Thursday, November 30, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 14a

On this new level you live, you have been living more comfortably every day, with new morals, new principles. You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father, even in Germany, could not have imagined.” - Milton Mayer in 'They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45'

In Liquid Modernity, the late sociologist Zigmunt Bowman said that in the initial stage of industrialisation, capital, management and labour all had to stay in one another's company. Workers depended on being hired for their livelihood; capital depended on hiring them for its  growth. The dependence was therefore mutual, and the two sides were bound to stay together for a very long time to come. Both sides recognized that there were limits to how far the other side in the conflict of interests could and should be pushed. Thus there were limits to the inequality which capital could survive. 

This was the reason why the state needed to introduce minimum wages or time limits to the working day and week, as well as legal protection for labour unions and other weapons of worker self-defence.  It ensured that the system is protected against the suicidal consequences of leaving unchecked the capitalists’ greed in pursuit of a quick profit. Those factors are now absent and a reversal of this trend is unlikely.

This is because  now labour and capital are no longer interdependent because of technological advances. The ideas of corporate loyalty and rewarding seniority have disappeared. Risk has become a daily necessity shouldered by the masses. Capital, which means power, can move with the speed of the electronic signal  and so it can move its essential ingredients instantaneously. Labour, on the other hand, remains as immobilized as it was in the past. The company is free to move; but the consequences of the move will remain. Whoever is free to run away from the locality, is free to run away from the consequences.

It is the people who cannot move quickly or who cannot leave their place at all, who are ruled. The mobility acquired by ‘people who invest’ has resulted in power being detached from obligations: not only duties towards employees, but also towards the younger and weaker, towards yet unborn generations. This means power has now got freedom from the duty to contribute to daily life and the perpetuation of the community. This freedom implies that capital has to look at only at economic costs; other costs are for the territorially bound to manage.

There are a large number of workers tied to the assembly line or to the computer networks and electronic automated devices like check-out points. Nowadays, they tend to be the most expendable parts of the economic system. Neither particular skills, nor the art of social interaction with clients are required for their jobs - and so they are easiest to replace. Detachment and superficial cooperativeness are better armour for dealing with current realities than behaviour based on values of loyalty and service.

People no longer work at the same company or the same job for long stretches of time. They switch jobs or switch teams or change fields or even become consultants. There’s no predictability, no long-term commitment, no long-term relations with co-workers and bosses, no loyalty, more confusion, etc. “No long term” means keep moving, don’t commit yourself, and don’t sacrifice.  In such an environment, there is no need to look beyond immediate personal satisfaction.  

The uncertainty created by the new realities of the workplace is a powerful individualising force: it makes people think more about themselves and think less about others. It divides instead of uniting, and since there is no telling who will wake up the next day in what division, the idea of 'common interests' loses all pragmatic value. Once the employment of labour has become short-term and precarious there is little chance for mutual loyalty and commitment to develop.  

The mobility of capital has made the modern state powerless. While all the agencies of political life stay within the boundaries of the state, power flows well beyond their reach and thus outside citizens’ control. Capital has acquired enough mobility in most cases to blackmail territory-bound political agencies into submission to its demand. The threat of cutting local ties and moving elsewhere reduces the powers of local agencies to take action. 

A government has little choice but to implore and cajole capital to come in by 'creating better conditions for free  enterprise', which means, using all the regulating power at the government's disposal for deregulation, of dismantling and scrapping the extant 'enterprise constraining' laws and statutes. This means low taxes, fewer or no rules and above all a 'flexible labour market'. More generally, it means a docile population, unable and unwilling to put up an organised resistance to whatever decision the capital might yet take. 

Paradoxically, governments can hope to keep capital in place only by convincing it beyond reasonable doubt that it is free to move away. Governments that don't play ball incur severe costs, generally economic. They may be refused loans or denied reduction of their debts; local currencies would be speculated against and pressed to devalue; local stocks would fall on the global exchanges; the country may face economic sanctions; global investors would withdraw their assets.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 13b

Humans are quite adept at explaining away their moral failures; it is a great talent of the human mind. Those with rising power and increasing wealth justify their elevated rank, and the abuses that such absolute power brings about, with stories of how extraordinary they are. These narratives of exceptionalism spread the idea that the powerful are above the laws of ordinary people and deserve the bigger slice of the pie that they are so ready to take. In Humankind,  Rutger Bregman writes: 

The better the story you spin about yourself, the bigger your piece of the pie. In fact, you could look at the entire evolution of civilisation as a history of rulers who continually devised new justifications for their privileges. 

Leaders (in modern times, they can be called 'political entrepreneurs') convert practical interests into moral claims to persuade others to do what they say. They will use their police and party organization to persuade their most devoted followers to make speeches to the effect that freedom has finally been assured and democracy has finally been realized. No one would tell others, “risk your life because it is good for me.” They say, “if you are a man, this is what you should do.” The thinking of the leaders will be - how will one course of action or another, whether toward war or toward peace, affect my standing among the people? They will ignore what Proust said,  ' . . . indifference to the sufferings one causes which, whatever other names one gives it, is the most terrible and lasting form of cruelty.'

A decision to go to war might be seen as a form of cost-benefit analysis, where war is justified when the costs of going to war are less than the costs of not going to war. Morality is reduced to a matter of accounting. The hero is rational, but though the villain may be cunning and calculating, he cannot be reasoned with. An Us/Them asymmetry is thus established in the public's mind. The enemy's actions will be reported on in terms of murder, theft and rape. One's own actions will never be discussed in terms of murder, assault, and arson. 

One of the most common consequences of war (if things don't go wrong) is an intensification of control by those in leadership positions. Ask people why we have wars, and many will reply, just like that, that it is in human nature. Very few will say  that it is because of the self-interest of leaders. Leaders are quick to let slip the dogs of war because war benefits them. As George Orwell  said, '“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

We make automatic Us/Them dichotomies, favour the former and rationalize that tendency with ideology. Political ideologues by definition hold narrow views. They are blind to what they don’t wish to see. We are easily manipulated. 'Thems' are made to seem so different that they hardly count as human. Demagogues are skilled at this, framing hated 'Thems' — blacks, Jews, Muslims, Tutsis — as insects, rodents, cancers etc. In order to kill, one must cease to see individual human beings and instead reduce them to an abstraction: “the enemy.” Voltaire said that those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities. 

And how do you make them believe those absurdities? By appealing to their feeling of empathy - empathy that is  sparked by stories told about innocent victims of these hated groups. When people think about atrocities, they typically think of hatred and racial ideology and dehumanization, and they are right to do so. But empathy also plays a role. Many people feel that empathy - a capacity to see the world through others’ eyes, to feel what they feel – is a good attribute for a person to have. The more empathy, the better. 

But in Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Paul Bloom makes the counter-intuitive point that  if we want to make the world a better place, then we are better off without empathy. Our empathic experience is influenced by what we think about the person we are empathizing with. You’re not going to feel the pain of those whose problems you see as their own fault or those you view as insignificant. We shut off our social understanding when dealing with certain people: We dehumanize them.

Bloom cites a pair of studies which found that there was a greater connection between empathy and aggression in those subjects who had genes that made them more sensitive to vasopressin and oxytocin, hormones that are implicated in compassion, helping, and empathy. It’s not just that certain scenarios elicit empathy and hence trigger aggression. It’s that certain sorts of people are more vulnerable to being triggered in this way.

In 1990,  in the run-up to the Gulf War, a 15-yr-old refugee from Kuwait appeared before a US congressional Human Rights Caucus. The girl had volunteered in a hospital in Kuwait City. She tearfully testified that Iraqi soldiers had stolen incubators to ship home as plunder, leaving over three hundred premature infants to die. The story horrified the public, was cited by seven senators when justifying their support of war (a resolution that passed by five votes), and was cited more than ten times by George H. W. Bush in arguing for U.S. military involvement. The  US went to war with a 92 percent approval rating of the president’s decision. 

Much later it emerged that the incubator story was a lie. The girl was Nayirah al-Sabah, the fifteen-year-old daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. The incubator story was fabricated by the public relations firm Hill + Knowlton, hired by the Kuwaiti government with the help of co-chair Representative Tom Lantos (D-California). Research by the firm indicated that people would be particularly responsive to stories about atrocities against babies so the incubator tale was concocted, the witness coached. The story of the fiction came out long after the war. Robert Sapolsky writes in Behave:

Be careful when our enemies are made to remind us of maggots and cancer and shit. But also beware when it is our empathic intuitions, rather than our hateful ones, that are manipulated by those who use us for their own goals.

As secularization and modernization have progressed, India has seen more communal violence. Money and politics play a more important role in them than religion. It tends to occur much more in cities. Riots are organised in India in the same way as rallies or strikes and are planned to achieve some specific purpose like discrediting a chief minister or winning an election. Riots have to be organised because it is not easy to make ordinary citizens participate in them. For achieving this one needs detailed planning and hard work. Many parties have skilled 'riot managers' who specelize in organising such violence. In Bonfire of Creeds, Ashis Nandi writes:

It is not difficult today to find out the rate at which riots of various kinds can be bought, how political protection can be obtained for the rioters and how, after a riot, political advantage can be taken of it.

In spite of all the brain-washing, ordinary people do retain some of their humanity. A British infantry soldier serving in World War I said, 'At home one abuses the enemy, and draws insulting caricatures. How tired I am of grotesque Kaisers. Out here, one can respect a brave, skillful, and resourceful enemy. They have people they love at home, they too have to endure mud, rain and steel.' (Quoted in Robert Sapolsky's Behave).

Saturday, November 4, 2023

A Narrow Escape - II

After the firemen had put out the main blaze, they found a couple of small fires in the room. They decided to pour water  in the whole room and told Jaya to remove any valuable objects from the room. Sujit removed the i-Mac, printer and Uma's phone while Jaya removed my wheelchair accessories. A fireman helped Jaya remove a wooden cot and a mattress from the room and then water was poured everywhere. 

The next morning (actually the same morning, since the incident had occurred just past midnight), Uma went to my room and took a video of many affected parts. I was shocked by the scenes of damage. It was a scene from a war-zone - a picture from Ukraine. I was told that setting right the whole house may take about two months and we must stay somewhere else for that time. 

But the damage was not as bad as had been initially feared. When the electrician who had originally done the wiring for the apartment checked the wiring, he found them to be in perfect condition. The fault had been with the AC. There was no need for complete rewiring as had been feared. When the initial cleaning had been done and most of the soot had been removed from the house, the scenario looked a little brighter. 

Except for my room, the rest of the house looked reasonably ok except that it needed a fresh coat of paint. Even in my room, things could have been a lot worse. Miraculously, a curtain near the AC had not caught fire. If it had, then a curtain next to it would have caught fire, then the TV next to it . . . plenty more inflammable material were in line and the result would have been far worse. Amazingly, none of this happened. 

One of Jaya's cousins has a house around 3km. from our house. He comes there for about one day a month but it is otherwise unoccupied. He told us to stay there till our house was ready which we now estimated to take around a month. It is from this house that I am typing these ramblings (on the few occasions that I manage to sit)  on the i-Mac that had been retrieved from my room and is in fine condition. 

Jaya and her brother, Unni, were slogging all day to get our house back to good condition. Jaya was leaving our temporary house at ten in the morning and returning after ten in the night while Unni slept overnight at our house. Uma held the fort at our temporary accommodation while Sujit went to our house after office and returned with Jaya. Meanwhile, most of of the time, I was lying peacefully on the bed listening to podcasts using the i-Mac and AirPods. I had many podcasts to catch up on and this was as good a time as any to do so. The only 'work' I had to do regarding our house was to get an executive summary of the work done during the day and give my expert comments.  Life is very unfair, if you didn’t already know it. 

We were lucky that the incident happened at the time it did (past midnight), when all three - Jaya, Sujit and Uma were at home and could distribute the tasks among themselves and act on them quickly. If it had happened in the morning, there was a very high probability that I would have been trapped. Sujit would have gone to the office and Jaya may have gone to buy something or gone to the post office/bank etc. If Uma had to go out, Jaya would be at home. These are common situations that cannot be avoided. 

It is impossible for only one person to shift me to the wheelchair. The only other people who might have been in the house - Jaya's parents or my mother - are too old to help shift me. (Of course, people are capable of doing incredible things in life or death situations so the possibility of them helping to shift me cannot be ruled out). The problem need not always be caused by the AC thus increasing he situations of possible danger. A friend told us some days after the incident that a refrigerator had exploded killing one person - not the kind of news that soothes jangling nerves. 

P. G. Wodehouse said in Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest, “I'm not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it's Shakespeare who says that it's always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.” Basically Fate has a pretty wide range of possible scenarios in which to spoil your best laid plans. If you keep thinking about them you won’t be able to cross the road. 

Our house was finally ready in just over three weeks, much earlier than the initial estimate of two months. Some pujas were performed and I was back in my familiar haunt on 31st October. Some works are still pending but they can be done while we are staying here.  My room looks better than before with a bookshelf added, a new AC and a fresh coat of paint. 

If everything goes smoothly and I settle into my regular routine, you can expect the resumption of my series on 'Social production of moral indifference'. A key learning from this incident is that 'boring is good'. 'Breaking news' is often bad news. (Except on Indian TV news channels where it will often be no news. Eg. 'Breaking news: PM inaugurates CII meet'.)

Friday, October 13, 2023

A Narrow Escape - I

“Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing-glove.” ― P.G. Wodehouse, Very Good, Jeeves!

A few minutes past the midnight hour, when the world slept, we awoke and ran for our lives. Our tryst with destiny was too hot for comfort. 'Whew', I believe is the mot juste

At 12:30AM on 5th October. I woke up from sleep with a start due to a loud sound like the bursting of a firecracker. For some reason, my eyes went to the AC and I could see some sort of glow near it. I made aa sound to call Uma (about whom I had written earlier) who got up immediately. She switched on the light and asked, 'Was there some sound?' 

She had been woken up by the sound and was wondering whether it was from inside the house or outside it. She was confused by the fact that there is a transformer in the street outside which makes a similar sound when it develops a short circuit. When I called, she suspected that the sound may have been from inside the house. 

The fact that the sound had woken her up helped me to call her easily. If she had been fast asleep, I would have had to put more effort to produce a louder sound and call a few more times. After waking her up, I would have had to dictate to her letter by letter  what I thought had happened. All this would have taken a few minutes. In the ultimate analysis, saving these few minutes may have proved important in the story that followed. 

Uma saw me looking at the AC and she also looked at it and saw some smoke coming out of it. She switched off the AC, opened the windows and doors and ran to call Jaya who was sleeping in the adjoining room with her father and Sujit. When Jaya got the information, she woke up Sujit and came to my room. By now the smoke in my room had thickened, there were sparks coming from the AC and there was the acrid smell of burnt wire. 

She quickly woke up her mother (who was sleeping in my room) and told her to leave immediately. She told Sujit to shift me and ran to wake up her father. She also called up her brother in Chennai to ask him about safety precautions to be taken. He told her to switch off the mains. She then turned off the gas.

Meanwhile, Uma pulled the head-end of my cot away from the AC and got my wheelchair ready. She fixed one footrest to the wheelchair but before she could fix the other, Sujit said that I have to be shifted immediately; the fire was looking too menacing. She and Sujit shifted me to the wheelchair and I was rushed out of the room sitting awkwardly and covered only with a bedspread.

When I reached the front hall, I saw that some neighbours had woken up and had come to enquire what had happened. By now Jaya realised that the situation was beyond our control and she told Sujit to call the police and the fire brigade. She then told Uma to take me to a neighbour's house where my position on the wheelchair was corrected. Then I heard that the fire brigade had arrived.

Jaya then decided that I should go to another neighbour's house two floors below. Here I saw more neighbours, some of whom I have never met before. They must have been tenants who keep to themselves. There was nothing to do now but wait. I was afraid of getting  a lot of cough which would make my body stiff. This would make it difficult for others to control me since I didn't have on me all my wheelchair accessories.

After what seemed like an eternity (but what in reality was about an hour), I was told that the firemen had left. I heard that the house was totally wet and there was no question of going back that night. Our next door neighbour had given us their house keys before going to Bangalore. They got to know of the incident, rang up Jaya and told us to use their house till they came back.

Some time after the firemen had left, Jaya came to the house where many of us were sitting and gave a laugh of relief and everyone joined in. When a family friend called after a couple of days, she said, 'Uncle, we had a big, early Diwali celebration in Suresh's room.' What causes a potentially disastrous situation to be viewed with humour? 

I remember reading something about this by the neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. If your friend slips on a banana skin and falls in an ungainly heap on the floor, you start laughing but if you see that he has broken a leg, your laughter will cease. So if a situation ends without anyone getting hurt, you will laugh, else you will be glum. It was a miracle that all of us escaped unharmed, hence the laughter of relief inspite of the material damage. 

It was past 3 AM before we turned in for the night.  Obviously, none of us had much sleep that night. I snoozed for all of about ten minutes.

Friday, September 29, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 13a

Oftentimes these ministers of darkness tell us truths in little things, to betray us into deeds of greatest consequence. - Charles Lamb  

There’s one group which can easily keep the enemy at a distance: the leaders. While soldiers tend to be ordinary people, their leaders are a different story. We seem to be societies of altruists led by sociopaths. In his autobiography I. Asimov: A Memoir, Isaac Asimov tells of his  decision to major in zoology in graduate school which he calls an '"incredible mistake'. He says that he had to dissect various creatures, an activity that he disliked intensely but grew used to. Once he had to kill a cat.

 Like a fool, I did it. After all, I was only following the orders of my superior, like any Nazi functionary in the death camps. But I never recovered. That killed cat lives with me, and to this day, over half a century later, when I think of it, I double up in misery. I dropped zoology at the completion of the year.

Leaders seem to be able to get rid of the killed cat from their memories much more easily than the rest of us can. Four percent of us are born sociopaths, though they are over-represented among criminals, bankers, lawyers and politicians. (I’m not joking.) ‘The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power,’ said Brutus in William Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar. The commanders of armies and of terrorist organisations who hand down orders don’t have to stifle feelings of empathy for their opponent. Many leaders have been manipulative and egocentric, rarely troubled by feelings of compassion or doubt. 

An example was seen during the Christmas truce during WWII Among the units which observed the cease-fire, not all men approved of the decision. An obscure corporal named Adolf Hitler, who, as a dispatch runner for regimental headquarters, rarely went as far as the forward trenches, sharply criticized the behaviour of men in his regiment who had opted to join the British in No Man’s Land. “Such a thing should not happen in wartime,” he is reported to have said. “Have you no German sense of honour?”

In the days following Christmas, violence returned to the Western Front after officers’ threats of court-martial. While the truce could not have succeeded without the endorsement of junior officers on both sides, British and German generals quickly took steps to prevent any further episodes of fraternization between their men. Still, there were no courts-martial or punishments linked to the events of the Christmas Truce; senior commanders likely recognized the disastrous effect that such a move would have on morale in the trenches. It never happened again, as even brief Christmas truces to retrieve the dead led to court-martials.

Even for normal people, power poses a challenge. Having power feels good but enjoying the delights of power too much lead to impulsive, unethical action and delusional thought. The power paradox is always close by. Machiavelli’s saying “It is better to be feared than loved” is the most widely known maxim about power, Lord Acton’s “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a close second. Experiments have shown that first is largely untrue while second is very much operational. 

We have a deep cultural intuition that nice guys finish last, that one must step on others to rise in the ranks, and that acquiring power requires the cold-blooded removal of rivals and even allies. But nothing could be further from the truth. Social psychologists have studied who rises in power in different arenas like financial firms, hospitals, and manufacturing plants. The strongest predictor of those who acquired power were enthusiasm, kindness, focus, calmness, and openness. Then how come we have so many disagreeable leaders?

The problem seems to be that the experience of having power sows the seeds of destruction. Power makes us feel less dependent upon others thus making us shift our focus away from others to our own goals and desires. As our empathy wanes, so does our capacity for moral sentiments that depend on empathy — concern for others’ suffering (compassion), reverence for what others give (gratitude), and inspiration experienced in appreciating others’ goodness (elevation). This makes us distance ourselves from those  we believe to be below us and tell stories that divide and demean. 

There is a kind of brain trauma that goes by the name “acquired sociopathy” caused by damage to the frontal parts of the brain due to an accident. Such accidents can transform upstanding, kind people into sociopaths, prone to expressing self-serving impulses like shouting profanities at their kids, shoplift, go on spending sprees etc. (The most famous of such patients in neurological history was Phineas Gage.)

Experiences of power and privilege are like a form of brain damage, leading us to self-serving, impulsive behaviour. Experiments show that the powerful feel entitled to take more than their fair share, to endorse more impulsive, unethical behaviour, apparently neglecting the effects of their actions upon others.  People feeling powerful were more likely to say it’s okay to not pay taxes, and that there’s nothing wrong with over-reporting travel expenses or speeding on highways. 

Michael Lewis addressed Princeton students by describing an experiment conducted by psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley. The researchers sent volunteer subjects into small rooms in same-sex groups of three and gave them a complex moral problem to resolve, such as what to do about an episode of cheating on an exam. Arbitrarily, they assigned one member of each group as its leader. Thirty minutes into each team’s deliberations, a researcher entered the room with a plate bearing four cookies for the three volunteers.

Who ate the extra cookie? In each case, it was the leader of the group, even though, as Lewis notes, “He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.' As Dacher Keltner writes in The Power Paradox: How We Ge Gain and Lose Influence:

Lord Acton’s thesis prevails. People who enjoy elevated power are more likely to eat impulsively and have sexual affairs, to violate the rules of the road, to lie and cheat, to shoplift, to take candy from children, and to communicate in rude, profane, and disrespectful ways. 

Absolute power does indeed corrupt absolutely. The experience of power destroys the skills that gained us power in the first place.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 12b

'War doesn’t determine who is right, it decides who is left', said Bertrand Russell. But the process of overcoming human aversion to killing has gone on throughout human history. In combat, soldiers find it hard to kill at close range. Analysis of various battles showed that the majority of soldiers never fired their guns. There’s something that holds people back, making us incapable of pulling the trigger. Those who would not fire did not run or hide—in many cases, they were willing to risk greater danger to rescue comrades, get ammunition, or run messages. Military historians have discovered that stabbing a fellow human being is even harder than shooting at close range. 

The observation of low firing rates till World War II resulted in the US army, and subsequently other armies, initiating certain changes in their training methods designed to enable killing in the modern soldier. It initiated an era of psychological warfare, conducted not upon the enemy, but upon one’s own troops. The philosopher-psychologist Peter Marin says the lack of discussion about the topic is "a massive unconscious cover-up" in which society hides itself from the true nature of combat.

Training techniques of modern soldiers try to develop a reflexive "quick shoot" ability. If men reflect too deeply upon the enemy's common humanity, then they risk being unable to proceed with the task of killing the enemy. Instead of shooting at bull's-eye targets, the modern soldier spends many hours with full combat gear shooting at  man-shaped targets at varying ranges. The soldier must instantly aim and shoot at the target(s). Soldiers are highly rewarded and recognised for success in this skill of accurately "engaging" the targets — a standard euphemism for "kill." 

There is the development of boot-camp glorification of killing. It was almost unheard of in World War I, rare in World War II, increasingly present in Korea, and thoroughly institutionalized in Vietnam. For eg., Vietnam recruits were immersed in boot camps that exalted not only a sense of brotherhood, but also the most brutal violence, forcing the men to scream ‘KILL! KILL! KILL!’ until they were hoarse. The language used in training camps to describe the joys of killing people helps desensitize soldiers to the suffering of an enemy.

An article by an Army major (Pierson, 1999) in Military Review advised commanders to identify the less than 4% of troops who are psycho or sociopathic because they are the ones who can be counted on to willingly kill. (“[A] controlled psychopath is an asset on the killing fields”.) The resistance to killing can be psychologically modified. It’s easier to kill when you aren’t targeting an identified individual — so throwing a grenade into a group is easier than shooting at one person. The intensity of the trauma suffered by an individual who kills another is proportional to the distance between the two. 

Most of the time, wartime killing is something you do from far away so that you don't see the enemy. The development of the rifle greatly increased the distance and speed of killing. From the mid-nineteenth century on, technological innovations made it possible to kill ever-increasing numbers of non-combatants at greater distances with heavy cannon, far beyond the direct perception of the artillerists who manned them and who hardly noticed the suffering they inflicted. This long-distance killing peaked with the firebombings of Tokyo and the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Most people are killed by someone who pushed a button, dropped a bomb, or planted a mine. The mechanical distance provided by the unreality of killing through a TV screen, a thermal sight, a sniper sight, or some other kind of mechanical buffer makes killing easier. You could even describe the whole evolution of military technology as a process in which the psychological distance between the combatants is progressively increased. A very modern way of increasing the ease of killing is what the US military does today using armed drones. You can also drug your soldiers to dull their natural empathy and antipathy towards violence. 

Killing becomes easier when guilt is diffused. It allows the shooter to think that even if he hadn’t done it, it still would have happened. This idea is used in modern execution technology in the US. Lethal injection machines used in prison executions come with a dual control system — two syringes, each filled with a lethal dose, two separate delivery systems, two buttons pressed simultaneously by two different people. Then  a random binary generator would secretly determine which syringe was emptied into a bucket and which into a human. And then the record would be erased, allowing each person to think, “Hey, I may not even have given him any drug.” 

Aside from long-range weapons, armies also pursue means to increase psychological distance to the enemy. If you can dehumanise the other – say, by portraying them as vermin – it makes it easier to treat the other as if they are indeed inhuman. If depersonalization is stretched into hatred, the restraints on human behaviour in war are easily swept aside. Without the creation of abstract images of the enemy, and without the depersonalization of the enemy during training, battle would become impossible to sustain.  

But increasing the 'kill-rate' comes with a cost. Many soldiers returned after the Vietnam war with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This had been framed as a result of the sheer terror of being under attack, of someone trying to kill you and those around you. But psychologists eventually realized that this was a simplistic explanation. During World War II there were low rates of psychiatric breakdowns among sailors and medics — people who were just as endangered as infantrymen but killed either impersonally or not at all. Militaries train soldiers to override their inhibitions against killing, and something inside them had died, too.

Consider drone pilots — soldiers who sit in the United States, directing drones on the other side of the planet. They are not in danger. Yet their rates of PTSD are just as high as those of soldiers actually “in” war. Why? Drone pilots kill from thousands of miles away using imaging technology of extraordinary quality. A target is identified, and a drone operator might watch him for weeks. He would watch the target coming and going, eating dinner, taking a nap on his deck, playing with his kids. And then comes the command to fire. No personal danger, killing is a day job for them. Yet they suffer from PTSD.

The study of killing gives us good reason to feel optimistic about human nature, for it reveals that almost all of us are overwhelmingly reluctant to kill a member of our own species under just about any circumstance.  Armies have had to develop sophisticated methods for overcoming our innate aversion to killing, It challenges the popular myth that human beings are “natural-born killers.” Popular culture has done much to perpetuate the myth of easy killing..

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 12a

The basic aim of a nation at war is establishing an image of the enemy in order to distinguish as sharply as possible the act of killing from the act of murder. — Glenn Gray 

Virtually every aspect of our normal speech uses hidden metaphors to communicate abstract ideas and concepts. The metaphors cultures use become so fixed in thought that people  forget they are metaphors and begin to believe them as fact. As George Lakoff puts it, 'Metaphorical concepts . . .  structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality.” People in power get to impose their metaphors on us - political, business and religious leaders, media, advertisers, etc. War metaphors are in common use with everything conceived as a battle, as a zero-sum game with winners and losers. 

We talk of various things in terms of a war because we conceive of them that way, and we act according to how we conceive of things. And as George Lakoff wrote in his paper 'Metaphor and War , '...metaphors backed up by bombs can kill.' James Childress describes the use of war as a metaphor as a dilemma: "In debating social policy through the language of war, we often forget the moral reality of war." Their widespread use dulls the realisation that the brutality of war dehumanises us all. Childress observes, 'We are tempted by seedy realism, with its doctrine that might makes right, or we are tempted by an equally dangerous mentality of crusade or holy war, with its doctrine that right makes might of any kind acceptable.' 

When you remove all the fancy verbiage, you get the reality of war which would be considered serious crime in any other situation. The metaphor system promotes what psychologists call isolation: the dissociation of actions and feelings which allows actions to be pursued without being burdened by feelings. There is a dichotomy in the use of this metaphor system: it is used only to describe the enemy; when it comes to one's own side, the real horror is described. Lakof writes: 'Reality exists. So does the unconscious system of metaphors that we use without awareness to comprehend reality. What metaphor does is limit what we notice . . . '

This makes it important to distinguish what is metaphorical from what is not. Pain, dismemberment, death, starvation, and the death and injury of loved ones are not metaphorical. They are real and they could afflict hundreds of thousands of real human beings. War is violent crime: murder, assault, kidnapping, arson, rape, and theft. To hide this reality, a fairy tale with an asymmetry built into it is sold to the public. The hero (one's own country) is moral and courageous, while the villain (enemy) is amoral and vicious. 

In The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Raghavan Iyer writes about Mr. Rae, a schoolmaster at Harrow, who deplored the fact that even children have been so indoctrinated  by the idea of inevitable killing that they have no vision of a world, no desire for a world in which killing is as uncivilized as cannibalism. He mentions three dangerous myths - 1) that violence is not only justifiable but also laudable; 2) that war is fun, a great game; 3) that physical courage is the finest virtue and the moral courage shown by the conscientious objector is contemptible. He writes:

These myths were not, of course, created and spread by those who were doing the fighting; no one who has looked war in the face could describe it as a game. These myths were an essential part of the home front, offspring of official propaganda and human blindness.

Mr. Rae believes that wars are made possible not by megalomaniac dictators or religious fanatics or foolish politicians or blind patriots, but because the majority of people in the world have been brought up to accept war and violence as a normal part of life.

Fraternising between enemy soldiers is quite frequent in war (when they are enlisted men rather than officers.) This has been recorded in the Spanish Civil War, Crimean War, the American Civil War etc. One of most famous of such instances was the Christmas truce during WWII.

On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary hiatus of the war for the celebration of Christmas. Benedict’s hope was that a truce would allow the warring powers to negotiate a fair and lasting peace, but there was little interest from leaders on either side. This did not stop soldiers at the front from seizing the initiative, however, when outside events seemed to provide a path to the truce that their leaders had rejected. The warring countries refused to create any official cease-fire, but on Christmas the soldiers in the trenches declared their own unofficial truce.

Many lower ranking German and British troops exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. Some Germans lit Christmas trees around their trenches, and there was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides laying a good-natured game of soccer. This policy came to be known as “live and let live,” and it would be adopted on an ad hoc basis throughout the war, particularly in less active sectors. It was never repeated — future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action.

Most psychologists used to believe that an army’s fighting power was determined by ideology, love of one’s country, or faith in one’s chosen party. The widely accepted view was that the soldiers who were most thoroughly convinced they stood on the right side of history and that theirs was the legitimate worldview would put up the best fight. During WWII, most experts agreed that this theory explained why the Germans had a desertion rate that approached zero, and why they fought harder than the Americans and the British. 

A psychologist interviewed one German captive after another and found that this explanation was wrong. The real reason why the German army was capable of putting forth an almost superhuman fight was friendship. All those German men who had resisted the Allied advance tooth and nail had taken up arms for one another. They weren’t fighting for a Thousand-Year Riech but because they didn’t want to let down their mates. ‘Nazism begins ten miles behind the front line,’ scoffed one German prisoner, whereas friendship was right there in every bunker and trench.

Later historians discovered that the military commanders were well aware of this thinking of the soldiers and used it to their advantage. Nazi generals went to great lengths to keep comrades together, even withdrawing whole divisions for as long as it took new recruits to form friendships, and only then sent everyone back into the fray.