On a piece posted here yesterday, I received some excellent comments which clearly call for me to go beyond the somewhat simplistic argument I made in that little essay.
My argument was, in brief, that there's a big contrast between the rather large presence of "monsters" among the people who have made the biggest impact on history, and the paucity of monsters among the human population generally, as reflected in the people we know personally.
The purpose of making this observation was to bolster two points that grow out of my theory of social evolution (The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, University of California Press, 1984):
1) The record of human history is NOT a reflection of the basic nature of human beings, and that thereforeI thought my simple thought experiment would serve to dramatize that something distortive is going on, and thus open people to the possibility that those two points might be right.
2) We, humankind, should know that we have it in us to create a far more humane, just, viable and beautiful civilization than what we see in the world around us now.
Some comments pointed to weaknesses in the contrast I was drawing. Illustrative of these is one from chaszer, who wrote:
Using the german example, many "good" people staffed concentration camps, even more good people knew the camps existed. How many good neighbors looted the homes of their once jewish friends, or turned in someone.The point about ordinary Germans (and Rwandans, mentioned in a comment by entlord) doing terrible things is an important one. I'm familiar also with the Milgram experiments (inflicting apparent electric shocks on others, when ordered to do so).
We have the experiments that have been done as to how easily students will start giving other students electric shocks, or how the role of prisoner and guard quickly starts being abusive.
Its not that the monsters aren't there. Social chains keep them in check...
But I'd make a distinction between people who instigate monstrous actions, and those who can be led into them. I believe the psychology is rather different.
The Stanford experiment with prison-guard/prisoners, however, raises a more fundamental challenge, because in that situation there's no authority or other outside force to take the place of internal conscience. I might add that in his book Hitler's Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen argues with some strength that the ordinary Germans who helped to perpetrate the Holocaust did not require authority or coercion to drive them to their terrible deeds.
Doubtless there are a lot of people who would behave very badly if they had the power, and the latitude of choices, to let them do as they pleased. Doubtless the number of people in our midst who have it in them to behave as monsters is greater than what we see around us would suggest.
(I've never liked the saying that "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," as I've always thought that the corruption was likely always there, but the power just served to give it room to express itself.)
This point is a real weakness in my previous, simplistic argument about "How Many Monsters Do You Know?" In that piece, I seem to suggest that the pathologies of the system --a system in which the likes of Hitler and Stalin can play such a big role-- leaves the bulk of humankind untouched, unbroken.
But that's not really how I see it.
Let me put add some of other components of my understanding of human destructiveness.
THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES tries to show:
1) that by achieving the breakthrough into civilization, humankind inevitably and unwittingly created a kind of disorder new in the history of life, with nothing to regulate the relations among the new living entities, civilized societies (see this piece);This social evolutionary process over the past five to ten millennia has led to pervasive human brokenness. (The way this happened is the subject of my second book Out of Weakness: Healing the Wounds that Drive Us to War --Bantam Books, 1988.)
2) this disorder made an intersocietal struggle for power inevitable (see this piece); and
3) this struggle for power, combined with open-ended possibilities for cultural innovation, made it inevitable that a social evolutionary process would emerge that selected for the ways of power (see this piece).
The struggle for power, and the selection for power, has wounded human beings in two main ways.
First, civilized societies -- shaped by the requirements of power-- made demands on people that were in many ways counter to human nature and human needs. The human creature, socialized in such societies, is set at war with himself.
Second, the “war of all against all” in the anarchic intersocietal system --which has been the inevitable by-product of emerging out of the biological order and into that intersocietal disorder-- subjected humankind to a nightmarish historical experience, to a degree of trauma that also leads to wounds of the kind that can generate the monstrous. The pattern of brokenness perpetuates itself (as described here).
So yes, I agree that there's a lot of brokenness to be found, even outside of the circle of the Hitler/Stalin/Mao/Saddam group. And while I do believe that human "monsters" are far more represented among the history-makers, than among people generally, I can see that it's possible I should not have ventured to make the contrast so boldly as I did in that piece.