Thursday, December 15, 2011

Kristen Monroe's "Ethics in an Age of Terror and Genocide"

Kristen Monroe’s books include the prize-winning The Heart of Altruism (1996) and The Hand of Compassion (2004). Professor of Political Science and Director of the UC Irvine Interdisciplinary Center for the Scientific Study of Ethics and Morality, Monroe has served as President of the International Society of Political Psychology and has received numerous awards for her work on ethics, political psychology and political science.

Monroe applied the “Page 99 Test” to her most recent book, Ethics in an Age of Terror and Genocide: Identity and Moral Choice, and reported the following:
My book presents interviews with rescuers of Jews, bystanders and Nazi supporters during World War II in order to understand what causes genocide. It finds self-image and identity are critical determinants of our moral choices. How we see ourselves in relation to others defines our choice options, not just morally but cognitively. We all establish a critical relationship with “the other,” either thinking about and classifying people in need as “human beings just like us” or reducing them to strangers seen as different, threatening, or even beyond the boundaries of the community of our concern. Recognizing the political and psychological significance of how we categorize others helped me understand the dehumanization that is a prerequisite for genocidal aggression. I then used this knowledge of genocide during World War II to develop a broader theory of moral choice that applies to other forms of ethnic, religious, racial, and sectarian prejudice, aggression, and violence. In doing so, I realized compassion and identity are more fundamental than religious beliefs or deliberative reasoning processes in the treatment of others. Our ethical acts reflect who we are and how we see ourselves in relation to others.

My Page 99 is actually page 236, which quotes a Czech rescuer who saved over 100 people before landing in concentration camp himself. Otto describes a concentration camp guard telling what it is like to be given an order to kill another human being. This one passage highlights the importance of the moral psychology. It provides a concrete illustration of the link between how we think about others and how we respond to their suffering. Page 236 also suggests why we all need to think about genocide, as painful as it is to do so. If we can understand the psychological process that leads to genocide, presumably we can then stop it. Genocide is not inevitable. It can be prevented.

Page 236:
For rescuers, all people within the boundaries of their community of concern were to be treated the same, and their circle of concern included all human beings. This perception of a shared humanity triggered a sense of relationship to the other that then made the suffering of another a concern for the rescuers. Significantly, this extensivity included Nazis, with the rescuers demonstrating extraordinary forgiveness of Nazis. I believe it is this role of the ethical framework to classify and categorize people and then to work through a cognitive process of moral salience that provides the link between the lack of choice and identity and the variation in our treatment of others.

Ironically, while other scholars have noted the importance of categorization for genocidalists, I first encountered the ethical importance of categorization via conversations with an ethnic German rescuer, whose time in concentration camps provided a contact with the genocidal mentality that was far more intense and personal than any scholarly one:
Otto: I interviewed many SS guards. I was always intrigued by the question: how could seemingly normal people become killers? Once I got an interesting answer. In a camp in Upper Silesia, I asked one of our guards, pointing at the big gun in his holster, “Did you ever use that to kill?” He replied, “Once I had to shoot six Jews. I did not like that at all, but when you get such an order, you have to be hard.” Then he added, “You know, they were not human anymore.” That was the key: dehumanization. You first call your victim names and take away his dignity. You restrict his nourishment and he loses his physical beauty and sometimes some of his moral values. You take away soap and water, then say the Jew stinks. Then you take their human dignity further away by putting them in situations where they even will do such things which are criminal. Then you take food away. When they lose their beauty and health and so on, they are not human anymore. When he’s reduced to a skin-colored skeleton, you have taken away his humanity. It is much easier to kill nonhumans than humans.
Rescuers were quick to note that this phenomenon is not unique to the Holocaust, occurring elsewhere, especially during wars. As Tony (Dutch rescuer) commented: “We have to watch for the old ‘yellow gooks’ mentality. It is much easier to shoot at or burn the ‘yellow gooks’ than to shoot and burn some other farm boy just like yourself.” In contrast, the rescuer categorization process is one in which all people are included in the same category, and because of that, all are treated the same. The power of this was reflected most strikingly in the rescuers’ discussions of the Nazis and in their insistence that genocide’s roots can find fertile soil anywhere; it is not specific to one culture or one country. As Tony put it, “All over the world, there’s a certain attitude. It’s not any one nation. It’s not because they are German.”
Learn more about Ethics in an Age of Terror and Genocide at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue