Over my lifetime I have heard many explanations of why so many Germans were complicit in the atrocities committed during World War II. None of them is credible. Early accounts, during my youth, asserted that the Germans were either duped or unaware of what was happening, and that all the atrocities were committed by a small group of psychopathic leaders. This theory is absurd — no leaders could possibly pull off such a deception of their own people. More recent accounts would have us believe that Germans had been systematically indoctrinated for decades with anti-Semitism and xenophobia, to the point that, like North American slave owners a century earlier, and male patriarchs in most of the Western world a century before that, they couldn’t conceive of these ‘others’ being ‘real’ people at all, entitled to treatment as civilized humans, as peers. Or they would have us believe that the German people, reeling under the collective shame of military failure twenty years earlier and suffering from the terrifying, seemingly endless poverty and misery of the Great Depression, were so overcome with Nazism’s generous sharing of the plunders of foreign imperialism and war, and so terrified by a world seemingly coming apart, that they willingly, gleefully accepted the genocidal consequences of this liberation from poverty, hopelessness, shame and fear.
In the last century we saw atrocities committed in even greater numbers by Stalin and Mao in their own countries, resulting in the murder, often under unimaginably cruel circumstances, of 60 million and 80 million people respectively. Go back earlier in history and such atrocities will be found everywhere on the planet. Go forward and the two most extreme examples of the past decade — in the Balkan states of the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda — make clear that this is not something that civilized societies outgrow.
In every case there either was obviously (as in Rwanda) or must have been extremely broad acceptance of and complicity in systematic mass murder or genocide, in the ruthless killing of ‘other’ people to the point of extermination. In almost every case mass murder seems to be the product of desperation, of a mass psychosis brought about by the stress of fear, shame, suffering and poverty, sufficient to drive most people to overcome the universal human instinct not to kill a fellow human, to accept any vaguely plausible rationale to turn on each other and shed blood.
Once this desperation starts to set in, other psychotic behaviours follow. The first and most obvious of these is denial — which comes in two ‘flavours’: (a) it’s not really that bad, and (b) there is no choice, they’re only doing what’s necessary. Once the psychotic begins to understand that his fellow citizens, and his ‘leaders’, are engaging in immoral and illegal behaviour, denial in one or both of these forms is almost inevitable: it is the only way that the actions can be ‘justified’, rationalized, made sense of.
The second of these subsequent psychotic behaviours is willing helplessness and ignorance, which again comes in two ‘flavours’: (a) I don’t know about that (code for I don’t want to know about that), and (b) there’s nothing we can do about that (it’s not our fault/responsibility/within our control).
Most of us really know, though we don’t really want to know and don’t want to admit it, that much of the food we eat today comes at a cost of almost unbearable, lifelong confinement and suffering of the animals whose ‘products’ we eat. When animal rights groups point that out, a howling and predictable chorus of It’s not really that bad, There is no other (economic) choice, I don’t know about that and There’s nothing we can do about that immediately ensues.
When mounting, nearly-unanimous and compelling evidence is presented by hundreds of Nobel Prize-winning scientists that human activity is altering our climate and producing potentially cataclysmic consequences, the well-paid Lomborgs and other corporatist shills encourage us with their fake science that It’s not really that bad, There is no other (economic) choice, We don’t know about that and There’s nothing we can do about that.
When the US president suspends human liberties for Arab minorities and the politically tolerant and progressive elements of US society, destroys and occupies a defenceless country and kills tens of thousands of its citizens on a trumped-up charge against its former dictator, and illegally wiretaps the conversations of ordinary Americans, the chorus goes up again: It’s not really that bad (or even ‘mission accomplished’), There is no other choice, We don’t know about that (plausible deniability, now a high art among politicians) and There’s nothing we (mere citizens, Democrats, law-abiding, freedom-loving people) can do about that.
None of this would occur in a healthy world. All that is needed, however, is a widespread sense of fear, shame, suffering and poverty to induce the mass psychosis. Fear comes about when sudden and unappreciated change is foisted upon us: When our daughter comes home hand in hand with someone from another culture, race, or gender than the one we are comfortable with. When we realize that information and technology are so accessible that anyone could kill us or ruin our lives with a gun, a suicide bomb, a disease of overcrowded poultry, a drug, a penis, a home invasion (by legal authorities or strangers), tainted food or water, a nuclear or chemical or biological weapon cooked up in their basement. Or when a small group of spoiled rich lunatics brings down a couple of buildings by crashing airplanes into them.
Shame is also in no short supply in our civilization. Ask any German. Ask Romeo Dallaire. Ask yourself, when you cringe and change the station when the commercials and documentaries about the state of the world just outside your door come on, begging you, daring you to look and learn. I can almost hear you, whispering: It’s not really that bad, There is no other (economic) choice, I don’t know about that, There’s nothing we can do about that.
As for suffering and poverty, you don’t need to go to Darfur to find it. Many of your neighbours are undoubtedly suffering the trauma of spousal or child abuse, or poverty they are ashamed to admit to (because in its self-deceit our society would have us believe poverty is our own fault), or otherwise in endless physical, emotional or psychological anguish. It’s not really that bad, not in my neighbourhood.
Like rats in a cruel experiment of forced overcrowding and scarcity, we are perpetually ripe for the mass psychosis that is the very hallmark of our beloved civilization. And as long as we remain in denial, as long as we keep telling ourselves the madman’s mantra — It’s not really that bad, There is no other choice, I don’t know about that, There’s nothing we can do about that. — it will only get worse.
Wait until the End of Oil, when the ability to endlessly steal our children’s legacy of resources runs out and industrial and agricultural production grinds to a halt. Wait until the Mideast suddenly has no revenue to provide even the necessities of life to its quarter of a billion people living on devastated land that can, without oil, support no one. Wait until China runs out of food (its breadbasket is rapidly turning to desert) and water (its water table is dropping by eight feet a year and most of its ‘fresh’ water is poisoned by chemicals, fertilizers and waste), and a bankrupt US can no longer afford to buy its pathetic products. Wait until its one and a half billion people, with nuclear and biological weapons, become as desperate as Germany was in the 1930s. Ladies and gentlemen, you thought the 20th century was bad for mass atrocities, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
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Archive by Category
My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2023)
--- My Best 200 Posts, 2003-22 by category, from newest to oldest ---
Hope — On the Balance of Probabilities
The Caste War for the Dregs
Recuperation, Accommodation, Resilience
How Do We Teach the Critical Skills
Collapse Not Apocalypse
'Making Sense of the World' Reading List
Notes From the Rising Dark
What is Exponential Decay
Collapse: Slowly Then Suddenly
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Making Sense of Who We Are
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Post Collapse with Michael Dowd (video)
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Requiem for a Species
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
If We Had a Better Story...
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Hard Part is Finding People Who Care
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
A Short History of Progress
The Boiling Frog
Our Culture / Ourselves:
A CoVid-19 Recap
What It Means to be Human
A Culture Built on Wrong Models
Our Unique Capacity for Hatred
Not Meant to Govern Each Other
The Humanist Trap
Amazing What People Get Used To
My Reluctant Misanthropy
The Dawn of Everything
Why Misinformation Doesn't Work
The Lab-Leak Hypothesis
The Right to Die
CoVid-19: Go for Zero
The Process of Self-Organization
The Tragic Spread of Misinformation
A Better Way to Work
The Needs of the Moment
Ask Yourself This
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
May I Ask a Question?
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
Learning From Nature
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
Making Sense of Scents
An Age of Wonder
The Truth About Ukraine
The Supply Chain Problem
The Promise of Dialogue
Too Dumb to Take Care of Ourselves
Republicans Slide Into Fascism
All the Things I Was Wrong About
Several Short Sentences About Sharks
How Change Happens
What's the Best Possible Outcome?
The Perpetual Growth Machine
We Make Zero
How Long We've Been Around (graphic)
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
Loren Eiseley, in Verse
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self, and Free Will:
No Free Will, No Freedom
The Other Side of 'No Me'
This Body Takes Me For a Walk
The Only One Who Really Knew Me
No Free Will — Fightin' Words
The Paradox of the Self
A Radical Non-Duality FAQ
What We Think We Know
Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark
Healing From Ourselves
The Entanglement Hypothesis
Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
How Our Bodies Sense the World
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
Mindful Wanderings (Reflections) (Archive)
A Prayer to No One
Frogs' Hollow (Short Story)
We Do What We Do (Poem)
Negative Assertions (Poem)
Reminder (Short Story)
A Canadian Sorry (Satire)
Under No Illusions (Short Story)
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
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Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
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Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
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