This is the very rough draft version of a chapter I am working on for my own studies. This is an earlier version, so it jumps around a bit, and has some issues with transitions.
Human nature is not greed, sinfulness, or violence, but rather a completely natural evolutionary characteristic that served to keep our species alive since its genesis; namely that we are short-sighted. There are a series of psychological and social mechanisms that have created mass atrocities, environmental destruction, and social ills. However, by seeking these explanations I do not intend to give an excuse to those who participate in these systems or organizations. Instead I want to put them into the light so than we can discuss the purposes our institutions serve, the aims of our economic organization, and the manner in which we go about organizing.
This author will make the case that social and cognitive biases, combined with social constructions, authority, hierarchy, and memory failures creates the opportunity for great evil to occur. It is particularly insidious due to the hidden nature of outcomes, collateral damage, and victims thereby making the agents, actors, and decision makers unaware of the distant cumulative effects their actions and choices. The essential premises of this argument are:
I) there does not currently exist a statistically significant difference in the percent of people who are sociopathic, dangerously abnormal in morals or preferences, or who would willingly cause suffering to others from mental or physical defect, than there has been in modern history;
II) most ‘evil’ events we socially can recall did not happen primarily due to this portion of the population or an undue level of influence of this population;
III) most social and personal ‘evil’ or ‘bad’ outcomes occur in large part, due to the unquestioning willingness of average or ‘normal’ people to participate in systems, institutions, and roles without considering the larger remifications of their actions, or the system-wide effects of these institutions and systemic choices choices;
IV) most of these people still believe they have acted in line with their personal moral code and social ethics;
The main argument of this then is that there is nothing that really seperates the mechanism(s) which enabled historic mass atrocities and genocides and the mechanism(s) by which all modern social ills come about. And that there is nothing that makes most previous perpetrators of historic mass atrocities materially or psychologically different than the average or normal person today (excluding the small percent of the population who are dangerous, pathological, or sociopathic due to mental or physical defect). When confronted with situational and systemic power, human character is transformed. Group pressures, authority symbols, dehumanization of others, imposed anonymity, dominant ideologies enable spurious ends to justify immoral means.
In light of this suggestion, the author would suggest an alternative interpretation to events like the Holocaust, while it is still a horrible example of human carelessness and cruelty, the main lesson to be learned from them is that there is a fundamental flaw in our social and organizational mechanisms that when combined with technology, and the natural biases and falibility of the human mind can quickly produce unthinkable violence and death. This change would mean a recognition of the failings built into all modern social and business institutions, a warieness of vertial authority, hierarchy, dehumanization (both of the self and others through ‘professionalism’), and the ability for modern bureacracy to create horrible unintended consequences. These factors produce or inflame a shortsightedness within individuals which is further reinforced by social and cognitive biases, and surrounded with social contructs.
The suggestion that a complex nexus of structural, social, and logical failings combine to produce a near total blindness in the people who participate in these organizations may seem a wide subject at first; but this paper aims to highlight the one thread which ties together both modern society’s negative consequences and rotten underbelly and history’s most horrid examples of humanity. Within that thread is the main point that nothing makes us different from the average concentration camp guard, or CPA, or mailman. People now, in any country are just as likely to become the agents of terror, inhumanity, and death as were the German people while Hitler was in power. Mind you this is not going to be a simple narrative, a condemnation, or strawman fallacy, but is intended to be a deeply nuanced, and troubling look at post-industrial society and its mechanisms for organization.
Why do bad things happen? Because people are shortsighted is the simple and uninformative answer that is a nutshell of this essay. But why are they shortsighted? This is because people are generally bad at analyzing individual, social, and organizational levels of responsibility for actions and outcomes. This is in part because we lack a first-hand understanding, or a common sensical1 experience of such complex interactions and layers of interaction. Thereby an incommensurately large discrepancy occurs between our conception of an organization or system, effectively destroying the ability to create causal connections in context of actors, actions, and outcomes.
Most thoughts, reactions, reasoning, and decisions are created or take place outside of conscious awareness. Taking place subconsciously, with varying levels of awareness. (Cohen 2002) We form our initial belief/mindset/worldview/mental model outside of rational or logical norms, in a place that mostly remains in the unconscious. Once we form a belief, we will continue to prefer the persistence of that belief even when confronted with thoroughly discrediting evidence. (Cohen 2002) These beliefs are incomplete, bracketing in some information while omitting other information. One can change these models if one is devoted and commits the time and effort needed to change them. (Werhane, 2011)
The social origins of our incomplete mental models create inherent biases from these brackets and omissions. However, we use them because we simply cannot mentally process all that we experience. These models are not fixed, or locked in during early experience. These frameworks are created to simplify the mental processing of reality, but are largely socially constructed, meaning that they are subject to change. When exposed to situations that do not fit a learned pattern, people tend to misapply their existing mental models in order to create a narrative that makes them feel comfortable. But this clouds any potential judgment they make regarding the non-conforming situation, while still allowing them to believe they have remained true to their convictions. Pattern recognition (looking at mental models and matching them to other situations) is used to apply our mental models/stereotypes/worldview/beliefs to make decisions and simplify our thought processes. However, pattern recognition only can lead to accurate decisions when all context and situational factors are identical.
We cannot shelve the Holocaust, terrorism, and other mass atrocities into a “special interests” section of our collective and academic memories without losing the valuable insights that they can teach us about how to prevent environmental, societal, economic, and human destruction. While the truths are indeed disturbing we cannot ignore the value and potential for action they hold if we but have the courage to honestly inspect our society, world, and selves. Every political, economic, and sociocultural tradition has one thing in common, the propensity for degradation, destruction, and violence both fast and slow to other people, the environment, and a disregard for the harms they have created. The extremity and inhumanity of the Holocaust is more than a sad example of brutality directed at Jews and social dissidents. Rather is shows an ugly and thus far largely ignored aspect present in every human being. This darkness of nature, the cases of exploitation, death, suffering, degradation, genocide, terror, socioeconomic injustice is the hidden possibility of post-industrial organization. We don’t wish to acknowledge the truth of it, partially because we lack the knowledge of how to prevent or correct it.
1Earliest use found in works by Samuel Pratt (1749–1814).