Why are there genocides? Why does one group decide to systematically eliminate another group from existing on this planet? Why did Nazis gas Jews? Why did extremist Hutus slaughter their neighbor Tutsis? Why were Armenians, Bosnians, Cambodians, and Sudanese targeted for elimination?

Asking the “why” question is easy. Answering will be just a bit harder. I suppose we could simply state that genocide is the direct result of the Fall. Adam and Eve disobeyed God when they sought their own power and wisdom apart from God, and so all of creation is damaged and broken. Jealous Cain murders Abel and so on it goes until one people decides to eliminate another people.

Sin as the answer for genocide leaves me rather unsatisfied and with quite a few questions. Since sin is pervasive, why doesn’t genocide happen more often? What are the building blocks of genocide? Does it just happen or are there a common set of conditions that set genocide in motion?

A Partial Explanation

Ervin Staub, a psychologist at UMASS Amherst, has offered some thoughts on the roots of genocide. He argues that factors such as “difficult life conditions” and “persistent group conflict” have been present in most mass killings.

What does he mean?

When life is difficult (economic hardships, social pressures), groups often begin to feel threatened by the presence of “other” people — and thus may be inclined to blame others for their problems. The threat can be the perceived loss of power, control, identity, or it can be the loss of land and financial stability.

But still, we need more to move as a group to attack another group. What enables a whole population to decide together that they would be better off if they eliminated their enemy? Staub suggests that the more we self-identify with a particular group, us versus them, we are much more prone to scapegoat another group to protect our group identity. And even if we do not personally scapegoat others, we are more prone to be quiet when others in our group do so.

Staub goes on to try to name a few more reasons why genocide gets traction:

  • A history of devaluation of a subgroup of society (e.g., Tutsis were the butt of radio comedy in Rwanda for a significant time prior to the genocide)
  • A strong authority orientation (e.g., acceptance of harsh leadership as the norm)
  • Past victim experiences (perceived or actual, current or historical) may shape some to believe they now have a right to harm others. Killings are now morally justified as self-protection.
  • Passive bystanders who either do nothing to interrupt increasing violence or become submissive to the process

In sum, for a genocide to happen you need an environment that triggers group narcissism—the belief that (a) we are better than others, (b) that others need to see and defer to our superiority, (c) that any threat (real or merely possible) must be erased, and (d) those who think differently must be made to submit or be silenced.

How Instead of Why?

Seems to me this explanation helps us understand how evil grows. We know it happens because we think too highly of ourselves. But Staub’s explanation points to processes that we can better identify around and in us. Where are we accepting the devaluation of a sub-group? Where do we turn a blind eye to un-Christlike leadership? Where are we prone to blindness due to our own victimization? Finally, where are we complicit with offenses as we stand on the sidelines saying nothing about the abuses perpetrated by others?

[Staub, E. (2013). Building a Peaceful Society: Origins, Prevention, and Reconciliation After Genocide and Other Group Violence. American Psychologist, 68, 576-589.]

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