The Ugliest Duckling

Recently I had the good fortune to attend a book talk by Dutch sociologist Abram De Swaan (born January 8, 1942). The topic was one that many people would find disquieting, perhaps distasteful, or even repellent: the “modern” phenomenon of mass murder.  But American mass media wouldn’t be very interested in his message, because Mynheer De Swaan isn’t studying mere penny ante schoolhouse slaughter like Sandy Hook or Columbine.  Instead, his attention is focused on organized, large-scale atrocities perpetrated by armed political movements or government regimes, mostly in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.  Rwanda. Cambodia. Bosnia. The Final Solution. The Cultural Revolution. The Soviet Purges. And so on.  These episodes have generally occurred in the context of widespread social upheaval and generally at the instigation of a regime or state.


De Swaan recommends approaching the mass murder phenomenon while bearing in mind (at least) four levels of social analysis:

  • long-term, perhaps dormant, trends in social transformation occurring at the time
  • political movements and state policies
  • interpersonal interactions in everyday social life
  • psychological/sociological patterns of individual interior “life-of-the-mind”

From this perspective, the groundwork for future atrocity is laid when latent social tensions are redefined by political actors to

  • accentuate social differences and divisions,
  • demarcate boundaries of “compartmentalized” social categories,
  • enact physical/spatial separation of these newly defined social fragments,
  • and accelerate psychological processes of self-identification, projection, internalization, fervent “othering” (and so on) within increasing numbers of the citizenry.

Once these ideological/political projects have achieved an as-yet-undefined level of cultural ubiquity within society, mass murder and atrocity become not only possible, but perhaps likely.

Just to keep the scorecard tidy, De Swaan has proposed four principal categories of mass murder:

  • the victor’s frenzy [ Sri Lanka, Japanese Imperial Army after the conquest of Nanking, etc. ]
  • regime by terror [ Soviet Purges, Cultural Revolution, Khmer Rouge, Hussein Iraq, Assad Syria ]
  • the loser’s triumph [ 3rd Reich after 1942 ]
  • pogrom [ Armenia, 1948 India, Rwanda, Bosnia ]

He’s willing to consider two other possible candidates for mass murder:

  • intentional famine [ is he thinking of Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China and Kim’s North Korea? ]
  • air war: “strategic” bombing campaigns [ is he thinking of Germany unto Britain, USA/UK unto Germany/Japan, USA unto Iraq, Israel unto Lebanon and Gaza? ]


However, even with such a neat academic typology, mass murder is a messy business.  When confronted with gory horror of truly massive casualty figures, a common human reaction often seems to be one of incomprehension: “How could people do such a thing to their fellows?”  This question is exactly the starting point for the many researchers who have previously examined cases of attempted genocide, mass extermination, and wholesale slaughter.  De Swaan has reviewed the existing academic literature (such as it is) and found it lacking.

The initial wave of research in the 1950’s (understandably) concentrated on the notorious German case (then quite recent) and reached the comforting but none-too-rigorous conclusion that these “evil deeds” were perpetrated by evil men, or at the very least by men in the tenacious grip of “evil”.  Such men must be monsters, and as monsters must be eradicated.  Thus, the Nuremberg trials.  But De Swaan notes that this analysis relies heavily on the concept of “evil” without adequately exploring the full dimensions of what “evil” is understood to be.  Despite the fact that the term “evil” –in the European cultural context– is heavily freighted with a nebulous range of religious and moral meanings, early writers on the topic of mass murder generally limited themselves to defining “evil” as encompassing the perpetrators’ use of intensely cruel and painful methods of torture and killing on a large scale. This approach left the theological-moral/psychological dimensions of mass murder largely unexplored, and thus failed to adequately explain how nominally Christian people (in the German case) were able to engage in these types of behavior.

Soon enough, researchers came to understand that available evidence contradicted the sweeping claims of the “evil monster” thesis: many of the minor cogs in the vast killing machines were demonstrably less than monstrous, and in fact greatly resembled –and behaved like– the average Johan or Jurgen on the street corner.  They were still guilty, but they weren’t monsters. But what, then?

A decade or so later, thanks to the psychology research of Stanley Milgram and others, a slightly more nuanced view emerged: the claim that “ordinary men do extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances.”  Under social pressure, under conditions of psychological stress, two-thirds of otherwise peaceable, law-abiding citizens may participate in heinously cruel activities.  Guantanamo. Abu Ghraib.  According to this thesis, you or I could well be given a gentle push down the slippery slope … to become torturers and killers.  Ya nevah know…

As a social scientist, De Swaan is still skeptical:  what about all those people –the thirty-three percent– who wouldn’t go along with Milgram’s experimental program of participating in torture unto death?  How are they different from those who join the parade?  For De Swaan, this is still the preeminent open question.  But empirical data about non-participation doesn’t exist, so it’s necessary to look at the question from the opposite point of view.  Until better evidence becomes available, De Swaan has proposed what he calls a tentative conjecture about the types of people who do participate, drawn from psychological studies of former low-level German functionaries conducted after WWII. What type of person allows himself to become involved in situations where mass murder occurs?  According to De Swaan, many of these men exhibited a set of characteristics that may be related to their participation in mass murder. They were:

  • obedient
  • loyal
  • highly devoted to their families
  • low in their sense of personal agency
  • low in empathy

The gloss above, the earth below.

Reflecting on the personal traits summarized by De Swaan, I was first of all struck by the observation that low agency and obedience are not merely present in these men by simple coincidence –they’re mutually reinforcing states of mind.  If you have a low sense of personal agency, you may well be more inclined to follow the lead of someone else.  But secondly, I was intrigued by De Swaan’s portrayal of these vanquished German warriors as devoted family men.  On the one hand it seems entirely plausible that men of a defeated nation would retreat from public engagement into refuge in intimate family life, but there’s also a much more significant dimension of this mundane observation … hiding in plain sight.  Obedience, deference, loyalty, surrender of personal agency and emphasis on the nuclear family are –in Europe and beyond–  all features of patriarchal culture and ideology.  Time for a causal loop diagram.


So then, could it be that men more deeply invested in patriarchy –with identities and self-perceptions strongly centered on their roles as fathers and patriarchs– are somehow more likely to become participants in organized mass murder when the occasion arises?  More likely to be obedient? More likely to defer? More likely to outsource personal agency to their “superior” in the social hierarchy?

In this context, perhaps it is intensely relevant that patriarchy’s stratified edifice rests on a simple, secret, almost implicit bargain: in exchange for obedient deference to the authority of the state, employer and social patron, patriarchy promises the lowly man a virtually unlimited dominion over his wife and children.  In return for the personal agency he surrenders in the workplace and polis, the petty patriarch is thus enfeoffed to be master of all he surveys within the walls of his domicile.  Were he alive today, renowned patriarch John Dalberg-Acton would undoubtedly take this occasion to remind us that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even at the nanoscale of an otherwise insignificant individual household within a much vaster society.

Should we then consider the possibility that the system and culture of patriarchy itself inexorably contains the seeds of mass murder?  Or should we instead, based on these indications, infer the persistent presence of repeatedly replicated social groups –networks of like-minded men– which use the techniques and mechanisms of patriarchy to maintain a privileged status within society and thereby command a correspondingly disproportionate share of social resources?  Perhaps these are men who are willing to deploy patriarchy’s fundamental tools of coercion and domination to their logical limit: the extinction of human life itself.

Reflect deeply upon this.  It needn’t be a binary choice.



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