on June 16, 2005
Robert Waller has written an exceptional explanation of how every human is tempted and entrapped by situations, people, attitudes and personality traits that leads one to commit evil. It is these small acts of evil that can build, distract and cumulate in the horrors we see on the news and respond "not me!"
I have used Becoming Evil as an additional book in my Social Psychology class for three years and students always walk out talking about it. Other professors are constantly asking me to see this book saying students are talking about in their classes, in sororities/fraternities and other organizations. One student told me that after reading this book suddenly she understood how pledging a sorority should be changed. Another student wrote me from military training and said how he was beginning to understanding how easy it was to create a mindset of destruction and killing without looking back. One mother in my class told me that the book has deeply impacted how she parents her children.
I deeply believe this is an extremely valuable book. Very organized, easy to understand, and rooted in compelling real life examples of extraordinary evil committed by individuals that we begin to realize look, act and who were just like us.
I have had a hard time finding another book to use in my class that has touched students to the depth of Becoming Evil. I hope others find it equally soul touching and reflective.
on February 19, 2004
This work shows why explorations of the nature of human nature are not just the stuff of ivory towers. It adds an evolutionary psychology element to previous discussions of genocide with good effect. So one gets some of the ideas of Tooby, Cosmides, Sober and Wilson's "Unto others", Pinker, etc. in the picture. It is also well written and engages the reader emotionally. The evolutionary psychology, though, is only one fundamental factor among many. The author's point is to show all of the various factors that influence a potential actor in genocide, and the situational influences dealt with by social psychology loom large.
Nevertheless, there is an interesting lack of self-awareness of the use of a repeated concept. It is very common to refer to someone who commits an evil act as being inhuman. That dehumanizes the perpetrator. But as Mr. Waller so beautifully explains, it is well within ordinary human nature to have the potential to commit acts of extraordinary evil. So it may be evil, but it is not inhuman. Furthermore, the book explains that dehumanizing others is part of the process that can lead to genocide. In trying to characterize these evil acts, the author uses some of the same dehumanizing mental constructs that lead to such evil acts. Ironic, no?
But that is a minor point. It is quite customary to refer to evil acts as being inhuman. The book is excellent, if sobering.
on October 24, 2009
I purchased this book because it was a requirement for a Political Psychology college course I'm taking this semester. In the last month or so, our class has analyzed and discussed this book thoroughly. Waller provides a four-part conceptual model in order to explain why he believes genocide and mass killing occur. He also writes about specific case examples at the end of each chapter in order to further articulate his feelings. Anyway, Waller seems to believe very strongly in one "ultimate influence" in order to explain our behavior--evolutionary biology/psychology precede and precipitate his other three "proximate influences," which are social construction of cruelty, cultural construction of worldview, and psychological construction of "the other." He contends that we, as humans, are programmed to committ evil as a result of natural selection; that is, our ancestors survived because of their ability to defeat potential enemies within a scarce realm. Academic stuff aside, this book is very easy to read, incredibly interesting, and is a great start for those who would like to delve into this fascinating subject.
on July 24, 2003
The editorial reviews above and the publisher's description are accurate about the content. I want to add that this book is well worth reading. The author covers a great deal of research on the topic of man's inhumanity to man and presents the various theories and arguments with an elegance and precision that make this comprehensive book easy, and were it not for the subject matter, pleasurable to read. For anyone interested in the challenge of explaining violence in all its 20th century awfulness, this is an excellent place to start.
on April 12, 2006
After buying this book and reading it myself, I loaned it to my brother and then gave it to my local library where I hope it will be read by many others.
Mr. Waller undertakes a difficult topic -- how it is that ordinary, moral, "law-abiding" human beings can change into perpetrators of genocide. The idea that something like this could happen to any one of us is frightening, indeed, but the best way to protect ourselves is to understand the process. Waller explains this clearly and helps us to understand that the Nazis and other genocidal groups were not insane or monstrous - they were normal people who had undergone a transformation which could occur to anyone in the "right" (i.e., "wrong") circumstances.
This book would be an important addition to libraries everywhere, and I also hope that it will be used in colleges, universities and even high schools.
on May 5, 2011
Becoming Evil is a fascinating book about how ordinary people partake in acts of genocide.
The book's major flaw is that is that at times it comes across as overtly academic. As someone who was nor reading the book for a course, I found the first third of the book mechanical as it went about presenting various academic arguments in a contrived manner.
But once the author allowed himself a bit more freedom to discuss the subject matter, the book became gripping reading and made several compelling arguments that made me re-examine my beliefs in regards to the subject matter.
The most gut-wrenching sections are the extracts from first-hand accounts of those who witnessed genocidal acts. It makes for harrowing reading but is absolutely necessary to raise our awareness about this most brutal of crimes.
on February 26, 2014
Is there a common pattern or patterns that can explain how human beings come to a point where they can commit genocide? Are there indicators in advance of a genocide, can we act in time to prevent it, and do we have the political will to do so? Waller surveys recent work and opposing views in history, sociology and psychology and frames his chapters with first person accounts.
Early work done in the 50s and 60s such as Adorno's F-scale was used to frame discussion about authoritarian personalities believed to explain Nazi-like behaviour - yet Waller allows that the methodology was criticized for focusing on fascism on the right and ignoring the threat of communism on the right. Hanah Arendt's contention of "the banality of evil" (pp95-99) is that it was indifference, not malevolence that made the followers of Nazi policy malleable, which is also criticised by Holocaust historians such a Raoul Hilberg not accounting for the enthusiasm and pride that Nazis such as Eichmann had for their work. Browning's study of Police Battalion 101 showed that many of the perpetrators were in fact quite ordinary men. In Hohne's assessment of the Nazi death squads (pp67) they were not sadists but "family men brought up in the belief that antisemitism was a form of pet control". Though given the option of opting out of particular operations, the vast majority remained on duty out of loyalty to the group. In particular the work of Henri Tajfel demonstrated that even small artificially introduced labeling differences between randomly assembled groups could be manipulated into creating hostile reactions. Particularly interesting was Robert Lifton's "doubling" theory (pp111) which suggested that cognitive tension over the act of violence caused the perpetrator to create a second self, a Jekyll vs Hyde however Waller counters that the evidence for this is weak and in that the two personalities were so permeable as to make the idea superfluous.
While not a predictor, the desire for conformity appears common, both in terms of emulating the aggressiveness of other but also as a justification for diminishing and devaluing the humanity of others. Thus Naziism centralized the ideal of racial purity and exaggerates characteristics of other "races" as marks of inferiority. In Cambodia the Khmer Rouge created a rigid definition of themselves as the in-group and incited for the elimination non-conforming individuals. Kinship or association with references to motherland, fatherland, "brotherhood" or through membership in a group is invoked as a unifying principle. Genocide is also a rebellion against complexity, a belief in zero sum dynamics wherein if one's adversary does well it must be explained in terms of an unfair advantage requiring retribution. Quoting psychologist/sociologist Ervin Staub (pp184), "when an ideology of antagonism exists, anything good that happens to the other inflames hostility. The ideology makes the world seem a better place without the other."
The coverage of events is representative, not comprehensive with a scope including the American Indian Wars, the Armenian Genocide, Genocides of the 2nd World War, East Timor, the massacres of the Mayans of Guatemala, The Khmer Rouge of Cambodia and the Hutus and Tutsis Rwanda. This second edition ends with a brief look at recent events in Chechnya and Sudan.
on December 26, 2012
Most people think that there is something very special in the people who do horrible things.
That Nazis or Hutus or Bolsheviks were not of the same human race as us, the rest, the normal people.
Waller drives home the point that this is not the case.
We have nothing to clearly set us apart from those who killed by the millions in Nazi Germany or Soviet Union, in Rwanda, Timor or Cambodia.
The bad news is: The killers were ordinary people and the extreme violence was just a banality.
He describes different genocides from different parts of the world and identifies certain patterns that repeat themselves.
There is a state of lawlessness. Old values or traditions have lost their meaning and the government is weak for whatever reason.
There is a conflict between us and them. The latter can be almost whoever but normally another ethnic, religious or economical group that competes for the available resources..
There is a lot of random violence.
And then there are those who take advantage of the situation, flaming hate with their propaganda and recruiting eager young me full of ideals and testosterone to be trained for the Mission.
They are isolated from their social background physically and psychologically. The are made to repeat the common credo in front of everybody else. They are deprived of their own personality and they wear the symbols of the movement, greet each other with the Greeting and get use to violence little by little.
In Greece, the militiamen were subjected to beatings and torture. This was to banalise violence. It happened to us, we can make it happen to others.
Then, the subjects started getting some action. Throwing stones, breaking windows, driving, beating up.
And finally, torture and killing. There was no turning back.
Waller explains how it is essential to make people commit atrocities by showing them how, taking them along and finally forcing them to cross the line.
Once this has been achieved, the subjects start rationalizing their behavior because nobody wants to be bad.
The normal scheme uses depersonalization of the victims, turning them to subhumans by various measures. In Germany the Jews were starved and refused sanitation and clothes. Everything imaginable was done to make them lose their dignity.
The perpetrators consumed huge amounts of alcohol before the killings and after them in the victory parties. And there was a lot of propaganda going on about how the International Jewry was guilty of the problems of the Reich.
The Turks and the Armenians, the Serbs and the Croates, the Indonesians and the Timoriens, always the same story and the same tactic.
Depersonalisation, diffusion of responsibility, exaggerated differences between us and them...
Waller point to MIlgram's experiment on obedience where students were in fact ready to execute the subject with an electric shock as the team leader insisted.
That is an interesting aspect and some essential features of the situation in MIlgram's experiment do correspond to the ways for instance young police recruits behave in the face of the authority.
He quotes a veteran pilot who was made to kill civilians under the threat of being court masrhalled and how he finally learned to enjoy it.
And also, the Stanford Jail experiment where two randomly chosen groups of students got to play guards and prisoners.
This experiment had to be aborted prematurely as the 'guards' started to behave aggressively.
I had the feeling that the author himself had been shocked by the findings he had made during the research.
His conclusion is realistic: Given the right circumstances, our Beast will take us for the ride and everything we have learned from morality or good manners just ceases to exist. He sees the the hope in keeping those circumstances from happening.
Individual education is important but does not really matter when blood begins to flow. The Sondergruppe that destroyed 30 000 jews in one week consisted of lower middle class citizens, teachers and former policemen.
A stable state is an essential factor as is the the avoidance of ethnic polarization.
Security, state monopoly of violence and democratic control of those in power by free press and fair elections seem to protect also agains generalized evil.
There are pockets within the monopolized violence -the armed forces and the police force- where, not surprisingly violent evil surfaces is ways not acceptable to modern society. What can be done without risking the functionality of those units seems to be a difficult question to answer.
This book was a heavy read. I have a lot of respect towards the author who has gone through the material full of blood and gore. He has meticulously avoided falling into the easy trap of preaching moralism or to isolate himself from the reality he is describing. He freely admits being one of the potential killers if the time and place would so decide. Our responsibility only just goes so far.
I wish he'd have another take at the subject, once he has had time to digest it better and maybe come up with some more propositions.
As it is, an excellent book, well worth the time and the bother.
on March 24, 2011
Genocide, despite universal horror of it, is still a regularly recurrent obscenity. Attributing it to evil is understandable, but how can it really be prevented? Could understanding its origins help?
James Waller, a psychologist from Washington, has made an profound contribution to this quest. He closely analyses the evidence of personality profiles and behaviours of the perpetrators of such atrocities, and makes startling discoveries.
Their personalities are within the normal range. Perhaps some slight skews [towards being overconfident, authoritative, somewhat stressed, not the most socially skilled, easily led], but nothing out of the ordinary.
It seems that extraordinary evil is most often perpetrated by unremarkable men and women.. Given the appropriate toxic blend of propoganda, moral rationalisation, cultural beliefs, manipulation,and peer pressure, any one of us could become a killer.
Deepseated `ingroup/outgroup' responses, susceptibility to authority, and a capacity for desensitisation and denial, can be mobilised to appalling effect.
The book is a powerful plea for humility. It ends with the hope that from acquiring greater understanding of the causes of genocidal behaviour, might be developed some ways of diminishing its terrifying reach .
on June 2, 2006
I was always fascinated with the question of human cruelty and the history of genocides, and after researching review on Amazon.com, settled on this book by James Waller. I was 100% right. It's incredibly well-written. Very easy to read, written in clear language in short chapters. Thoroughly researched. James Waller references and examines all the works that have been written on this topic before. His conclusions are profound, and dare I say it, correct.
It's a flawless book. It brings together history and psychology in a language that is very relevant and easy to read on an very important subject. I'd recommend this to anyone without a hesitation. Not just educating, but also enjoyable.