Last night, I watched a disturbing show on PBS, Worse than War, "the first major documentary to explore the phenomenon of genocide and how we can stop it". Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, narrator of the film and author of the book upon which it is based, argues that contrary to common conceptions of irrational and spontaneous combustion as the cause of genocide, it actually involves careful planning by rational actors, beginning with the identification of a political objective - typically the removal or elimination of an ethnic group - followed by the persistent demonization and vilification of members of that group through violent and virulent communication and other acts.
Goldhagen proposes that genocide could be more properly characterized as eliminationism:
the belief that one's political opponents are "a cancer on the body politic that must be excised — either by separation from the public at large, through censorship or by outright extermination - in order to protect the purity of the nation"
The 2-hour film (which can be viewed online in its entirety) reviews a number of large-scale atrocities - mass murders often accompanied by systematic rapes and other forms of torture - committed during the 20th and 21st centuries in Darfur, Rwanda, the former Republic of Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Armenia and, of course, Nazi Germany.
In nearly every case, the international community did little to stop the atrocities, and many actions - and inaction - of members of the local and global community reminded me of the social roles involved in the circle of bullying I wrote about in my last post (Be Impeccable with Your Word: Confrontation vs. Condescension and Intimidation): bullies, followers or henchmen, supporters or passive bullies, passive supporters or possible bullies, disengaged onlookers, possible defenders and defenders.
One of the most disturbing segments of the film (starting around the 1:03 mark) showed U.N. Peacekeepers in Rwanda abruptly abandoning the Ecole Technique Officielle school in Kigali, in which they had been protecting thousands of Tutsi from homicidal Hutus, who immediately moved in and massacred the unprotected and unarmed Tutsi. Goldhagen claims that the one post-WWII example of significant and effective intervention, the 1999 NATO bombing of former Yugoslavia, resulted in Slobodan Milošević, leader of the Serbian eliminationists, quickly ceasing atrocities and coming to the negotiation table. He argues that the biggest obstacle to preventing genocide is the lack of the will on the part of world leaders.
Throughout the film, I was reminded of the concept of epidemic hysteria or Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI) that I recently read about in Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. The authors, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, describe several instances of large-scale emotional contagion in which groups of people "catch" emotions from others through direct contact or observation over varying lengths of time. For example, in what has become known as the Tanganyika laughing epidemic, uncontrollable bouts of laughter lasting a few minutes to a few hours spread across a population of several hundred people during the first several months of 1962. Another, more recent, example was several waves of MPI at a high school in McMinville, TN, during 1998, in which gasoline was purportedly smelled and dozens of people suffered from symptoms of nausea and dizziness; no objective evidence of gasoline or any other physical agent that may have caused the symptoms was ever found. Several other examples are provided, but the important thing I want to note here is that the characteristics that tend to mark episodes of MPI include a highly connected community that tends to be isolated and/or stressed ... characteristics that appear to apply to most, if not all, of the groups of genocide perpetrators depicted in Goldhagen's film.
Toward the end of their book, Christakis and Fowler discuss the "interpersonal spread of criminal behavior as an example of a bad network outcome". As with other viral effects, people observing the commission of a crime - or perhaps its after-effects (e.g., the broken window theory) - may be more likely to commit crimes themselves. They note that "the riskier or more serious the crime, the less likely others are to follow suit (though there can be frenzies of murder too, as in the Rwandan genocide)." Unfortunately, in this context, they do not explore these more serious types of criminal frenzies further.
Another book that came to mind was The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo, which reports on - among other things - his [in]famous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a group of college students were randomly partitioned into groups of prison guards and prisoners and placed within a simulated prison. The experiment, which was intended to last 2 weeks, was stopped after just 6 days due to the unanticipated ferocity and sadism with which the "prison guards" adopted and performed their roles, and the depression and other signs of stress exhibited by those playing the "prisoners". I haven't actually read the book, but based on the broader coverage described in its synopsis, I believe that it provides many insights relevant to the types of genocide - or eliminationism - described in Goldhagen's film, e.g., the strength of "situational power" and the effects of "conformity, obedience to authority, role-playing, dehumanization, deindividuation and moral disengagement".
I wish I could say that Goldhagen's film depicts atrocities beyond anything I could ever imagine happening in this country ... at least in modern times (slavery, the civil war, and other epochs in our history may represent approximations of eliminationism). However, the roots of all of the examples of eliminationism he examines are all preceded by periods of persistent demonization and vilification of classes of people ... practices that seem to be on the increase in some media pundits and channels. In researching this blog post, I was simultaneously heartened and disheartened to discover that I am not alone in this concern.
In a Marquette Law Review article on Eliminationist Discourse in a Conflicted Society: Lessons for America from Africa?, Phyllis Bernard writes:
This Article proceeds from the assumption that—from a less lofty, more grassroots perspective—modern, organized, formal, one-time venues for extremist political speech do not present the most potent threat to physical safety and a stable democracy. The greater danger emanates from pervasive right-wing extremist themes on radio, television, and some online news sources (often as a modern-day replacement for hard-copy newspapers and newsletters). These media support an increasingly passionate and virulent message in public discourse. This message encourages persons who feel uneasy or displaced in society to expiate their grievances not through the political process, but through murder.
This Article addresses pervasive, long-term, mixed messages that blend ostensible news with entertainment, politics, religion, and appeals to ethnic identity and general fear-mongering. Although such discourse receives the greatest coverage in the mass media, the better forum to mitigate and neutralize the incitement to action may be on a person-to-person level. This Article will explore interventions in Rwanda and Nigeria that adapted American dispute prevention and resolution methods to African media and dispute resolution traditions. The African collaborations offer a different view of justice, based on relationships, which may provide a better fit and forum for America to address extremist media messages and their impact on society.
I hope, for the sake of all Americans, that we can learn the lessons from other conflicts, find common ground, foster more civil and respectful relationships, and avoid the kinds of catastrophes we have witnessed in countries that may be, in some key respects, not so different from our own. And I also hope that we can find and employ the will to use our considerable power to stand up to bullies in other parts of the world.