Donald Dutton’s ‘‘The Psychology of Genocide, Massacres, and Extreme Violence’’ is an excellent, erudite, and essential work. But it makes for brutal reading. Dutton sheds light on the darkness of the human psyche, individually and collectively, and yet the more he illuminates human nature the darker becomes the reader’s understanding of the human capacity for evil and aggression. One has to pause at moments reading this book–for breath, to look outside at birds and trees, to talk to a friend or a family member, as the reading is so disorienting, the accounts of violence so devastating.
Dutton writes with clarity and conviction, engaging the subject matter critically, but never in an emotionally cold or distant tone. He is no apologist for humanity and is utterly unflinching in his accounts of genocide, massacres, and related violence and human rights violations, sparing the reader nothing in his accounts and forcing a full confrontation with horrific historical facts.
The book is succinct but comprehensive, written in an accessible language while remaining intellectually rigorous. Beginning with a history of violence and mass murder up until the twentieth century with an emphasis on the crusades, the chapters progress to address mass violence in the twentieth century, genocides, the Holocaust, military massacres, lynchings, (with a particularly strong analysis of their social and economic origins, though less of a psychological analysis of Southern racism than one would hope) and prison riots. The final four chapters focus on examining individual and collective motivations for violence and the social conditions that enable it to thrive, as well as an analysis of rape and sexual violence in the context of war.
Dutton’s work offers penetrating insights into the psychological and social causes of genocide and extreme violence and is firmly grounded in history, never suffering from rarified speculation and abstract theoretical musings. The insights of psychology too often escape the scholarship of historians addressing human rights violations. Dutton’s book is an important addition to the psychological and historical literature alike on the phenomenon of gross human rights abuses.
Throughout the book, Dutton incorporates a diverse range of psychological research and theories of human behavior, ensuring that the reader can develop an understanding of human behavior that is nuanced and undogmatic. He also offers his own valuable insights, gleaned from an extensive career as a licensed psychologist and professor who has researched violence for thirty years.
He examines the violence generated by mobs in Gustave Le Bon’s psychological theories of collective violence, Sigmund Freud’s analysis of the perverse pleasures individuals experience from submitting to an idealized individual leader and being obedient to his will, Philip Zimbardo’s analysis of how ‘‘orders generate obedience, which, in turn, generates feelings of power and authority’’ (p. 93), and Zimbardo’s observation that, ‘‘…once normal inhibitions are overcome, the acting out of aggression is innately pleasurable…rage generates rage…’’ (p. 121). Dutton also analyzes Ernest Becker’s theory that ‘‘binding oneself to the tribe serves as a symbolic panacea for avoiding the terror of death’’ (p. 24). Dutton quotes Becker’s explanation of the powerful forces motivating human violence, ‘‘For man, maximum excitement is the confrontation of death and the skilful defiance of it by watching others fed to it as he survives transfixed in rapture’’ (p. 25).
Indeed, violence offers human beings the quickest and surest route to feeling powerful, and the human craving for power is almost endless. At one point in the book Dutton quotes from a soldier’s war memoir, illustrating the emotional arousal and ecstatic intensity, sometimes bordering on the erotic, involved in killing. Describing himself, the soldier says, ‘‘He was at once the most abject and most exalted of God’s creatures. The effort and rage in him made him pant and sob, there was some strange intoxification of joy in it, and again his mind seemed focused into one hard bright point of action’’ (p. 139).
This is a work of great intellectual and ethical integrity, one that illuminates the complexity of human behavior. Dutton never explains away the pathologies of violence, justifying them in relation to national and class liberation struggles or the need to preserve national security and economic freedom, as is common on the extreme left and the extreme right, respectively. Dutton explains what we know about the motivations for violent and destructive human behavior, and is able to provide compelling answers to questions of why and how humans unleash violence upon one another. But he also has the humility to acknowledge the limitations of our insight into human psychology, in part because human behavior is so intrinsically complex and multiply determined and because there is a great deal that we don’t know about the functioning of the human brain, the nature of emotions, and the relationship between the two. He wisely cautions against the often reductionist and incomplete analyses of the causes of human violence posited by sociobiology and evolutionary biology, while acknowledging their contributions, and notes that while neurobiology has offered insights into the causes of violence, it too has its own explanatory limitations (pp. 127–128).
Dutton’s work has few flaws. The opening section of the book, with its extended accounting of the crusades is excessive in length, concentrating too much on the minutiae of the various battles that formed the crusades. However, the detailed account of the violence of the crusades provides a useful framing device for understanding how religion and hatreds born of religion – even when religious faith itself has waned – have, alongside tribalism=nationalism and the moral utopianism of Marxism been amongst the deadliest sources of hatred and violence in human history.
Dutton justifies beginning the book with depictions of the crusades in large part because,
The Crusades represent the Middle Ages’ form of violence, unbridled slaughter in the service of an ideology – in this case a religious ideology, Christianity…Slaughter in the service of ideology is commonplace throughout history whether it be political or religious. Religious ideology has one great advantage over political ideology in generating violence. It can offer everlasting salvation, as Urban II did to launch the First Crusade. It was used with Japanese Kamikaze pilots and is used now to inspire Islamic suicide bombers. The belief that is central to this promise is the most powerful motivating belief in the human mind: that the martyrs will live, with their loved ones, in everlasting bliss. (p. 12)
Unfortunately, Dutton comments on the phenomenon of suicide bombing too briefly in this book. At a time when suicide bombing has become a major form of global terror, it merits greater attention. Nevertheless, in Dutton’s psychological analysis of suicide bombing the reader will find original and insightful analyses and not the well-worn but empirically ungrounded claims that suicide bombing stems primarily from poverty and desperation, and is a form of reasoned protest, albeit in an unreasonable form.
Dutton begins the book with what initially may seem to the reader to be an odd dedication: ‘‘To Babar: Would that all humans shared your beastliness.’’ Babar is Dutton’s dog, and by the end of the book the dedication will resonate most disturbingly with the reader as being utterly justified.
We are accustomed to describing the worst forms of violence and aggression as being ‘bestial’–we associate unrestrained violence with animals. But one of the most powerful and frightening lessons of Dutton’s work is that humans, granted a degree of intellectual, ethical, and emotional freedom and complexity unparalleled in animals, (with some notable exceptions, including primarily though not exclusively primates) prove themselves on a collective level to be utterly unsuited for the exercise of such freedom. When we exercise it, we often collapse into the worst forms of depravity, our conscience and capacity for complex cognition offering us no protection from the pathological emotional gratifications that we receive from engaging in violent behavior.
It is important to note, however, that Dutton’s book is not a cry of desperation. That humans have a powerful tendency towards violence and destructiveness is made all too evident by Dutton’s work. But it is a tendency, it is not inevitable. It can be combated. As a species we can improve ourselves, we are not prisoners of evolution or God’s design or any other potential source of our existence. This book offers a humbling and chastening assessment of human nature. Yet it ought to empower us, to serve as a warning against the worst excesses of our behavior, and not to lead us to embrace the false comforts of despair.
One of Dutton’s most sobering reflections about human nature in relation to the common claim that extreme violence often stems from the unwillingness and=or inability of individuals to perceive other people as human beings reminds the reader of the daunting nature of liberating ourselves from our aggressive proclivities.
Dehumanization as an explanation of barbarous acts is called into question by the actions of soldiers in both Nanking and Rwanda. If anything, they acted on ‘‘too human’’ traits–knowledge of the psychological pain that would be felt by a target selected because he=she was human and a member of an enemy group. What may be the hardest truth to face is that, as humans, we exhibit more sadistic violence than any ‘‘subhuman’’ group or animal. (p. 68)
If we are to make human freedom a source for goodness, for justice, and for life then we must use all of our resources to transmit values that reject violence and honor human rights. We can begin that process by learning about how much we have failed to achieve our human potential for goodness, as Dutton catalogues and illustrates so powerfully and disturbingly. With this knowledge, we can work to free ourselves from the tyrannical aspects of our own humanity.