Tuesday, December 13, 2011

WTF?: How Hitler Ran Amok, Mao Died in Bed, and Your Jerk Brother Ruined Your Thanksgiving

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. But first let me recap:

In six pieces, we have investigated evil, using Barbara Oakley’s 2007 “Evil Genes” as our source. Dr Oakley noted that the type of people who specialize in making your life miserable are best described as Machiavellian, what she calls the “successfully sinister.” These may range from Hitler to the family jerk who ruins everyone’s Thanksgiving.

In her book, Dr Oakley laid out an impressive array of brain science to illustrate that all of us have far less dominion over our thoughts and actions than our over-inflated egos would lead us to believe. Someone whose brain is wired to over-react to stressful situations, for instance, is going to behave a lot differently than someone who isn’t. On and on it goes.

But there is no such thing as a bad gene or a good gene. What may be maladaptive in one environment can be supremely advantageous in another. And so in every generation we find our next crop of Ivan the Terrible’s, out for themselves at the expense of everyone else. Dr Oakley describes these individuals as “borderpaths,” combining traits of psycho/sociopathy and borderline, with a elements of narcissism and paranoia thrown in.

Fine, you may say. That may explain what makes these individuals tick, but what about us - their victims? What is it about us that allows them to get away with it - again and again and again? There will always be another Hitler, and you know that your next Thanksgiving is going to be as miserable as your last one.

What is going on here? As Dr Oakley makes clear, these individuals are successful for a reason. To a person, they are virtuoso manipulators, cut-throats, and con artists. If life is a game of chess, they are four moves ahead. You - what Dr Oakley loosely describes as the altruistic - never see it coming. Eventually we may get smart, but not before the damage is done.

Fine, but we’re talking about Hitler, here. Not to mention Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Milosevic, and a host of others. What gives?

Explanation Number One: Political and economic and social upheaval.

People are miserable, the rules suddenly change - anything goes. Hitler and Stalin and Mao were born with royalty running their respective countries. They came of age in a time when the lunatics were taking over the asylum, awaiting the inevitable lunatic-in-chief.

Explanation Number Two: Exploiting people’s fears and resentments is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.

It’s the oldest and most pernicious con game in the world. Hitler was a master at it. Milosevic worked off of Hitler’s playbook. Pick a scapegoat - any scapegoat - shake and bake and serve at room temperature.

Explanation Number Three: Mob mentality.

I picked up some insights into this in my previous life as a financial journalist covering a boom-and-bust cycle in New Zealand and Australia back in the 1980s. If enough people start saying night is day long enough and loud enough, eventually even people with brains start believing it. Soon, everyone is driving in the dark with their lights off.

Explanation Number Four: People will believe what they want to believe, regardless of the facts.

This has been a recurring theme here at Knowledge is Necessity. Conspiracy theorists specialize in this sort of thing, but none of us is immune. We all tend to rationalize away inconvenient facts we don’t like, while pouncing on the tiniest shred of innuendo as holy writ. This comes back to Oakley’s theme that our capacity to think things through is vastly over-rated.

Explanation Number Five: Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Give someone the position Fuhrer-For-Life and wait for Armageddon to visit your neighborhood.

Wrapping it Up

No doubt I left a lot of stuff out, but this should get us started.

More to come ...

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