Genocide and Evil

Is genocide evil? Most of us say so. The Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, and similar atrocities are today thought of as exemplars of extreme evil. And as extreme evil, genocide may appear as mysterious and incomprehensible as extreme goodness and self-sacrifice. A popular book on the Rwandan genocide quotes survivors who described the killings as “more than wickedness” and as “the supernatural doings of ordinary people.” In a book of theological reflections, sociologist Peter Berger called the Holocaust an “icon of evil,” one that “is perceived as such by vast numbers of people, who recoil from its horrors and are certain in their condemnation of its perpetrators.”

The response to evil is to recoil and condemn, but what if we also want to explain genocide? Our moral reaction — to condemn genocide as evil — is of little help in guiding us toward a social scientific understanding of genocide, and may even inhibit us. Certainly many social scientific works do approach genocide as evil, and they have titles like The Roots of Evil, Becoming Evil, or Facing Evil, but this approach can obscure what may be the most important thing to know about genocide if we want to understand it better: Those who plot and carry out genocides typically believe their victims are evil and worthy of punishment. In their eyes the people they are murdering are not victims at all; they are wicked people, possibly serious threats to the perpetrators’ families or civilization, and they deserve to die. Genocide is thus a form of social control.

Deviant Behavior and Social Control

Sociologically speaking, deviant behavior is behavior someone disapproves of, and social control is the reaction to deviant behavior. They exist in relation to one another. If I call the police to report a theft, the theft is deviant behavior — behavior I disapprove of — and my call to the police is social control — my reaction to it. If a woman files a complaint about a man who gropes her in the workplace, the groping is deviant behavior and the complaint is social control. Deviant behavior and social control occur in all kinds of situations: when a teachers scolds a child for being disrespectful, when someone scowls at a noisy person in a library, when a judge sentences a murderer to prison, when people call for the impeachment of a president, or when soldiers go to war against an enemy nation.

Any behavior can be deviant — defined as rude, crazy, immoral, or evil — so just the fact that something is deviant doesn’t tell us much about it. What do selling marijuana (a kind of entrepreneurial behavior), using marijuana (a kind of recreational behavior), illegal immigration (a kind of migration), and burglary (a kind of predation) have in common? And what do any of them have in common with assault and homicide, which are normally forms of social control? All can be defined as deviant, but otherwise they’re very different.

Note that some deviant behaviors, like assault and homicide, are also usually forms of social control. People who strike or kill someone usually do so in response to behavior they see as deviant. They’ve been insulted, injured, or in some way wronged, and they respond with violence.

Since social control is the reaction to deviant behavior, it might seem strange or confusing that the same behavior can be both deviant behavior and social control. But really it’s not. People have moral conflicts, so they interpret situations differently, with disagreement about who is the wrongdoer and who is the real victim. To say that genocide is social control, then, certainly isn’t a way of excusing it. An act of social control can be evil, but it’s still an act of social control, a behavior sparked by the perpetrators’ moral sensibilities, not by their lack of them.

Examining behavior such as genocide and other kinds of violence as deviant doesn’t help much partly because people may have very different reasons for engaging in various deviant behaviors. Since burglars and armed robbers, for example, are engaging in predation and seeking to gain something at someone else’s expense, they might be ignoring any moral inhibitions they have and disregarding any concern they might feel for their victims. They might try to think of their victims as objects. This is no doubt true of some murderers, too, such as those who kill during a robbery or those who wish to eliminate a potential witness. But a man who kills an unfaithful wife or a teenager who kills a friend who keeps taking food from his plate is not seeking material gain and is not thinking of the victim as an object. He is outraged — angry at what he sees as an injustice — and he wants to harm the one who has victimized him.

Genocide as Social Control

Genocide is more like the typical murder than like the typical burglary or robbery. Those who orchestrated the Holocaust, for example, had a host of grievances against Jews, including the belief that the Jews were an evil race that would subvert German civilization and undermine German racial purity. They blamed Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I, and they believed that a worldwide conspiracy of Jews formed the true power behind Germany’s enemies during World War II: the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist United States and Britain. These and many other of their grievances against Jews were fanciful, and similar kinds of false accusations give rise to other genocides, such as the belief of Rwanda’s Hutus that the minority Tutsis were planning to exterminate Hutus, or that they were providing support for the invading army of Tutsis from Uganda. Not all accusations during genocide are false, though. In 1994 Rwanda there really was a Tutsi army that had been fighting the Hutu government, and Tutsis really had ruled over Hutus in the past. Whether true or false, though, grievances fuel genocides.

If we understand this, genocide isn’t so mysterious. How can people commit such atrocities against one another? How can people do such evil? Because in the minds of the perpetrators they aren’t doing evil at all; they’re responding to someone else’s evil. And this means at least one common idea about genocide is off the mark.

Evil and Dehumanization

Often people point to the role of dehumanization in leading to evil. It is a common point that is brought up whenever the conversation steers toward the causes of genocide, and there is something to it, to be sure. The perpetrators of genocide and similar behaviors speak of their victims as insects, rats, weeds, or diseases. And it might seem that the killing is possible only because they have stopped seeing the victims as human.

The body of an Armenian woman and child

But remember the moralistic nature of genocide and the long lists of serious wrongdoing attributed to the victims. Remember the outrage that gives rise to genocide. And remember too that we also commonly refer to serial killers, rapists, and others who do evil as brutes, or we say they have behaved like animals. We do so to express our outrage at their behavior and our desire for justice. We condemn them, and we actually punish them — not at all what we do with nonhuman animals.

Likewise those who talk about ethnic enemies as pests and diseases may do so as a way of expressing outrage. Actual pests and diseases might similarly inspire alarm and fear, and people likewise try to eliminate them, but pests and diseases don’t inspire such moral indignation. People don’t try to humiliate, denigrate, and torture them as the perpetrators of genocide so often do their victims. Genocide perpetrators don’t treat people like actual pests and diseases; they treat them much worse — as evildoers.

As psychologist Paul Bloom puts it in an interview on Vox, “A lot of the cruelty we do to one another, the real savage, rotten terrible things … are in fact because we recognize the humanity of the other person.” What he means by this is that it is precisely because we see people as morally responsible that we think that some of them — those who are evil — should suffer.

Cause for Alarm

Berger was right. The Holocaust and other genocides have become icons of evil, and people are certain in their condemnation of them. I don’t object to this; my reaction is the same, and I see this as a moral advance. That genocide perpetrators and their supporters now engage in genocide denial, rather than boasting about their genocides the way the ancients did, is but one indicator of how closely identified genocide now is with evil.

But our moral judgments can blind us to things. We so identify genocide with evil that it’s hard to believe the perpetrators could see it any other way. As we’ve seen, this can inhibit social science, but it is also cause for alarm in that it might inhibit clear moral thinking. Condemning genocide as evil is surely right, but it is also easy. We won’t be committing genocide, so the killers must not be anything like us. But what if genocide perpetrators aren’t all mustache-twirling villains plotting to do evil? What if they believe they’re in the right? And if their moral inclinations are so misdirected, might some of ours be as well? Are we prone to some of the same errors? Are our enemies really as bad as we think they are? Is our treatment of them as just as we think it is?

Self-deception is easy, and moral feelings are compatible with evil, as much contemporary and ancient wisdom tells us. According to sociologist Randall Collins, “The more intense the feeling of our goodness, the easier it is to commit evil.” Or as the book of Proverbs puts it, “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.”

For Further Reading:

Black, Donald. 1998. The Social Structure of Right and Wrong, revised edition. San Diego: Academic Press.

Bloom, Paul. 2017. “The Root of All Cruelty?New Yorker.

Campbell, Bradley. 2015. The Geometry of Genocide: A Study in Pure Sociology. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Cooney, Mark. 2009. Is Killing Wrong?: A Study in Pure Sociology. Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press.

Katz, Jack. 1988. Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions in Doing Evil. New York: Basic Books.

Bradley Campbell is the author of The Geometry of Genocide: A Study in Pure Sociology and coauthor of The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars.

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  1. I always observe with curiosity how the act of genocide becomes accepted under some topical euphemism like self-defence, freedom fight, holy mission or so. I see this as a learning-unlearning process.

  2. “a man who kills an unfaithful wife or a teenager who kills a friend who keeps taking food from his plate is not seeking material gain and is not thinking of the victim as an object”: I would dispute this. The outraged killer often does see his or her victim as an object, no matter what their previous relationship might have been. He or she feels only the loss of something close to him or her, such as an intimate relationship, and wants to lash out at the perpetrator to avenge their own suffering. The humanity of the victim is irrelevant at that moment of high anger.

  3. Very interesting! I think it is particularly useful to appreciate that people who do bad things often believe that they are doing the right thing.

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