The movie An Act of Killing recently won a British Academy Award for best documentary. It covers the mass murder in Indonesia of a million people in 1965, as part of a government coup. Astonishingly, the killers themselves are the stars of the movie, retelling how they did the killing, generally unfazed and proud of their act. They have never been punished. Their culture, that of the victor, sees them as heros. This demonstrates that humans can perform the most awful deeds and be fine, if their cultural programming says its fine, even heroic. It is reminiscent of the Nazi’s “banality of evil,” as Hannah Arendt called it.
Note that, when we do something awful, we often construct a big lie to make it sound like what we did was fine, even wonderful. Then we forget that we constructed this big lie, to hide from the pain of our wrongdoing, in the first place.
Adding another layer to the Indonesian genocide is the CIA’s role in staging the coup. The United States directly involved itself in bringing about this overthrow and the resultant mass murder. The US citizen however is pretty much immune to this information. Share it with the general public, rationally presenting facts, and you get a collective shrug.
From the wikipedia entry on the documentary:
The Act of Killing won best documentary at the 2014 BAFTA awards. In accepting the award, Oppenheimer asserted that the United States and the United Kingdom have "collective responsibility" for "participating in and ignoring" the crimes, which was omitted from the video BAFTA posted online. After a screening for US Congress members, Oppenheimer demanded that the US acknowledge its role in the killings.
Again, on this theme, the recent book, Kill Anything That Moves demonstrates convincingly that the US military’s behavior in the Vietnam War was tantamount to genocidal mass murder. Nixon and Kissinger, if this book is accurate, are as bad as Hitler. They will be remembered by future historians as purveyors of paramount evil. However, there is no chance of the US citizenry, in large part, looking at this rationally, or even admitting it happened.
There are many other examples of US Foreign Policy instigating take-overs that emplaced vicious dictators. Subversion of democracy, death squads, murderous coups--all par for the course. Will the US citizenry ever fully face this, admit the extreme wrongdoing, even when presented with incontrovertible evidence?
No. We humans go into denial. We also project our own feelings of inadequacy onto others, without knowing. The former condition, denial, allows us to ignore even the worst atrocities. The latter condition, projection, allows us to commit them.
Bring up the genocide of the Native Americans, on which the United States is founded, and you will get the awesomely stubborn and irrational, "It's all in the past, nothing to do with now." End of conversation.
Another big problem: the devious folks who know how to play the rest of us for their own selfish ends. These are the charmers with tin hearts: charismatic narcissists and beautiful sociopaths. Using rhetoric like a dark alchemy, they work masses of denial and projection, transumting hate into gold. Unlike the medieval alchemists, their quest is often successful.
“The great masses of the people will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one," says Hitler.
Hitler, understanding psychology, also says, in Mein Kampf, “What luck for rulers that men do not think.”
Furthermore, knowing the power of psychology, he says, “It is not truth that matters, but victory.”
As Hitler grasped, giving people rational arguments as a means to convince them is ridiculously weak. For example, here is a simple argument, given in steps:
1. Humans can be acculturated in diverse ways, as evidenced by our malleability over time and across cultures (recent studies of brain plasticity verify this).
2. It follows that we can be acculturated to live in better or worse ways. Aslo, good is better than evil.
3. Therefore, we should start an acculturation process that strives for the good, and we can progress far in that direction.
This argument for striving toward a better world will not influence a lot of minds in any serious way. Walls of cynicism, blockage and redirection kill its straightforwared point about human mental flexibility. Look how long it took to get women the vote. The conservatives of the time said it was unworkable, because human nature is fixed. They were extremely wrong.
Humans are flexible in their mental ways, and can change drastically. It makes a difference whether the source of the change is healthy or darkling, like a demagogue selling hate.
Oliver Stone, in his recent book, The Untold History of the United States, points out that after WWII, the leaders of the US had a chance to shape the world. Two doctrines were on the table. One was enlightened and pushed for a universal, educated peace. The other was cynical and strove to maximize US power and create a climate of manipulable (hatred for Russia) fear in the public. Guess which was chosen?
We live under this illusion, propped by the thought police invisible in our cultural norms, that human nature is largely fixed in terms of how good we can be.
If humanity is to survive: (a) We have to deal with denial and projection in healthy ways, (b) Prevent demagogues (charismatic narcissists, sociopaths, etc.) from manipulating denial and projection in unhealthy ways, (c) Create a leadership that works with the human being, the human psyche, in caring, respectful openness, not as if people were pawns toyed with (lied to, tricked, baited, hate-mongered, etc.) for a larger goal.
For the positive outcome, humanity must accept its status as non-rational. This does not mean humans cannot be reasonable, because psychological processes can act wisely, ethically, and sanely, with an eye on longterm goals. This is a critical point: a healthy psychology can be reasonable, and can, for instance, work with the scientific method to eliminate bias, reality-distortion, etc.
Right now, with demagogues in power, a culture of consumer narcissism, and entrenched denial of the Empire's monstrious abuses of power, we have a long, exasperating road ahead.