Thursday, October 29, 2015

Humanity and Violence

The incidents of students bringing weapons to school in order to kill classmates and teachers have become so common that it suggests a fad has emerged.  Malcolm Gladwell addresses this conjecture in an interesting article in The New Yorker: Thresholds of Violence: How school shootings catch on.  In the course of trying to explain the spread of this phenomenon he introduces the work of the sociologist Mark Granovetter.  Granovetter performed seminal work on the threshold model of collective social behavior.  One of his applications of the model involved an explanation of how generally peaceful people might get caught up in a riot and act in ways that are not consistent with their character. 

Gladwell uses this type model to study school shootings.  Here the subject will be more general with threshold models being discussed in the context of wartime violence.  If Granovetter’s logic can provide insight into how and why humans seem to be capable of mass murder, we may learn something useful about our innate nature.  The default assumption that humans have inherited a violent nature through thousands of generations of natural selection is not one to feel good about.  One would hope that our behavior has a more satisfactory explanation.  Perhaps there is one.

Most attempts to explain how people perform in a riot situation are based on the decision process of each individual.  Something has caused a participant to do things he would not normally do.  Granovettor’s approach starts with the assumption that riots are social interactions, and individuals have thresholds which determine how many people around them are necessary to participate in some act before they are induced to participate as well.  There will be a distribution of such thresholds within a population such that at one extreme there are the few individuals who have zero thresholds and act spontaneously.  At the other extreme, there will be some who might never participate.  Gladwell provides this example.

“In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice….and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.”

What is driving this response according to the model is a form of peer pressure.  Individuals will respond differently to peer pressure in various situations, but few people are left unaffected by it.  Humans evolved in groups, and responses to the constraints and impulses derived from group dynamics will be part of the natural selection process.  The reaction to peer pressure is likely innate.

World War II was associated with violence at a level and a scale that defy comprehension.  The killing of the Jews in the Holocaust is the prime example, but only encompasses about half of the noncombatants who were murdered in Eastern Europe in the lands between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia.  The death camp of Auschwitz is the symbol of Nazi atrocities and provides the example of industrial efficiency in killing human beings.  The more common approach to murder was even more efficient, but much more personal.  Most Jews were killed in the regions in which they lived.  One common practice was to herd people into a building and set the structure on fire while shooting any that tried to escape. Another was to have the victims dig a trench, confiscate their valuables, and shoot them at the edge of the trench so they fell into it.  Subsequent rows of victims were brought in and executed in the same fashion until the ditch was full.  There was nothing industrial about this process.  One set of human beings spent the day shooting other human beings.  Can such practices be consistent with sane human behavior?  Rabid anti-Semitism can’t be the entire answer because non-Jewish groups were subjected to the same treatment if the ire of the Nazis was aroused.  By what mechanism could people with no history of violence become mass murderers?

Consider an incident described by Niall Ferguson in his book War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West.  German Reserve Battalion 101 arrived for duty at a small town in eastern Poland.  It was assigned the task of eliminating a group of Jews that had been assembled.  The healthy males were to be sent to slave labor camps, while the remainder, “the sick, the elderly, the women and children,” were to be taken into the forest and shot.

“Reserve Battalion 101 was not a hardened group of Nazi fanatics.  Most of the 486 men came from working class and lower middle-class neighborhoods of Hamburg.  On the average, they were older than the men in front-line units.  Over half were aged between thirty-seven and forty-two.  Very few were members of the Nazi Party….They were, without a doubt, just ordinary Germans.  They were also willing executioners.”

Their commander gave the soldiers the option of assuming other duties if they felt they could not perform this task.  Only a few opted out.  More withdrew after the killing began, but most were able to continue until all the victims were dead.  Since these men were at this point amateurs, they killed in the most straightforward way they knew.  Their job was to put a bullet in the back of the head of each man, woman, and child.  Most of these “ordinary Germans” were able to spend seventeen hours driving people to forest and executing them, while at the same time getting splattered with blood, bone chips and human tissue.

If one refuses to believe that in the space of a decade or so the majority of the German population became psychotic killers, how might this behavior be explained?  Ferguson leaves us with a suggestion.

“Another interpretation, based in large measure on post-war testimony, is that these ‘ordinary men’ were well aware that what they were doing was wrong, but suppressed their qualms because of a mixture of deference to authority….and peer-group pressure.”

So we return to peer pressure as a mechanism for generating violence—and we add deference to authority as another component.  We have already suggested that the response to peer pressure could be innate.  Could deference to authority also be an innate response?

Anthropologists tell us that humans and chimpanzees once followed the same evolutionary line.  Chimpanzee groups form a hierarchical chain of dominance among both males and females.  Once a chimp’s position in the hierarchy is established (often with a bit of violence) it is expected to defer to the higher ranking chimps.  One could interpret this behavior as “deference to authority.”  Could some residue of this behavior pattern persist in the human genome and provide us with a tendency to respond positively to orders from figures of authority?

Let us proceed further with the thought that peer pressure and deference to authority are innate human characteristics.  What might this imply for our response to threatening situations?  It has long been believed that humans (and chimps) are programmed to view other groups as a potential threat that must be repulsed with some form of action.  In the human context, this has been used as an explanation for strife between races and between ethnic groups.

It is the differentness of “the other” that generates a response that appears to be hatred.  However, in the case of chimpanzees there are no other races or ethnicities, there are only other groups.  “The other” differs only in being not a member of the group.  Is it not reasonable to then assume that chimpanzees respond based on fear for the health of their group not out of hatred for another group?  In an environment where food resources are always strained, conflicts at the boundaries of group domains are inevitable.  However, it might be a mistake to imply an offensive motive to what may be a defensive tactic.  One can interpret chimp behavior as an evolutionary strategy designed to protect the integrity of the group.

Let us proceed with the notion that humans have an innate respect for authority, respond strongly to peer pressure, and are motivated not by hatred of “the other,” but by the need to protect their group. 

Ferguson tried to characterize the conditions under which violence has broken out in the twentieth century.  He concluded that one could attribute the onset of violence to three factors: ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and empires in decline.  The worst violence of World War II occurred in regions situated between Germany and Russia, including Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine.  These were regions with uncertain national boundaries and a great deal of ethnic mixing.  For example, the boundary between Poland and Ukraine was moved eastward after World War I.  This insured a good mixture of Poles in the lands claimed by Ukrainian nationalists, and many Ukrainians in lands claimed by Polish nationalists.  The area in dispute was also invaded by Stalin, then invaded by Hitler, and finally reinvaded by Stalin.  The chaos provided an opportunity for the two ethnic groups to try to exert authority in order to support claims to the land.  As a consequence there were rather bloody conflicts that occurred between Poles and Ukrainians.  Does this mean that Ukrainians who murdered Poles did it because they hated the ethnic Poles because they were different from them, or because they were doing what they thought was necessary to protect their own ethnic group?

Timothy Snyder produced an awesome history of this region: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.  He provided this insight into what motivates people to violence: a feeling of victimhood.

“No major war or act of mass killing in the twentieth century began without the aggressors or perpetrators first claiming innocence and victimhood….The human capacity for subjective victimhood is apparently limitless, and people who believe they are victims can be motivated to perform acts of great violence.”

Isn’t this just another way of saying that violence will be resorted to when people feel their “group” is being threatened.  Even Hitler used victimhood to justify his aggressions and his desire to kill Jews.  He claimed that Germany was under siege by Jewish-led capitalists and Jewish-led communists.  Jews had to die in order that Germans might live.

Consider one more example of effective incitement to violence.  When the military wishes to prepare soldiers for war fighting, they do not focus on hatred of the enemy as the prime motivation.  In the training and indoctrination, the focus is on the importance and integrity of the individual’s war fighting group.  Protect your group from harm!

To the degree that we can argue that humans are programmed to defend their groups rather than programmed to fear and hate people unlike themselves, we have succeeded in presenting humans as a more benign species better able to proceed along a sustainable path.  The prevention of violence then is not a matter of maintaining barriers between dissimilar people, but rather the maintenance of stable societal and political entities that do not feel threatened.

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