The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence
By: Ervin Staub
Introduction: Ervin Staub and Social Behavior
Ervin Staub (1938 — ) is a renowned academic and author, who serves as professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and is also founding director of the university’s doctoral program on the psychology of peace and violence. Staub was born in Hungary, where as a child he lived through Nazism and eventually communism. He escaped at the age of 18, and resided in Vienna for two years before ultimately relocating to the United States. Staub earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota and his Ph.D at Stanford University. After acquiring his educational experience, Staub taught at Harvard University and worked as visiting professor at Stanford, the University of Hawaii, and the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom.
Staub may be best known for his works on aiding and improving behavior and altruism, as well as the psychology of mass violence and genocide. He has worked in several capacities conducting research and applying his research and theory. Some of these experiences include his work in schools to help rear caring and non-violent children, and to promote active bystandership by students in response to bullying; working in the Netherlands to improve Dutch-Muslim relations; and working in Rwanda, Burundi, and the Congo as an advocate for healing and reconciliation. Staub has also served as an expert witness for the Abu Ghraib trials, and is known for lecturing on topics related to his work in international academic, public, and government settings.
In The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence, Staub’s primary argument is that genocide and other forms of extreme human and social violence are not independent and isolated occurrences that arbitrarily explode at any given time, but instead products of several social and cultural factors. Simply stated, Staub attempts to differentiate between genocide as an event, versus genocide as a process. Given his argument, Staub demonstrates that genocide is the result of a series of prior events, derived from cultural and social norms, which in turn create the conditions and climate of cultural values and social practices that enable mass destruction.
Additionally, Staub’s argument implicitly and sometimes explicitly, upholds that the conditions which make genocide possible, reasonable, and excusable, are also avoidable, though they often appear inevitable. Whereas Staub examines the social and cultural conditions that enable genocide in The Roots of Evil, I intend to overview and explicate his work by first discussing the origins of genocide and mass killing; secondly, by reviewing what Staub considers the psychological and cultural basis of genocide and other forms of group violence; thirdly, by briefly considering Staub’s historical case studies of genocide, including the Holocaust, the Turkish genocide of Armenians, Cambodia’s ethnic cleansing under the Pol Pot regime, and Argentina’s disappearances in the 1970s; and lastly, by intermittently examining what Staub refers to as the bystanders within conflict — who operate as factors of genocide, and also as non-aggressive persons within societies.
As Staub focuses on the courses of action taken in four precisely dissimilar countries towards mass devastation, he offers a unique contribution to literature on genocide as he declares that these events can be visualized as being formed by a dynamic process. Staub attempts to utilize repetitive imagery as he urges readers to envision genocide as a process that features steps within a continuum. Staub’s use of evidence for the Armenian and Cambodian atrocities are somewhat unclear and speculative, partly due to the lack of historical documentation of these events. Nonetheless, Staub supports his argument by making use of the abundance of documentation pertaining to the atrocities in Nazi Germany and Argentina. Presumably, this is due to reformed state policies, legislation, and other bureaucratic and institutional rearrangements in Germany and Argentina, but also because of the extensive number of judicial proceedings, trials, enquiries, and war crime tribunals that have subsequently taken place.
The Origins of Core Concepts: Genocide and Mass Killing
According to Staub:
“Certain characteristics of a culture and the structure of a society, combined with great difficulties or hardships of life and social disorganization, are the starting point for genocide or mass killing. The resulting material and psychological needs lead the society to turn against a subgroup in it. Gradually increasing mistreatment of this subgroup ends in genocide or mass killing.”
The author maintains that socio-cultural (“characteristics of a culture”), political and economic (“structure of a society”) factors within a given society are actually the indicators of, and building blocks for mass violence. Before continuing the explication of Staub’s work, I would like to reintroduce the concept of “genocide” in order to further convey Staub’s argument and proceed with the analysis of that argument.
Staub presents the origins of the term “genocide” when he asserts:
“…the word ‘genocide’ was introduced by the jurist Raphael Lemkin, who began a crusade in 1933 to create what was to become the Genocide Convention. In 1944, in a study of the Axis rule in occupied Europe, he proposed the term genocide to denote the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group, from the Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin word cide (killing)”.
As a result of Lemkin’s efforts, in December of 1946 the General Assembly of the newly instituted United Nations passed a resolution declaring:
“‘Genocide’ is a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups….Many instances of such crimes have occurred, when racial, religious, political, and other groups have been destroyed, entirely or in part”.
Eventually, the succeeding work of the United Nations’ committee on what is now known as the Genocide Convention (adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1948), led to the exclusion of political groups on the basis of exposing nations to external intervention in a given nations’ domestic concerns. After much deliberation, the term “genocide” became defined as “acts committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group”. For the intents and purposes of this review of Staub’s work, we will utilize the author’s fundamental definition of genocide which is derived from his claim that:
“Killing groups of people for political reasons has become the primary form of genocide (and mass killing) in our time. There is no reason to believe that the types of psychological and cultural influences differ in political and other group murders. In this book ‘genocide’ means ‘an attempt to exterminate a racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, or political group, either directly through murder or indirectly by creating conditions that lead to the group’s destruction”
Furthermore, Staub defines mass killing as:
“…killing members of a group without the intention to eliminate the whole group or killing large numbers of people without a precise definition of group membership”.
Ironically, genocide is similar to war insofar as in the former, a society turns against a subgroup seen as the internal enemy; while in the latter, a society turns against a group seen as the external enemy. Staub upholds that:
“identifying the origins of genocide and mass killing will also help to enlighten us about sources of war, torture, and lesser cruelties such as group discrimination that can be steps to mass killing or genocide”.
The Psychological and Cultural Basis of Genocide and Other Forms of Group Violence
Central to Staub’s argument is the belief that the effects of tough life conditions ultimately lend themselves to the creation of conditions that enable genocide and mass killing. Staub outlines what he considers some of the possible preconditions that may lead to mass destruction within a given society. These preconditions are:
- Difficult life conditions, such as economic problems (inflation, depression), political, criminal or prevalent violence, war, civil war, or high crime and unemployment rates.
- Cultural and personal preconditions such as goals and aims, a sense of “loss of status” compared to other groups or societies, a strong orientation towards authority, a monolithic culture, or an emerging ideology all-encompassing the nation [and]
- Sociopolitical organization that is fundamentally authoritarian or totalitarian
According to Staub, these preconditions are likely to lead to aggressive behavior, the devaluation of other groups, scapegoating, assimilation into the prevailing ideology in an effort to find security, joining a new group or cause, and submission to authority. The author maintains that under extremely difficult life circumstances personal and internal motives begin to dominate the psychological needs of members of a given society.
Certain characteristics of a culture and societal structure, coupled with personal or internal motivations and major difficulties and/or hardships of life experienced by members of society may lead to social entropy, which serves as the initial point for genocide and mass killing. These personal and internal motivations can include but are not limited to: the need to protect the physical well-being of oneself and one’s family, preserving one’s psychological self (self-concept and values) despite severe hardship, and making sense of life’s problems and the social disorganization of society while gaining a new comprehension of the world at-large.
Difficulties of life vary in magnitude, nature, and frequency, and also bring forth varying levels of disorganization and pandemonium within society. Accordingly, the impact of difficult life conditions within a society also varies as individuals may experience threats to their life, security, general welfare, self-concept, or even their episteme (world view; knowledge and science; or understanding). As chaos ensues, people attempt to meet their psychological needs and goals, while also managing their understanding of the world and adapting to new circumstances. Staub refers to the newly formed perspective of the world as vital when he states:
“Because understanding the world is essential, people will be powerfully motivated to seek a new world view and gain a renewed comprehension of reality. Without such comprehension life is filled with uncertainty and anxiety”
Due to the fact that it is often extremely difficult to fulfill the aforementioned aims while concurrently improving their conditions of life, people tend to respond with thoughts, feelings, and actions that do not actually change their real conditions, but help them cope with their psychological consequences. These coping actions may take the form of devaluing other groups (or participating in group activity that devalue other groups), scapegoating, joining new social groups, and adopting new ideologies.
Staub notes that the motivations that arise within a given society are completely dependent upon the characteristics of the society’s culture. For instance, a society that has devalued a particular population within that society and discriminated against its members over an extended period of time, strongly respects authority, and has an overly superior and/or vulnerable self-concept is more likely to turn against a subgroup. Though genocide and mass killing does not directly result from this discrimination, there is usually a progression of actions as previous, less harmful actions cause changes within individual perpetrators, bystanders, and entire groups — which eventually make more harmful actions possible. Staub asserts that the motivation and the psychological possibility of malicious activity evolves gradually:
“…when victims are further devalued, because the self-concept of perpetrators changes and allows them to inflict greater harm — for ‘justifiable’ reasons. Ultimately, there is a commitment to genocide or mass killing or to ideological goals that require mass killing or genocide”.
Imaginably, one of the most provocative facets of Staub’s work is his juxtaposition of justifications for singular and group activity within the context of genocide. In order to understand the “process of genocide” or the conditions that enable mass destruction, one must understand the ways in which individuals progress along a continuum of destructive behavior that is interrelated and possibly dependent on the societal and institutional track towards mass destruction. This is made apparent when Staub declares:
“People learn and change by doing, by participation, as a consequence of their own actions. Small, seemingly insignificant acts can involve a person with a destructive system, for example, accepting benefits provided by the system or even using a required greeting, such as ‘ Heil Hitler’. Initial acts that cause limited harm result in psychological changes that make further destructive action possible. Victims are further devalued…perpetrators change and become more able and willing to act against victims. In the end people develop powerful commitment to genocide or to an ideology that supports it.”
Moreover, Staub’s classification of genocide regarding individual and group participation creates categories for perpetrators, victims, and bystanders, as each plays a significant role in the process or continuum of genocide. Based on Staub’s analysis, it appears as if individuals enable genocide by passively participating in the ideology that is being coordinated and instituted from a society/central government. Along the continuum of genocide, that society/central government orchestrates the propaganda that dehumanizes the victims by devaluing their humanity.
Once victims are viewed as illegitimate, re-socialization takes place within the society’s population so bystanders will enable the actions of genocide. The process of re-socialization includes converting the bystanders into supporters or enablers of genocide by acquiescing to the aims of the perpetrators. Re-socialization also clandestinely eliminates and dismisses any guilty feelings the bystanders may have concerning the misfortune of the victims.
Inferences from the Nazi Holocaust,
Other Genocides, and Mass Killings
Staub draws on historical examples of genocide referring the European Holocaust, Armenian genocide in Turkey, Cambodian genocide by the Khmer Rouge, and the Argentina disappearances of the 1970s. The cultural preconditions present in all of these occurrences include: overwhelming life conditions, superior and inferior cultural self-concepts, personal goals and values, the devaluation of subgroups, high orientation to authority, struggle between monolithic and pluralistic cultural values, and ideological polarity. Per Staub’s analysis, the difficult life conditions in each of the aforementioned societies, economic problems, violence, and the psychology and motives of perpetrators developed the likelihood of genocide along Staub’s “genocide continuum”, and it eventually manifested. It is imperative to recognize that Staub’s perception of genocide as a continuum describes an interactive and dynamic process. Although each of the four instances of genocide mentioned above featured progress along the continuum, according to Staub the path of genocide is never predetermined and at any time there is always the opportunity for a given society to change its path and deviate from genocide. The ideological goals of the prevailing regimes was also influential as Staub notes:
“Ideology was important in all four cases. There were both nationalistic ideologies, glorifying the nation, its purity, and greatness… and pluralism as the larger society offers bystanders an independent perspective. It allows [bystanders] to exert influence with less danger of ostracism and without having to fear for their lives.”
Staub highlights the role of the “bystander”, as they are neither victim nor perpetrator and can influence the escalating process of genocide. However, in the four countries mentioned in Staub’s case studies of genocide, should the internal bystanders have rebelled against the system, they would likely become victims themselves.
Conclusion: Implications for Political Minorities
(Melinated Populations) in Pluralistic Societies
Within pluralistic societies it is very likely that there will be contrasting ideologies, however the cultural, social, and economic elements of populations determine if societies move towards genocide and mass killing. In summation, Staub considers the psychological and cultural basis of genocide and other forms of group violence as premier factors. When considering the historical case studies of genocide, the author presents Nazi Germany, the Turkish genocide of Armenians, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, and Argentina in 1970s, and contends that there is no solitary cause or event which can account for such atrocities. Nonetheless, there are sufficient similarities in the events leading up to each respective genocide. An important derivation from Staub’s work is the idea that genocide is not inevitable because individuals and social institutions can work cooperatively to impede the path of mass destruction.
Whereas Staub’s anaylsis of genocide and mass killings focuses on preconditions (difficult life conditions, cultural and personal preconditions, and sociopolitical organization) within authoritarian or totalitarian nations, I believe the same framework can be applied to democratic nations such as the United States and other European nations. Many ethnic, racial, and political minorities in developed nations disproportionately experience difficult life conditions and suffer the negative effects of economic problems such as inflation, depression, and unemployment rates, and political, criminal and/or prevalent violence, as well as cultural and personal preconditions such as aspiring to a decent quality of life while experiencing a sense of “loss of status” compared to other groups or societies.
The aforementioned is critical as such conditions exist amid the “resurgence” of an all-encompassing discriminatory ideology such as white-supremacy/white nationalism. Considering the current social and economic conditions of ethnic, racial, and political minorities in the United States and other developed democratic nations, and the current political climate of such nations, I believe Staub’s work is paramount and can be used to mitigate and resolve existing sociopolitical issues, that if unresolved may lead to mass killing or genocide, albeit unnamed.