Growing up, i have always wondered how the world stood by and watched mass genocides like the Holocaust, Bosnia or the Armenians. How can there still be countries living under apartheid in the 21st century? How can people who are blatantly racist with crazy ideologies garner so many supporters? What is it that allows ordinary people to be coaxed into thinking that getting rid of an entire group of people is alright?

Last week in Hong Kong, i bought a book – The Sociopath Next Door. Written by clinical psychologist, Martha Stout Ph.d, who reveals a startling fact that 1 in 25 people are sociopaths. That’s 4% of our population who are utterly void of conscience and can literally do anything to anyone at all without shame, fear, guilt or remorse.

The book discusses a wide range of things not just specific to sociopathy itself but the entire psychology behind why people like you and me do the things we do and the role of conscience in our world. One particular excerpt of the book however felt like i was reading the holy book on humans – the revelation of how someone is able to do something so unbelievably cruel, have the masses of people endorsing him and worse, having those who support him, convinced that they are absolutely right. And i was compelled to share it with as many people as possible.

Moral Exclusion

“Each year on the 4th of July, the little seaside of New England town where i live lights a three-story celebratory bonfire on the beach. Pallets of dry wood are nailed together and artfully stacked on top of one another in a towerlike shape that dominates our quaint landscape for several days before the 4th. The tower is constructed just so, with enough planks of wood and enough airspace for airflow in between that in can be counted on to flame up quickly. It is ignited as darkness falls, with the volunteer fire department standing by, hoses ready, just in case. The atmosphere is festive. The band plays patriotic songs. There are hot dogs and Slurpees and a fireworks display. When the bonfire has burned out completely, the children return to the beach, where the  firemen obligingly drench them with their hoses.

All of this has been a town tradition for 60 years, but not being a big fan of massive fires, i have attended it only once, in 2002, when i was encouraged by my friends. I was amazed by the numbers of people who has somehow pressed themselves into our tiny corner of the Atlantic coastline, some of them from fifty or more miles away, and I jostled with the crowd to find a spot close enough to see the fire, but far enough away not to get my eyebrows singed, or so i thought. I had been warned that once the fire got going, there would be more heat than i could imagine, and it was already a ninety degree day. As the sun began to set, there were hoots and shouts and calls for the tower to be torched, and when flame was finally put to wood, there was a collective gasp. The fire immediately began to engulf the wooden structure like the unstoppable force it was, from the sand upward to the night sky that suddenly blazed. And then came the heat. With the feel of a near-solid object, a wall of unbearable, even frightening superheated air rolled outward from the fire in waves of increasing intensity, taking the crowd by surprise and pushing us away en masse. Each time I thought I was far enough, i had to move back another fifty yards, and then another fifty yards, and then another. My face hurt. I would never have dreamed that a bonfire could make that much heat, not even one that was three stories high.

Once people had retreated to a sufficient distance, a sense of happy fascination returned, and when the ornamental top of the tower was consumed by the fire, the crowd applauded. The ornament at the summit had been built to resemble a little house, and now the house contained a miniature inferno. This and the vague sense of danger and the heat all disturbed me somehow, and i could not seem to share the feeling of the festive occasion. Instead, perversely, I began to think about the reality of the witch burnings in the 16th & 17th centuries, events i have always thought of as incomprehensible, and as hot as i was, i shivered a little. It is one thing to read about a fire large enough to execute a human being. It is another to stand in front of such a fire, along with an excited, hooting crowd. The sinister historical associations would not leave me, and stubbornly kept me from taking any delight in the moment.

I wondered: How had the witch burnings happened? How could such nightmares have been real? Ever the psychologist, i looked around at the people. Clearly, these were not bewildered Basque refugees in 1610, frantically searching for diabolists to burn. Here we were, a crowd of new-millennium, peace-loving, non-hysterical citizens, unscarred by hardship or menacing superstition. There was no blood lust here, or subjugation of conscience. There was laughter and neighbourly feeling. We were eating hot dogs and drinking Slurpees and celebrating Independence Day. We were not a heartless, amoral mob, and we would by no means have rallied around a murder, let alone the staging of torture. If by some bizarre reality warp there had suddenly been a human figure writhing in those colossal flames, only the anonymous handful of sociopaths among us would have been unaffected and or perhaps entertained. Of the rest, a few good people would have stayed in paralysed disbelief, a number of especially courageous people would have tried o intervene, and most of the crowd would have fled in understandable terror. And the once-cheerful bonfire would have become a traumatic image seared into all of our brains for the rest of our lives.

But what if the burning human had been Abu Bakr al Baghdadi – the leader of ISIS? How would this crowd have reacted if suddenly confronted with the public execution of the person identified as the world’s most despicable villain? Would these normally conscience-bound, churchgoing, nonviolent people have stood by and allowed it? Might there have been enthusiasm, or at least acquiescence, rather than nausea and horror at the spectacle of a human being dying in agony?

Standing there among all those good people, I suddenly realised that the reaction might have been something less than horror, simply because Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is not a human being in our view. He is Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and as such, to borrow an expression from Ervin Staub in The Roots of Evil, has been completely “excluded from our moral universe.” The interventions of conscience no longer apply to him. He is not human. He is an it. And unfortunately, this transformation of a man into an it makes him scarier as well.

Sometimes people appear to deserve our moral exclusion of them, as terrorists appear to do. Other examples of its are war criminals, child abductors and serial killers, and in each of these cases, a considered argument can be (and has been) made, rightly or wrongly, that certain right to compassionate treatment have been forfeited. But in most cases, our tendency to reduce people to non-beings is neither considered nor conscious, and throughout history our proclivity to dehumanize has too often been turned against the essentially innocent. The list of out groups that some portion of humankind has at one time or another demoted to the status of hardly even human is extremely long and, ironically, includes categories for nearly every one of us: blacks, gays, Muslims, Israelis, Palestinians, Native Americans, Shias, capitalists, Serbs, Hutus, the Irish, the Tamils, the poor, the rich – to name but a few.

And once the other group has been populated by its, anything goes, especially if someone in authority gives the order. Conscience is no longer necessary, because conscience binds us to other beings and not to its. Conscience still exists, may even be very exacting, but it applies only to my countrymen, my friends, and my children, not yours. You are excluded from my moral universe, and with impunity- maybe even praise from others in my group- i can now drive you from your home, or shoot your family or burn you alive.”

This was written in 2 parts simply to make reading easier. In the original excerpt, Osama bin Laden was used as an example instead of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. The change was to make it more current and relatable for everyone. Part 2 of this excerpt basically answers the questions posed below.

PART II (Preview)- There are leaders who can bring members of a frightened society to see the its as the sole impediment to the good life, for themselves and maybe even humanity as a whole and the conflict as an epic battle between good and evil. Once this beliefs have been disseminated, crushing the its without pity or conscience can, with chilling ease, become an incontrovertible mandate. The recurrence throughout history of this type of leader raises a long list of dumbfounding questions. Why does the human race tolerate this sorrowful story over and over, like a mindless broken record? Why do we continue to allow leaders who are motivated by self-interest, or by their own psychological issues in the past, to fan bitterness and political crisis into armed confrontation and war? In the worst instances, why do we let such leaders run the show and play games of dominance with other people’s lives? What becomes of our individual consciences?

Why do we not stand up for what we feel? 

Excerpt from ‘The Sociopath Next Door’ – Martha Stout


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