The Roots of Evil: the Psychological and Cultural Origins of Genocide and Other Forms of Group Violence.

The Roots of Evil: the Psychological and Cultural Origins of Genocide and Other Forms of Group Violence. – book reviews

Diane Cole

The Evolution of Genocide

The Roots of Evil: The Psychological and Cultural Origins of Genocide and Other Forms of Group Violence (Cambridge University Press, $24.95), Ervin Staub’s softspoken but searing study of the psychological and cultural roots of genocide, can make you feel ashamed to be human. Using four case studies in horror – the Nazi Holocaust, the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, the Cambodian genocide and the mass killings of the “disappeared” in Argentina – Staub shows how a combustible mixture of poverty, political unrest, authoritarian leadership, virulent nationalism and prejudice against a class or a religious or ethnic minority can trigger a grim progression from discrimination to violence to genocide.

Staub, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is best known for his work on altruism. But as he explored the psychological and social factors that enable some people to help others in need even when it means risking their own well-being, Staub also came to see that these same findings, when reversed, might also begin to decode the most bestial mystery imaginable – what allows some humans to destroy other humans, en masse.

If a sense of responsibility towards others encourages a desire to help, Staub reasons, then the diminishing of a sense of responsibility can weaken it. Further, when an entire society devalues a co-existing minority group – the Jews in Germany, for example, or the Armenians in Turkey – then it can become socially acceptable for bystanders to remain silent witnesses to discrimination and then abuse. This behavior, in turn, can condition complacency and complicity in the face of increasingly brutal offenses against members of the outcast group. And if other cultural, economic, and political factors are present – in particular, authoritarian leadership combined with economic hard times, a sense of nationalistic superiority and a need for scapegoats – then the stage can become set for the worst tragedy of all: the evolution, step by step, from legalized discrimination to sporadic violence, then to carefully organized terror and, finally, mass murder.

For Staub, evolution is the key word. Most people will be more inclined to perform a larger favor having agreed to a smaller one, he points out; but along the dark, reverse side of that continuum, one act of violence heaped upon another also can lead to more brutal ones. Then, seeking to explain, justify and distance themselves from these acts, silent bystanders and perpetrators alike begin to adopt a circular reasoning decreeing that the outcast group must be less than human – or else why are they receiving treatment that no human could deserve?

Throughout, Staub demonstrates the important role bystanders play. The lack of world protest in the wake of the Armenian massacres, he points out, taught Hitler he could count on similar silence when he began his systematic destruction of European Jewry. By contrast, when bystanders don’t just stand there, a different example is set. For example, Jimmy Carter’s outspoken human rights policy succeeded finally in easing repression in many South American countries.

Staub concludes by proposing an idealistic program to protect against the possibility of future horrors by inculcating altruism, nurturing and caring from an early age through volunteer, community and other pro bono work.

Some of Staub’s suggestions are admittedly utopian, but if only one part of his program for “caring, connection, and non-aggression” were put into practice, we actually might begin to see the kinder, gentler America George Bush proposed. If you’re still interested, Mr. President, Ervin Staub’s study is a very good place to begin.

COPYRIGHT 1989 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group