We speak of genocide as a problem from Hell, but we rarely speak of it as an ethical problem that can be solved. This suggests that we have ceased to think of genocide as a problem of human dimensions. We have become as superstitious about genocide as cave dwellers must have been about tornadoes and hurricanes: we see it as a rare force of nature, bigger and stronger than us. We hope the monster never comes our way, and if it ever does we plan to hide.
Philosophers need to get their courage back, because genocide is an ethical problem that must be solved. Organizations like the United Nations and Amnesty International toil weakly to solve it as a political problem, while Doctors Without Borders fights it as a practical problem, striving year after year around the world to alleviate the pain. But none of these organizations are designed to analyze the psychological roots of the problem, or to propose great philosophical epiphanies that might change the world. Indeed, I know I must appear foolish when I suggest that any kind of moral epiphany could possibly help, even though I’m quite sure it could.
We should expect our best ethical philosophers to address this topic often, but the great thinkers of the 20th century shied away. Sartre did not manage to communicate clearly on the topic of genocide, nor did Nozick or Rawls or Tillich or Jaspers or (ahem) Heidegger. Today, we have a few well-known academic ethicists like Derek Parfit, but they tend to steer far clear of bold speculations about the causes of our worst real-world problems. Alain de Botton has created a clever and brazen philosophical website called The Philosophers Mall that attempts to connect trendy news stories about celebrities and pop culture to philosophical questions. De Botton is at least trying to think outside the box — but a celebration of triviality in philosophy is the opposite of what we need the most.
We are a couple of weeks away from the 20th anniversary of the brutal genocide that took 800,000 lives in Rwanda in April 1994. I’m sure this 20th anniversary will generate some news blips, and perhaps a reminder of the disaster that is still occurring today in Darfur.
The anniversary of the disaster in Rwanda brings back many memories for me, even though I was nowhere near Africa in 1994. This happened to be a productive and transitional time of my life: I had just gotten promoted at my tech consulting job, had recently become a father, was about to become a father again. The world seemed very peaceful in April 1994. The Soviet Union had collapsed. Central Europe had become free. But the shocking headlines from Rwanda that began to appear every morning in the New York Times made no sense. Even the Times didn’t seem to understand what was happening on the ground in this little-known nation across the world.
A hurricane. A tornado. A genocide. Do we really believe that an outbreak of ethnic hatred that results in hundreds of thousands of drunken machete-wielding murderers killing millions of cowering, crying men, women and children is a force of nature, bigger than ourselves? If so, why do we believe this? Have we tried to understand the root cause of genocide? Have we tried so hard and so repeatedly that we can truly say we must give up, that it’s a problem we can’t solve?
I don’t think we have tried very hard. We have barely tried at all. Instead, we comfort ourselves with soapy moralizations. “Genocide is bad.” The closest thing we have to a psychological model of genocide is that there’s a thing called “evil” that sometimes infects other societies, but would certainly never infect our own. In other words, our common level of understanding of the real cause of genocide resembles an infantile fantasy.
We need better ethical philosophers, and braver ones.
I don’t consider myself an impressive philosopher, and I certainly have no training or credentials. But I do have a couple of original ideas and a healthy willingness to embarrass myself in public, and that’s why I’m going to continue to discuss this topic on this blog through the end of April. My recent blog posts on the topic may appear excessive (or obsessive), but I do have an overall goal in mind, and I’m working towards a conclusion. I’ve laid out a few principles, and now I’m ready to put forth a single bold new idea.
The new idea will be the subject of next weekend’s blog post. This is a difficult and tricky blog post to write, and I will need another week to fully think it through. I’ll present a teaser today, a preview of the conclusion I believe I’m approaching.
When we puzzle over genocide, we often ask how it can be possible that good people can do such terrible things. We may be asking the wrong question here. A close analysis of the worst atrocities of the last hundred years shows that individual psychology and individual motivations don’t really come into play when a genocide occurs. Analyzing a genocide by looking at the emotions, beliefs and motivations of any individual person is like trying to analyze automobile traffic by looking at the emotions, beliefs and motivations of a single driver. We’re analyzing at the wrong level.
Indeed, the people who commit genocides often feel nearly as powerless as their victims. In order to understand the cause of genocide, we need to rise from the level of individual psychology to the level of group psychology. Important note: this does not mean the psychology of the individual within the group. It means the psychology of the group itself.
That’s as much as I can write at this point, and the full explanation of what I’m trying to say will appear here next weekend.