Thursday, December 02, 2004


There was a rather thought provoking article in Tuesday’s Herald by Gwynne Dyer, “Gentle Monsters offer a lesson,” that raised some past thoughts in my mind.

It discusses how the public are very unwilling to see infamous dictators such as Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot as human. The magnitude of their carnage means that it is necessary to push them outside the realms of what it means to be human. And to try and understand those individuals is a “small step towards forgiving them and admiring them,” which could be seen to be a serious mistake.

It then goes on to raise another person, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, whose image was made famous by Andy Warhol and in the movie Motorcycle Diaries. He was seen as a warrior of romantic revolutionary hero who eventually died for his cause. But he also advocated “relentless hatred of the enemy that… [transforms] us into effective, violent, selective and cold killing machines”.

Is the difference between the humanity of Che and the monstrousness of Stalin merely that one got into power? The main thrust of the article is that if we always regard those that commit acts of inhumanity as monsters, then it will preclude lessons being learnt from our history, that those in the past are all human.

My follow-up to this is to think about the lessons learnt. For me, the cause of the greatest “malevolent” acts and the greatest of “benevolent” acts comes from excessive idealism or values. Soon as your value for anything exceeds the value of human life, then genocide, matyrdom, assassination, suicide and murder will appear. Hitler was well known with his ideals of an Aryan nation and the purging of the Jews. Communists also had their idealist vision.

I don’t think you can separate these ideals into Good and Bad ideals. They are just ideals held by people, to varying states of zeal. A zealot for whatever purpose can be a martyr or a murderer.

Then I think I have my rejoinder to a Camus quote that bewildered me:

“There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”

This might be a serious question to some, but as I take it as a given that life is worth living, then it is not relevant to me. To me there is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is martyrdom or sacrifice. Deciding whether or not your life is worth giving for your values or the people in your life.

Of course, anyone who says yes, me included, could be potentially a Monster in another context. But I would also say that all change agents too would answer yes. Of course, this is all morally ambiguous, but immediately it reconciles the labelling of heroes as terrorists and vice-versa. We'd all be safe if we lived in a passionless world of grinding life, as Camus may have thought with his thoughts on suicide, but then suicide would be a palatable option. Or we can live in a dangerous, vibrant hopeful world where people actually hold onto ideals, values and beliefs and meaning is freely given as well as lives.


lightspirits said...

I find it fascinating to study these so-called monsters and trying to understand what caused them to commit their monstrous acts.

Personally, I don't believe in the label of "monsters", because it is a rather one-dimensional & narrow concept that prevents people from looking at the real cause.

In a way, mass murderers, criminals, monsters...etc are products of society's collective consciousness, and every person in the society have certain responsibility towards what kind of character the soecity creates.

Japanese soldiers committed countless massacres in China during WWII, there were reports saying that they killed civilians for fun, like some kind of sport, so who were the monsters there? In my opinion, every single soldier who carried out the act was. So what produced all these monsters?

I remember a guy from the movie "Nuremberg" investigated the Nazi war crimes and in the end said something like "the essence of evil is apathy"....I can't remember the exact words, but I agree with the message - the lack of sympathy towards other human being's suffering is the most significant factor towards these monstrous acts. (won't go into the possible reasons behind apathy here, since it's a huge topic by itself)

As far as I can tell, the criminals of apathy are often the victims of apathy ealier in their lives...and this is not surprising, since the displays of apathy in the world are way too common everywhere I go.

These were my thoughts about this topic that came up from time to time.

About the difference between heroes & monsters, I believe it is purely subjective, Ghengis Khan killed millions, but many considered him as a hero. If Hitler and the Axis succeeded in utterly defeating the Allies in WWII, today the world may be praising how heroic their act was.

Crypticity said...

The monsters you refer to in the Japanese army, I would analyse completely differently from the Monsters refered to in the article.

I would not say most of the soldiers independently planned and chose to do those things they did. They were just reacting to their cultural values (of superiority), a mob mentality and the direction from above. In a word, they were automatons, controlled by environment and those above them. They were the mindless weapons yielded by the people who could be regarded as Monsters, the people with power and direction.

This does not excuse the soldiers, it just means that they were not the source of the action. They just participated in a mob in which your their individual responsibility for their actions is lost as everyone is doing it.

I would agree that a key here may be apathy, it is the converse opposite to the directioned ideals of those Monsters referred to in the article. Apathy is a topic my mind has just started to get to in parallel with my Camus musings.

I haven't seen more than a few minutes of Nuremberg, maybe I'll watch it another time. Interestingly, when I did a internet search on the script for that movie, I got a review that detested the movie due to the Goering being shown as a human being, i.e. the same phenomenon described in the article!

lightspirits said...

That a difference between us, I wouldn't analyse them differently, but anyway like I said the definition is totally subjective, and I don't really believe in the label of "monsters" anyway, so I used the word loosely.

My point is about how the collective consciousness manifests into destructive actions. Denying the monsters were humans is like refusing to understand and learn the lesson.

Crypticity said...


Crypticity said...

It is not really that we analyse them differently, than we are talking about different people from different perspectives. And I was looking at it from one specific perspective - idealism.

The article focussed on the leaders of genocide with the perspective of their kind side, and I wrote about the people from the perspective of idealism causing atrocities, whereas you wrote about soldiers who did atrocities and their possible reasons.

I can't write about the soldiers ideals, so I write what I do know. I do agree with your idea of the collective consciousness / mob mentalities being a cause for the Japanese atrocities. And I don't attribute this collective consciousness to Hitler's specific outlook (although it can be said that he created and controlled the collective consciousness).

That is as far as the differences go, in my opinion.

lightspirits said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
lightspirits said...

Actually I find it quite difficult to explain what I want to convey here, I kept erasing my words while typing previous messages, and I guess in the end I didn't explain it clear enough.

For me the soldiers's action is no different from Hitler's action, of course the causes, circumstances and the context are different, but when looking at their mentality, it is similar.

People who given up their humanity for any reason all have something in common psychologically (whether by their own decision, idealogy, or just follow the mob), and the result can be summed up with the word "apathy".

Hitler did not created the collective consciousness, the collective apathetic consciousness created him.

What I'm trying to say is, the dark side of the collective consciousness/mentality of our civilization is constantly creating one monster after another, and what we see externaly are the physical manifestation of the majorities' inner mentality.

The kids from school shooting incidents in America, the Japanese soldiers, Hitler, Stalin....etc, they were all created by the negative psyche of human society.

You're right that what I wrote here probably a different topic from your original perspective about idealism. In my mind I treat this whole issue as one huge single topic, so I thought that although my thoughts aren't totally relevant to the perspective of your original post, they're not completely unrelated so I posted them anyway.

James said...

It is important to distinguish between sacrificing your own life for your values and sacrificing the lives of others for those values. The former sounds noble, but the latter is simply murder.

Crypticity said...

I think it is simply a matter of value and opportunity.

Most people value their own lives more than the lives of others. Take President Bush as a possible example. So if his value on freedom (of the Iraqi people) exceeds that of other people's lives, but not their own, he would be quite happy to send others into war, while staying safe in their Presidential office. Of course, he might put it above his own life, too which means that he would be willing to lead them into battle given the opportunity, or lacking the opportunity, giving them all the support from his office. He may consider his position too important to willfully sacrifice. Some would call that murder. Others would call it wise statemanship.

Abortion in my opinion is also a simple value consideration. While I believe it is killing/murder, the value put on the life by some people is often exceeded by the value people put on their own freedom (from child-rearing), or in a legislative sense the freedom of choice for the woman.

I don't think it is a big step from these "non-murder" examples to the cases of Hitler and Stalin. They also had values and these values outweighed the value they put on (various races and creeds of) human life.

In the end, it will always be about the different value put on an ideal, others' lives and your own life - if taken from an individualist point of view. Discrimination of murder and self-sacrifice/matyrdom is a more societal perspective.

Crypticity said...

Maybe a better response would be:

Sacrificing yourself may seem noble, but it could mean that you don't value yourself enough. Not murdering anyone may seem fine, but maybe that means your values and ideals are insignificant.

Sacrificing the life of others rather than yourself may be the sign of a truly strong person, especially if they really value people... Wouldn't that be harder than sacrificing yourself?

Of course, selfish murder can be rather a shallow way of showing your lack of value for human life, so much so that you treat it as a way of solving your problems...

James said...

Would I be right in saying that your analysis is just a way of understanding why some people do certain actions - it is the outcome of preferring a combination of values over others.

It is probably just a comment on my value system, but I would be against a person playing with other peoples' lives like that - in a weighing of values.

If someone with the necessary power decides that his ideology (or any other value) is worth more than my life, that isn't enough to justify him killing me. But, if I decide that I am willing to die for his ideology, then that would be fair. All parties who are affected by the choice should get a say (e.g.: the choice to join the army voluntarily, to go to Iraq).

Abortion seems like a tricky issue for me now, because I thought I was on the freedom of choice "side". Of course, the unborn baby is affected, but they don't get a say in the choice. It's impossible. So, would the fairest situation be for their "right to life" (the unborn baby's value) to trump everything else?

How should such value clashes be resolved?

Crypticity said...

"Would I be right in saying that your analysis is just a way of understanding why some people do certain actions - it is the outcome of preferring a combination of values over others."

Yes, it is an amoralistic view with no distinction of noble and cruel (which was why there was no distinction between murder and matyrdom). It is not necessarily how things work in the real world, but it is the underlying forces that push and pull and building up.

"It is probably just a comment on my value system, but I would be against a person playing with other peoples' lives like that - in a weighing of values."

Indeed, my analysis was a completely "laissez-faire" situation, where every person has unrestricted freedom to wield their power in interaction with others and live to their values and ideology. This would accord with one half of your freedom value (to be free in action) but also go against the other half (that other people shouldn't have their freedom hindered by others). Of course, that is a personal value too but likewise it cannot be imposed on crueller, more imposing people.

"How should such value clashes be resolved?"

Well, society has chosen to institute artificial means of controlling the 'nasty edges' of potential value clashes and abuses of power. The creation of human rights and laws are relevant such. As they are artificial though, they inherently create contradictions. For the abortion issue, they artificial declared when a human life begins, or they took the utilitarian point of view that until the nervous system formed (the ability to feel pain) abortion was perfectly within your rights. To resolve your clash you could also use artificial methods e.g. to simply come to an arbitrary definition that a fetus is not human, and has even less sentience or worth as a chicken which has a life you don't value more than your own freedom to eat (we will ignore the potential sentience of a fetus and worth). Hence through redefining a fetus you resolve your own conflict. Artificial, yes. A satisfying resolution, perhaps not. Not for the fetus either.

These artificial methods can be disregarded though. Anti-discrimination laws and human rights are such but discrimination will always occur even with these laws. And discrimination is an important skill in a competitive world to make the best choices. It is only in our regulated world that egalitarianism and the belief of equality assert and create laws for fairness.

That is not to say these laws are bad, but just that they are artificial. They can be subverted for your wants and needs. They don't really exist at all. Values are the motor for actions, artificial methods are the chains and tethers that we submit to for a "civilised society".

If you think it was not fair for a fetus to be aborted because choices resulting in its death are being imposed on it, what about birth? Were you consulted about whether you wanted to come into existence? (this was discussed a little in existentialism). Another contradiction perhaps, but forgetting those artificial concepts makes the analysis perfectly straightforward.