdering fellow human beings are generally so strong that the victims must be deprived of their human status if systematic killing is to proceed in a smooth and orderly fashion.”

So, we see the putting of Africans in human zoos for the Europeans to gawk at.

Such dehumanisation also becomes evident with Jews during the Nazi regime through their initial treatment as second-class citizens, ghettoization, reduction of their identity to mere numbers in concentration camps, carrying out of medical experimentation on them, among other things.

This phenomenon can be seen in present times as well when illegal Bangladeshi immigrants are likened to pests by certain political leaders in India.

Could the inverse be true?

Inversely, such killings could be symbolic of our perception of these groups as humans. We see these people as blameworthy, as morally responsible, as themselves cruel, as taking more than they deserve. Needless to say, we treat them horribly precisely because we see them as moral human beings.

For instance, one of the slogans of white supremacists is, “You will not replace us.” In other words, Blacks and Jews are seen as a threat to their status and way of life with white supremacists clamouring for restoring control of their lives and their surroundings.

Even calls by right wing leaders in India for Hindus to reproduce as many kids as possible to counter the rising population of Muslim could be seen in this light.

Do genes have a role to play?

Essi Viding, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at University College, London talks about how there are individual differences that affect the likelihood of developing murderous traits. Lack of empathy is one of the traits of psychopathy. This however, points towards vulnerability rather than inevitability.

Meanwhile, Simon Baron-Cohen, author of Zero Degrees of Empathy, says that human behaviour is never more than 50 per cent determined by genetics thus indicative of the larger role played by our  environment.

Is anyone capable of evil?

In 1963, Hannah Arendt wrote ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’. It followed the reportage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a German SS official who’d managed the logistics of the deportation of Jews to concentration camps during World War II.  Arendt found Eichmann to be an an ordinary, rather bland, bureaucrat, who in her words, was ‘‘neither perverted nor sadistic’’, but ‘‘terrifyingly normal’’. He acted without any motive other than to diligently advance his career in the Nazi bureaucracy.

Arendt dubbed these collective characteristics of Eichmann ‘the banality of evil’. He was not inherently evil, but merely shallow and clueless. Thus, for Arendt ‘’the sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil’’.  It is this lack of thought, this refusal to acknowledge the dissonance between the moral ideology of the time and our own conscience, which is fatal. Arendt’s findings become unnerving because this indecisiveness can be experienced by anyone.

It’s further important to note that humans are sensitive to social hierarchies and possess a desire for approval and esteem. Needless to say, humans fold to the social pressures of their environment. Thus, environment incentivizes good or bad behaviour. Under the right conditions, most of us are capable of doing terrible things.  While exceptions to this rule exist, they tend to be a minority.

Ideology and authority act as shining examples in this regard. Stanford Prison Experiment for instance, is reflective of influence of authority and arbitrariness of power on human behaviour. Additionally, it’s important to account for the role of Nazi ideology in the atrocities committed against Jews even after acknowledging Arendt’s idea of banality of evil.

But what about acts of heroism and altruism?

Yet, in spite of all the mounting evidence indicative of the malleability of human nature with respect to our environment, one can’t ignore the acts of heroism and defiance in times of larger moral debasedness. Thus, we have Swami Saroopanand ji who gave refuge to Muslim peasants in the tumultuous times of partition and theologian Dietrich Von Hildebrand who was one of the most vocal opponents of Nazi regime.

Simply put, while our surroundings play a major role in determining the kind of acts we engage in, the salience of the inherent self in guiding our actions can never be discounted.


Khushboo Upreti is a writing analyst at Qrius

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