Gang Behavior. Have you ever been a member of a street gang fighting rival gangs over gangland territory? How about a sports team gang preparing to demolish the other guys? A corporate gang fighting labor unions over control of corporate profits and resources? An ideologically-driven political gang fighting against rival political parties for control of the government and national resources? Every adult human and most teenage children have been affected by gang-related behavior at some point in their lives. The reality of human existence is that group behavior inevitably culminates into self-interested gangs, which results in competition and conflict between in-groups and out-groups throughout all human societies.
Psychological Distancing. It appears that the human brain has adapted a feature that allows the human mind to engage in selective recollection and selective perception, especially when competition and conflict with other humans emerges. This results in a phenomenon called “Psychological Distancing,” which is a concept first developed by Heinz Werner and Bernard Kaplan during the mid-20th Century and later used by Christopher Browning in his book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, to explain how “ordinary German citizens” could commit extraordinary human atrocities.
The Manifestation of Psychological Distancing in Our Lives. Psychological Distancing is what enables soldiers to mutilate their perceived enemies on the battlefield without remorse. It is what enabled the Nazis to exterminate the Jews, Roma (gypsies), communists, Pols, and many other out-groups on an industrial scale. It is what enables the rich and powerful in many societies to disregard the needs of the poor and powerless. It is what enables conservatives and liberals in many countries (especially in the United States today) to hate and denounce each another without meaningful regard for the conditions and facts associated to their respective lives and needs. And it is what enabled “ordinary German citizens” to substantially ignore the suffering of Hitler’s human atrocities during the Nazi Holocaust.
Psychological Distancing is a Self-Preservation Mechanism. Psychological Distancing fundamentally prevents the human brain from perceiving the full reality of any confrontation or conflict of interest. It substantially prevents the human brain from processing the channels of information that originate from the sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, and touch) and prevents them from triggering the full spectrum of human emotions (including sympathy and empathy) that would otherwise be possible outside of a perceived conflict. This is a self-preservation mechanism that can be useful when humans are threatened with real existential danger (e.g., murder, rape, malicious theft and brutality) because it suppresses many of the instinctual inhibitions that typically moderate human-on-human violence.
Perceptual Amplification Results in Behavioral Amplification. In contrast to prehistoric life in the jungle or on the savanna when humans had to compete for food against non-human wild animals, in modern societies, the greatest threat that most humans face is a gradual loss of income, liberty, and/or power due to tax, labor, regulatory, and social welfare policies. However, those threats are often perceptually amplified in the human mind into existential wars over life and property. This is because the human brain often does not assign accurate or realistic threat levels to perceived threats. Thus, small threats are often perceived as large threats. As this threat amplification occurs, the phenomenon of Psychological Distancing is triggered in our brains, which leads to over-exaggerated responses to other humans, resulting in out-group/in-group conflicts and abuses that would not otherwise occur.
When Power Concentrates, Human Brutality is the Rule, Not the Exception. Nothing in human history can reasonably lead us to believe that humans, when left to their own devices, will spontaneously uphold the law, peace, and social stability. Examples of large-scale human atrocities abound, including the indiscriminate Nazi purges of Jews, Pols, and Russians in Eastern Europe prior to and during WWII; the purges on both sides of the Korean DMZ prior to and during the Korean War; the purges in Stalinist Russia; Pol Pot’s Cambodia; Maoist China; and the historical dictatorial governments in Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Hungary, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Great Britain in India, Iraq, and many other countries.
American Genocide Inspired Nazi Genocide. The list of large-scale human atrocities would not be complete without including the United States, in which the largest purge in human history occurred: The brutal and systematic purge of 50-100 million American Indians. In fact, Hitler “admired the camps . . . and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination–by starvation and uneven combat–of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity.” Hitler also praised Americans because they “gunned down the millions of Redskins to a few hundred thousand.”1
Psychological Distancing + Self-Serving Rationalizations = Systemic Injustice. In all those cases, humans with political and economic power ignored the suffering and needs of large human populations. They also conjured up self-serving ideologies and fictitious mythologies to justify their violence and oppression of others. This process of Psychological Distancing and corresponding self-serving rationalization is fundamentally no different than the structural violence that occurs in many countries today as a result of the forced adoption of Neoliberal economic policies, which claim to be designed to promote free-market Capitalism. Of course, global markets today are not free at all when we take into account the way the global economic system has been engineered to favor the largest corporations and the humans that control them at the expense of smaller companies and the general population.
Confusing Self-Interest with National Interest. Confusing self-interest with the national interest–either consciously or unconsciously–is one of the skillful self-deceptions that humans have evolved to survive confrontations with real and metaphorical threats. However, a country’s social capital disintegrates when communities are destroyed by public policies that are perceived to be the result of poorly managed government; and governments controlled by a handful of self-serving corporate interest groups will always be poorly managed. This is because they will always consider their narrow interests first, at the expense of the broader interests of society.
A Gradual Slide into Tyranny. When communities are destabilized and destroyed by special interest groups that take control of the reins of government power to serve their own interests at the expense of the broader societal interest, socially beneficial concepts like fairness, trust, and compassion are systematically and culturally destroyed and the tenuous bonds of civilized society disintegrate. In the process, Psychological Distancing desensitizes humans throughout the society to the long-term consequences of their actions. This is not usually a conscious choice; rather, it is a gradual but predictable deconstruction of all the virtues and ideals that separate humans from other non-human animals, which results in a gradual slide into abject despotism, systemic injustice, and brutal tyranny.