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).