By espousing the importance of external bystanders in

            By
viewing the devalued group as less than human, violence against them, becomes
increasingly acceptable. To support his argument, Staub relies on a number of psychological
and social experiments, including the Milgram study which focused on one’s orientation
to authority; the Stanford Prison Study focused on hostility; and Steiner’s
research on former SS “sleeper” members who respond to certain conditions
within an environment. While Staub recognizes the role of obedience in these
cases, he believes its influence is done to a lesser extent. Though Staub
offers an exhaustive view by social-psychologists to support his findings, little
quantitative analysis is presented to support his claim. Furthermore, despite
espousing the importance of external bystanders in preventing group violence,
Staub provides little, if any analysis, on the impacts of international law as
a deterrent or on the availability of external state pressure. (Perhaps this
undercuts his assumption that universal psychological needs and beliefs exist).
Staub also relies heavily on broad generalizations about the nature of society.
For instance, Staub assumes that a national character can be uniformly present
in societies like Argentina and Turkey. Nevertheless, Staub’s work is a refreshing
take on the origins of genocide. Staub’s focus on human nature as a precursor
to violence is a welcome addition to current literature which focuses almost
extensively on economic or political factors. I am left wondering how Staub’s
continuum would work in today’s globalized society? Would mass violence by
non-state actors across borders fit into the same continuum; and if so, how
might technology impact his theory? While I agree with Staub that altruism can counteract
evil, I adopt a more realist view. Unless and until realpolitik is addressed group
violence will continue along the continuum of destruction. If humans really
learned by doing, we wouldn’t have to repeat Nunca mas.

            Group
aggression, like genocide, evolves over
time. Psychologists like Staub have identified two primary conditions that
instigate aggression: (1) frustration
resulting from the interference with goal-directed behavior, and (2) an attack on or threat to life, well-being or self-concept. Here we see one of the first stages
along the continuum. When difficult life conditions exist, such as deteriorating
economic conditions in Nazi Germany or political instability from military coups
in Argentina, people focus on self-protection. Because of changes to their surrounding
circumstances (whether economic, moral, social or even territorial) it is hard
for groups to satisfy their goals; instead, this leads them to internalize frustrations
as a result of another’s actions, creating unintended psychological
consequences. These include devaluation of the victim group, scapegoating, adopting
new ideologies and assimilation into new groups. However, most problems are so
complex that no one person or group can truly be responsible for any particular
outcome – except perhaps bystanders. Because bystanders exist outside the
victim/perpetrator divide, Staub implicitly assumes that perpetrators will be
viewed “us” rather than “them.” I’m not convinced.

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            To
prevent genocide and “lesser” cruelties like torture, war and group violence
from occurring, Staub focuses on two things: motivation and action. For Staub, altruism,
empathy, modeling and socialization must be activated. Personal goal theory describes how individuals and cultures select
goals to actively pursue, and suggests ways to determine when it is likely they
will act towards fulfillment of those goals. Such a theory necessarily rests on
the idea that individuals and groups possess a hierarchy of motives. To
illustrate his point, he focuses on four historical situations: the
extermination of six million Jews in Nazi Germany; the first “modern” genocide
of the Armenians in Turkey; the “autogenocide” carried out by the Khmer Rouge
in Cambodia; and the disappearances / executions of thousands in Argentina
during the 1970s. He compares each of these cases to a list of conditions he
believes help predicate group violence: the formation of cultural self-concept,
goals, values, devaluation of subgroups, orientation to authority, monolithic vs.
pluralistic cultures, and ideology. In all four cases, violence was a common
precursor; devaluation of the groups that became victims was always evident; ideology
played a critical role; and shared problems, motives and solutions effectively led
groups to turn against one another. While each of these steps along the continuum
are unique, they do not in and of themselves lead straight to genocide.

            For
his conceptual framework, Staub observes the interaction between cultural
predispositions for violence, familial structures and upbringing, conflicts between groups, as well as the
nature and fulfillment of one’s psychological
needs through social processes.  Difficult life conditions, such as war
and deteriorating economic circumstances, are then coupled with cultural and personal characteristics. Conflicts
between groups over material resources, power and societal self-identification
lead to new dangers: moral exclusion, better world ideologies, scapegoating,
devaluation, stereotyping, and ultimately, mass violence. In his discussion on
the impacts of cultural foundations within society, Staub implies that monolithic
societies are more likely to commit genocide than pluralistic ones. While this
may lead to shared threat perceptions, no further analysis is given. As such, one
can only assume that such a belief is premised on principles articulated by democratic
peace theory. Cultural foundations also play a significant role and are
reflected in a society’s orientation to authority. Here Staub examines the
impact of nationalist movements in both Turkey and Germany. An equally
important component of cultural foundations is the way in which the society and
political institutions are organized. As Staub notes, societies with a history
of victimization are likely to view the world as a dangerous place. He assumes
that when past violence and victimization are left unaddressed those affected
will risk traveling along the continuum, transforming themselves from victims
acting in self-defense to perpetrators. All that’s left is for bystanders to
stand idle, further solidifying divisions between “us” and “them.” In societies
where difficult life conditions, conflicts between groups and psychological needs are unmet, the
passivity of bystanders all but guarantees that intense forms of group violence
will occur. Having recognized the great potential for change housed within
bystanders, Staub seems to imply that their inaction and complicity makes them just as evil as perpetrators.

            Rather than ask why
human beings commit genocide, mass killings, and other forms of group violence,
Ervin Staub explains just how normal and ordinary group violence is. In The Roots of Evil, Staub argues that intense
violence between groups does not suddenly emerge, but instead, progresses along
a continuum of human destruction. Put differently, evil is an evolution, not an anomaly. By carefully
studying historical, psychological and social situations, Staub identifies conditions
that make extreme violence probable, though not certain. As part of his
analysis, Staub considers the many influences (both internal and external) that
play a role in determining whether group violence will escalate to its
genocidal apex.  

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