After Robert Bowers murdered 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, people are looking for explanations. Who would do such a thing? And why? The answers are almost as terrifying as the violence itself. “The most terrifying thing is just how normal he seems,” a neighbour of Bowers told the Associated Press.
Indeed, often “ordinary people” commit these evil deeds. To grasp how extraordinary evils are often committed by apparently ordinary people, we need to take care regarding how we define evil, and most importantly, whom we consider to be the agents of evil.
Hitler was evil, end of story
During my PhD in education, I began to think seriously about how educators might teach issues like war, genocide and systemic racism in ways that produce feelings of agency and responsibility without descending into despair.
In my research with Grade 11 students, I found that different concepts of evil affected how students understood both historical and contemporary events, as well as their own sense of agency.
French theorist Gilles Deleuze argued that language can transform us. Certain words in particular have the thrust of a command because of the assumptions they both tap into and create: He called these order words. I argue that “evil” is an order word. As such, one of many possible effects is that naming someone or something evil can signal the end of very necessary further thought. Why did the Holocaust happen? Because Hitler was evil. End of story.
We need to add more complexity to our reasoning and discussion that leaves room for critical thought and action. When we see evildoers (like Hitler or Bowers) as extraordinary, we cannot see ourselves in those roles. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when we simply attribute change to “society,” then it might be too vague to see ourselves implicated. It can help to rethink who evildoers might be.
“Bigger explosions, better villains”
When we undergo a process I call villainification (making one person the face of a larger evil), we shut down the possibilities to make change ourselves. Part of the reason is that sometimes in history education we seek “bigger explosions, better villains.”
In order to counter this trend, I have been collecting and creating lesson ideas and resources for teachers to address evil as part of a process that many, unfortunately, can contribute to.
When we take a complex situation and blame one individual, we can avoid personal implication while also failing to see similar processes happening now.
If we blame the recent mass murder at the synagogue on Bowers alone, we fail to see the interconnected people and processes that make such a horror possible. To be clear, this does not absolve Bowers of his role, but rather it casts a wider net of responsibility.
Political philosopher Hannah Arendt explored how many who took part in genocide did so by simply doing their jobs thoughtlessly. Just as she explored how ordinary people can contribute to massive harm while denying their personal involvement, the opposite also happens.
We also know that ordinary people can intentionally cause massive harm. According to Ernest Becker otherwise “normal” people, meaning people who are not not psychopaths, can rejoice in harming others.
Becker identifies a process called the fetishization of evil. We handle our fears by localizing them into a single, manageable source. We take all that threatens to overwhelm us and confine it to a group of people, a cause, an ideology or a specific person.
Those in one’s own group are considered “good” while others are dehumanized and viewed as a detriment to our society. We have seen this many times historically, such as the Nazis conceptualizing Jews as infectious vermin.
A disturbing study based on Becker’s ideas found that subjects experience relief from existential anxiety when they learn those seen as “worldview violators” were killed.
There is evidence that Bowers had fetishized evil. He had posted on chat site Gab.com about a Maryland-based non-profit that helps refugees (HIAS).
He stated that HIAS brings in refugees who are “invaders” that “kill our people.” Based on a distorted view of how to annihilate a threat, he decided to intervene with violence: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in,” he wrote.
We need to talk with students in ways that foster the process of thinking in a public sense: That means thinking independently from authority, but interconnected with others. Fetishization of evil distorts that capacity.
Monster vs. racist uncle
I hope to encourage educators, curriculum designers, and textbook authors and editors to think about whether classroom resources and practices exacerbate or complicate the politics of evil.
Let’s change how we think about villains like Hitler: Think of them less as extraordinary monsters and more like our racist uncle who says appalling things at Thanksgiving supper.
And let’s view mass murderers like Bowers as part of a larger xenophobic, anti-Semitic, hypermasculine and racist system.
Let’s see evil as ordinary, and ourselves as part of harmful systems and thus take action against hate, instead of thoughtlessly going about our daily lives.
Photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S07227 / CC-BY-SA 3.0