For decades, I’ve investigated and promoted nonviolent action as a means to help create a better world. Although there are signs of hope, the obstacles remain enormous. For example, military systems seem as powerful as ever, and nationalism is not fading away. The capacity of humans to harm each other and the environment is frightening. Just think of child soldiers, torture and climate change.
Because the problems seem so huge, I’ve long been on the lookout for insights about what activists are up against, including deeply rooted driving forces. Recently, I made contact with Steven James Bartlett, a philosopher and psychologist who has spent his career investigating dysfunctional features of the thought and behavior of “normal” humans. One of his books, “The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil,” offers startling assessments that I think are relevant to nonviolence.
“The Pathology of Man,” which came out in 2005, is the result of a decade’s immersion in writings and research related to human evil. To be clear, the word “man” in the title refers to the human species, not just males, and — in addressing evil — Bartlett develops a scientific rather than a religious definition. For him, evil refers to the human capacity to harm and destroy other humans, as well as other species and the environment, which supports all life.
“The Pathology of Man” is a mammoth work, addressing a wide range of writings and evidence relating to human psychology and behavior. Bartlett examines the ideas of psychiatrists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, the work of mathematician and peace researcher Lewis Fry Richardson, the observations of ethologist Konrad Lorenz, and many others who are less well known today. He examines evidence from genocide (especially the Holocaust), war, terrorism and ecological destruction.
Bartlett’s conclusion is stark and disturbing. He says humans are pathogenic, namely destructively harmful, towards themselves as well as the environment. The pathological features of human behavior and thinking enable violence, cruelty and ecological destruction.
Reading through the extensive evidence and careful arguments in “The Pathology of Man,” I decided Bartlett’s ideas deserve greater attention. The book did not have a big impact when it was published over a decade ago, in part because its message is so disturbing. Yet, to be more effective in bringing about positive change, it is valuable to understand the dark side of the human species. Inspired by Bartlett’s study of evil, I offer here some insights relevant to nonviolent campaigners.
Lessons from the Holocaust
The Holocaust was not the deadliest or the quickest genocide, but it is the best documented. It is useful to remember that Germany in the 1930s and 1940s was one of the most “civilized” cultures in the world, with advanced technologies and leading artists and intellectuals.
It seems that, in Nazi Germany, to actively resist evil was to be different from the norm.
Bartlett examines evidence about the psychology of people in Germany during the genocide, looking at five groups: leaders, doctors, bystanders, refusers and resisters. Nazi leaders engineered the Holocaust, yet despite overseeing horrific deeds, most of them were psychologically normal. Likewise, most of the doctors involved in the genocide were psychologically normal — in fact, many were model citizens in their home life. Bystanders were those Germans who knew about the killings but did nothing. They constituted the majority of the population, with the same psychological diversity.
Then there were refusers. When men were called up to join killing squads, they could decline to participate, and there were few penalties for opting out. Yet most of these raw recruits decided to remain, seemingly preferring conformity in killing over nonconformity in refusing. Finally, there were resisters — those who actively opposed the genocide. They were a small minority.
Bartlett’s conclusion from this, and much other evidence, is that most of those who participate in or tolerate evil are psychologically normal. It seems that, in Nazi Germany, to actively resist evil was to be different from the norm.
Hannah Arendt, in writing about Nazi Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann, famously introduced the concept of the banality of evil. Bartlett says the problem is broader than this, and has referred to “the evil of banality.”
Mass murder, according to Bartlett, draws on the satisfaction humans derive from killing others. This is connected to the psychological process of projection, in which negative aspects of one’s own psyche are denied and instead attributed to others, who then may be attacked. In collective violence, projection is allied to the human urge to conform to the in-group. The out-group, or the enemy, becomes the embodiment of evil and is seen as deserving extreme adverse treatment, while the in-group is seen as innocent, and being part of it is satisfying.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman raises a noteworthy counter-argument in his 1995 book “On Killing.” He points to a military study that found most U.S. soldiers on the front lines during World War II did not fire their rifles at the enemy, even when their lives were in danger. Grossman found evidence from many earlier wars of the same reluctance to kill, concluding that there is “within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man.” This applies especially in front-line combat — killing at a distance, for example by using artillery or aerial bombing, generates far less revulsion.
Furthermore, as Bartlett notes, Grossman reported that the U.S. Army developed new training techniques using operant conditioning that ensure that nearly all soldiers kill, leading to a dramatic increase in the rate of PTSD among veterans. Many of these methods — such as playing violent video games that associate killing with pleasure — are widely used throughout U.S. society, influencing children and adults.
War as a ‘functional pathology’
Bartlett cites ample evidence that most of those who participate in and support war are normal. His observations highlight features of human emotions and social systems that may be familiar to peace activists but are revealing when placed in the context of a study of evil.
War is like a disease that most people don’t want to cure because it provides great psychological satisfactions.
As well as examining the psychological factors that enable war, Bartlett also looks at the factors that restrain people from resisting war. His conclusion is that wars, and war-making, continue because most people choose not to do anything differently. For example, consider the wars in Afghanistan over several decades, at least since the Soviet invasion in 1979. Since then, most people in the countries involved — including Pakistan, the Soviet Union, the United States, the United Kingdom and many others — have not made special efforts to stop the war-making. Most continue in their usual roles: only a few engage in agitation against the war.
Bartlett observes that “If men and women were desirous of peace, they would invest significant resources to further the causes of peace, but hardly a country in the world reserves a significant part of its national budget to study ways to foster peace.” To this might be added that budgets for the military are enormous, while there is only minuscule funding for nonviolent action. Few people pay much attention to military budgets or spend time exploring nonviolent alternatives. It is this very complacency that enables the evil of war systems to continue.
Bartlett’s conclusion is that war is a “functional pathology.” In other words, it is like a disease that most people don’t want to cure because, when it flares up, it provides great psychological satisfactions. For soldiers, there is an intense experience of bonding, so strong that many remember combat as the most meaningful part of their lives. For those on the home front, war can provide meaning too. Being part of the cause puts humdrum daily life into the shadows, replacing it with something more dramatic and urgent.
Peace activists have long had to deal with the power of patriotism. It is a psychological force seemingly immune to rational argument, and the label “unpatriotic” is the ultimate insult. Patriotism provides a way of merging with the whole, of relinquishing one’s own responsibility and putting one’s trust in a greater power. The attachment of patriotism to organized violence is one of the major psychological obstacles to ending war.
For most people, vicarious experiences of violence provide satisfaction, including violent video games, war movies, violent sporting events and even the daily news. Most people are willing to watch lethal violence, finding it thrilling or satisfying, especially when the baddies are the ones being hurt. Few are so repelled that they have to look away. Fictional portrayals of violence, from cartoons to murder mysteries, are seen as exciting and enticing, not repulsive.
What is it about humans that enables the rise and perpetuation of institutions that harness and amplify some of the worst sides of human behavior and thinking?
War provides an escape from everyday morality. Religious leaders preach about the sanctity of life, but few do much to resist the war system, revealing how moral principles can be compromised to enable preparation for mass violence. Bartlett concludes that war “is one of the most evident expressions of human evil” because it causes enormous harm, provides justification for killing without penalty, suspends compassion, fosters hatred and cruelty, and is a source of meaning and gratification.
It has been argued that — especially prior to the development of agriculture and industry — many human societies have shown the capacity for living in harmony with each other and the environment. So is human destructiveness primarily a result of current social institutions, including states, militaries and massive corporations?
Bartlett recognizes that there are numerous examples showing that humans have the capacity to do good. His argument is that there is also a widespread capacity for evil. Some social institutions, such as the military, seem designed to harness and facilitate that capacity. So it might be asked, what is it about humans that enables the rise and perpetuation of institutions that harness and amplify some of the worst sides of human behavior and thinking?
No ready alternative or simple fix?
Bartlett does not propose any solutions to the problem of human evil, in part because he does not want to provide false hope. Indeed, provocatively, he argues that hope is part of the problem because it causes people to avoid acknowledging the immensity of the challenge.
The central lesson from Bartlett’s study is that the capacity for cruelty and violence is deeply rooted in human thinking and feeling. War and violence provide many deep satisfactions to people who are psychologically normal, and there is no ready alternative. No simple fix, not even the promotion of nonviolent action, is likely to be effective in the short run.
In the early 1980s, when I first became involved in a group advocating nonviolent alternatives to the military, I imagined that significant progress was possible, even recognizing that social institutions are highly entrenched. Today, despite the efforts of many dedicated campaigners, the military seems just as widely accepted and alternatives just as far away.
To a large extent, acceptance of systems based on violence is widespread due to indoctrination, including thinking of the world as necessarily divided into countries, each with a central government that uses force to maintain power. The indoctrination includes acceptance, and often passion, for overcoming those designated as enemies. Also important is the constant attention to violence in news and entertainment.
Those who make efforts against systems of evil may need to be psychologically different from the norm by being morally intelligent.
To foster development of different attitudes and values, there are several possibilities. One is interventions to create a different media environment, one that counters nationalism, domination over nature, enemy-creation and violence as the solution. There have been many worthwhile initiatives, but the challenge of creating full-scale alternatives — from child rearing to rituals honoring contributions to society — is immense.
One lesson from history is that persuading people that war and violence are bad is inadequate. Knowledge and logic are not enough. If they were, the horrors of war, and the devastation of a future nuclear war, would be more than adequate to impel masses of people to join peace movements. Warning people that nuclear war could annihilate much of the world’s population should be all it takes. However, despite warnings since the early 1980s that nuclear war could trigger a globally devastating “nuclear winter,” most people take no special action against nuclear arsenals.
Awareness of the damaging effects of violence is not enough to turn more than a few people towards a rejection of violence. The implication, following Bartlett’s analysis, is that those who make efforts against systems of evil may need to be different from the norm via greater moral intelligence. Beyond distinguishing right from wrong, this means having the capacity to link reason and emotion to enable doing good. Morally intelligent people need to be able to act against oppressive authorities rather than going along with the crowd. They need to be willing to stand up to persecution.
Rather than just telling people about nonviolence, it may be more effective to show them through actions. Activists have long known that participation in social action is a powerful way to forge commitment. Social movement scholars have shown that more people join action groups by being invited along by a current member than by moral outrage. Essentially, this is to rely on the common human urge to join with others. This is fine, but insufficient, because systems based on violence, such as the military, use the same techniques and have far more resources to deploy them.
Schools promote intellectual development, but there is no institution systematically helping people to achieve the most advanced forms of moral development — ones that involve seeing beyond self-interest, attachments to organizations and countries and our species. The challenge for nonviolence supporters is to help develop forms of learning through practice that foster moral development. For example, it would be useful to study whether extensive training and practice in nonviolent action causes participants, in other circumstances, to become more compassionate to humans and nature.
What can be done to counter the satisfactions many humans gain from participating directly or vicariously in violence, and the willingness of most humans to tolerate the existence of social and technological systems designed to cause death and destruction? Almost certainly, nonviolence is part of the answer. Participating in nonviolent actions can provide powerful psychological satisfactions and may be an alternative to the appeal of violence. However, despite the dedication and sacrifice by millions of people over the years, there has not yet been a mass shift in commitments to reject violent systems in favor of nonviolent action.
Nonviolent strategists emphasize the importance of innovation, of testing out new methods of struggle. To this should be added a wider search for innovative methods of broadening participation in challenges to human evil and the systems built on it.
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If I may make a small contribution to this very important debate by posing the question: Why do we have wars? I will offer a few conclusions of my own. Power (manifested as interest) has been present in every conflict of the past – no exception. It is the underlying motivation for war. Other cultural factors might change, but not power. Interest cuts across all apparently unifying principles: family, kin, nation, religion, ideology, politics – everything. We unite with the enemies of our principles, because that is what serves our interest. It is power, not any of the above concepts, that is the cause of war. As a result – this applies throughout history but is most relevant in the nuclear age – every civilization/nation eventually gets the war it is trying to avoid: utter defeat; showing the ultimate obsolescence of nuclear deterrence doctrine. Leaders and decision-makers delude themselves, thinking they can avoid that fateful war. But history always proves them wrong. On the evidence, we are heading for nuclear war.
Thanks Brian. Giving more attention to satisfying psychological needs and creating a culture that nurtures nonviolent action is something that educators, organisers and activists can integrate into their activities and practice. I think Bartlett is right. Overcoming violence is an immense challenge. Without a deeper sense of hope or possibility – not sure if this is the right word – it is difficult to continue.
There are institutions in place to train us in non violence. They are called faith based.They are churches,synagogues mosques, temples. Tap into something already existing and make it more relevant and meaningful. This could truly change the world. Hey, wasn’t that the intent all along?
For the most “innovative methods of broadening participation in challenges to human evil and the systems built on it.”
Start here: http://www.energon.org.uk
“a military study that found most U.S. soldiers on the front lines during World War II did not fire their rifles at the enemy, even when their lives were in danger”
Some years ago, I was asking my father about his experiences in WWII. As a radio operator on a destroyer, he had occasion to actually fire on the enemy only one time (during the invasion of North Africa, as a member of a deck gun crew).
This was 40 years after the event, but he stopped and tears came into his eyes. “I hope we didn’t hurt anybody.” he said, after a while.
In education circles, we speak of “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset.” A fixed mindset says, for example, “Slavery exists now, so it will always exist.” A growth mindset says, “We can teach ourselves, and our misguided sisters and brothers, a better way.”
In a great book called “Living Beyond War,” Winslow Myers reminds us of our tendency to look backward at things like legal slavery, and wonder “how we could be so horrible,” rather than how incredible it is that we changed. Nowhere on Earth is slavery legal today, while it was a pillar of human life for millennia. Before slavery was outlawed worldwide, it’s unlikely someone could’ve written a book showing “by the existing evidence” a case that slavery could someday be outlawed–yet it was.
Advances like Unarmed Civilian Protection (UCP) bring effective, nonviolent ways to stop violent conflicts. If scaled up, unarmed methods may even bring an end to war altogether. The U.N. has already recognized UCP as an alternative to armed actions, so it’s not just “flower people” who think it can work. 🙂
Once enough people see constructive conflict resolution works better than destructive conflict resolution, public opinion may shift, as it did against legal slavery. A day may soon arrive when enrollment in UCP groups outpaces enrollments in militaries. Think what books we’ll write then!
I would like to add to your bibliography if I may. In my opinion any discussion of human destructiveness must include a thorough study of the following:
Gil Bailie: Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads. NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1995.
Bailie’s book is about the French scholar Rene Girard whose theories have had a wide impact in the field.
Riane Eisler: The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1987.
Eisler is an multi-disciplinary scholar who coined the term “Domination System,” and contrasted it with “Partnership Systems.” Her anthropological studies led her to conclude that human aggression emerges decisively between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago with the rise of city-states. Prior to then, human social organization thrived in “partnership” systems quite peacefully for many thousands of years.
James Gilligan: Preventing Violence. NY: Thames and Hudson, 2001.
Gilligan is a psychologist who has worked in the Massachusetts prison system with some of the country’s most violent criminals. He draws some remarkable, and hopeful, conclusions about the nature of human aggression.
Michael Nagler: Is There No Other Way?: The Search for a Nonviolent Future. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Hills Books, 2001.
Nagler’s book is a thorough resource. Among many gems, here is this: “UNESCO convened a seminar of some of the world’s most distinguished behavioral scientists to make a public statement on innate aggression. Unheralded, but crucial, the resulting ‘Declaration of Seville,’ released in 1986, pilloried the popular view that a complex behavior like human aggression could be programmed by our genes and was therefore ineradicable.” (p. 63)
William Ury: The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop. NY: Penguin Books, 2000.
Ury also cites the Marshall study that Lt. Grossman cites in his work. He makes a strong case that there is a powerful human drive not to kill other humans, a resistance to killing that must be vigorously overcome in the training of soldiers.
Walter Wink: Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992.
Wink was a New Testament scholar who was also steeped in the study of strategic nonviolence and depth (Jungian) psychology. I believe he was one of the most important theologians of the 20th century. Please don’t exclude religious scholars from your study. If you read nothing else, you must read this book.
There are many more exceptional resources, of course, but these have been critical and life changing for me in my over 40 years of study in nonviolence, depth psychology, and theology. I continue to teach and practice in each of these disciplines because I believe that no single one is sufficient. Together these disciplines are conversation partners in a journey toward a transformation of both culture and consciousness.
Can we make peace/non-violence profitable? Then I think we have a chance. If we can show that a small community airport would be more profitable to a city as a solar farm than it is as an airport, then we have a chance at saving surrounding wetlands from paving and the ensuing destruction of wetlands, wildlife habitat, clean air and clean water producing flora, and other things on which this (the human) species depends, while reducing noise pollution, air pollution and other toxic elements that over time just destroy this (the human) species. But those things also help make some rich. So those rich will support the airport and try to win over as many as they can to support that cause, even if it is killing them. If the solar farm is going to make more money, those same people will immediately flip to supporting the solar farm. It’s as basic as Pavlov. This is, unfortunately, The American Way.
Read and study, meditate Rudolf Steiner. He speaks about the evil. More than one “evil” . And he speaks about Christ, the only way out of the chaos. Not the Christ of the traditional Church. Do not oversee him. Rudolf Steiner is much, much more important than all this books. We have to change within. Beginning with our thinking. We have to leave our materialistic “thinking”. We have to take much, much more serious Rudolf Steiner. We have to take much, much more serious Christ.
I think Christopher Zurcher makes a very good point but I would express it as showing that war/violence is unprofitable: we can no longer afford the environmental degradation they cause and I believe people will realise that we urgently need to divert the money being spent on them to preventing climate change and environmental destruction.
Brilliant. This needs sharing widely.
Just realised that no mention had been made of restorative justice, surely part of this process?
I remember when I was young how optimistic I was that war would soon be abolished. Now over 70, I am extremely pessimistic about the future of the human race. Recent election results show how so many of us prefer the candidate who lies, who threatens, and whips up hatred of others. And we haven’t even mentioned climate change! As a peace activist with over 50 years of involvement, I have to say that peace movements have been total failures. Solutions? I have none.
In my opinion it does not take an exceptional mind to see why there is so much hate and violence in the world. To begin, you mentioned the Holocaust. What caused Hitler’s thinking and why was it so easy to convince ten million soldiers too eliminate the Jewish population to make the planet a better place?
When Hitler began his government leadership role he had committee meetings with his cabinet of political advisors where he discussed strategy and remedies in governing in his many monologues. These meetings were recorded and later translated into 3 languages and published in a book entitled “Hitler’s Table Talk 1941-1944” by Hugh Redwald Trevor Roper ISBN-13: 978-1929631056.
In those talks Hitler stated, “Jews deserve to be hanged on gallows, seven times higher than ordinary thieves.” What caused this statement and why did his committee and soldiers so eagerly agree? In the Catholic Good Friday Liturgy there were passages that stated the Jews were a “Perfidious people”. Perfidious means deceitful and untrustworthy. That statement was the result of many Old Testament verses.
In 1959 Pope John XXIII noticed the connection between the Liturgy and Hitlers actions and had those hateful statements about the Jews removed.
Hitler was a Catholic alter boy in Austria and his cabinet was made up of mostly Catholics. So to me it is more than obvious that he felt he was making the world a better place in his effort to delete the obvious human problems. When a person’s faith is ingrained in their psyche from a young age it becomes tattooed on the inside of their skin and it is extremely difficult to act contrary to those beliefs.
Another fact is that Pope Pius had many Jew hating statements removed from the Catholic Cannon and other readings due to the growing hateful attitude toward Jews in the middle ages.
From the biblical perspective it is easy to see the most likely genesis for misogyny, slavery and other biblical based hate crimes.
The Bible also has ingrained in the human psyche the fact that humans have been evicted from the garden of Eden and are in fact doomed to a life of hard work, pain and unhappiness; and the only way to enter the pearly gates is to follow the good book. Contained in the constitution of the U.S. is stated the “pursuit of happiness.” Someone who is taught a life of terminal discontentment must continuously pursue their flavor of happiness. If anyone appears to threaten this quest they have some version of violence on their hands.
This my friends is why hateful violence is the true pathology on man.