A Deadly Philosophy

Humans are the only species that systematically murders its own for ideological reasons. More than 50 million people were victims of mass murder in the 20th century, making it the deadliest century on record. That included the Ottoman Turks’ murder of 1.5 million Armenians, the Nazis’ extermination of 6 million Jews, Mao’s murder of 30 million Chinese, and the Khmer Rouge’s destruction of 1.7 million Cambodians. The list goes on.*

Some of these deaths had to do with land and water and such, but most did not. Most were over philosophy. Why would this be? Philosophy is not threatening in any literal sense; it can’t maim or make you die, even when it’s very different from your view. Psychologists are very interested in this paradox: Why is philosophy — or worldview, or ideology — so threatening? Put another way, what are the cognitive and emotional underpinnings of mass murder and genocide?

One emerging theory suggests that genocide may make sense, at least on an emotional level. Think of it this way. Besides being the only animal to murder on principle, humans are also the only animal cognitively advanced enough to understand mortality. We all know we are going to die, and there is absolutely nothing we can do to prevent this. That fact should be utterly terrifying, so terrifying that we should be paralyzed by fear and trembling.

But we’re not. We get up every morning, dress and groom ourselves, go to work, play with the kids, and so forth. How do we manage this? Well, one way we manage is by constructing meaning, and we do that by imagining a meaningful world. That’s called philosophy — or religion, or whatever. Humans are meaning-making creatures.

The problem occurs when our carefully constructed philosophy is threatened. And the greatest threat to a belief system is, well, an alternative belief system. To put it bluntly, your unfamiliar worldview makes me keenly aware of my mortality; it threatens my very existence. So why shouldn’t I wish you dead? Philosophy is personal.

Scientists have actually been studying this entanglement of personal mortality and cultural hatred in the lab, with some interesting results. Here’s a recent experiment by Joseph Hayes and his colleagues at the University of Alberta, Canada. These psychologists wanted to explore whether a philosophical threat could indeed conjure up thoughts of death, and further whether those thoughts might be quelled by actual annihilation of the philosophical “enemy.” To explore this, they recruited devout Christians for an experiment. They had these Christians read an actual news story about the “Muslimization of Nazareth”: The article described how Jesus’s birthplace had become largely a Muslim city, and how the dominant (and militant) Muslim population was marginalizing the Christians who remained.

The idea was that this unwelcome news about a holy Christian landmark would threaten the Christian readers’ worldview — and in turn their personal security. And indeed it appears it did. After they had read about Nazareth, they all took a psychological test that gauges preoccupation with thoughts of death and dying. As reported in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science, those who had read the report were much more morbid in their imagery than those who had not. They were also much more derogatory toward Muslims than were Christians who had not read the news.

So that’s pretty unsettling in itself. But here’s where it gets really interesting. Hayes and his colleagues then told half of the participants another bit of news, only in this case it was made up. They told them that an airplane had crashed on its way to Nazareth, killing all 117 devout Muslims aboard. When they crunched the data, they found that those who had “witnessed” the annihilation of the Muslims were significantly less morbid in their thinking and significantly less derogatory toward Muslims. Put another way, knowing of the violent death of the Muslims effectively undid the perceived threat to the Christians’ philosophy and well-being. It restored meaning and security to their lives.

Isn’t it possible that the plane crash simply made the Christians more sympathetic toward the Muslims, at least temporarily? The psychologists actually considered and rejected this idea, based on a surprising finding. The Christians who read about Nazareth became increasingly negative not only toward Muslims, but also toward Buddhists and Hindus and atheists. That is, they became antagonistic toward any worldview that questioned the absolute validity of Christianity. What’s more, those who read the fabricated story about the plane crash were less disparaging of all these worldviews. Since no Hindus or Buddhists or atheists perished in the crash, there would be no reason for the Christians to feel sympathy toward these people.

So our brain fights death with death. It reasons that if an enemy dies, his philosophy must have been perverse or weak or just plain wrong, and thus no real threat to our superior worldview — nor to our life and limb. It’s a powerful psychological defense. In real life, of course, it just raises the ante. It’s tit for tat, and the new century starts counting its genocide victims.

*For a thorough examination of 20th century genocide, see Lewis Simons’s “Genocide and the Science of Proof” in the January 2006 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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