The Psychology of Malevolence

Roman King | U.S.

There is this common, unearned misconception a lot of people hold of themselves — for whatever reason, a huge amount of people think that they’re absolutely and objectively too good for evil, and look at acts of evil from the perspective of an outsider, and not as somebody who identifies with that. Of course this is the case; why would you want to admit to yourself that you have an element of Cain himself deeply embedded you, when you could just live with no mental responsibility of all and spare yourself the suffering? It’s a defense mechanism, but it’s an incredibly pathetic excuse for a defense mechanism, because it defends absolutely nothing. Here’s the massive, massive problem with this sort of intellectual superiority — it eliminates all need to take responsibility for your own unconscious. Humans — not just neurotic, mentally unstable nutjobs, but the average everyday Joes — are incredibly capable of doing evil, malevolent, reprehensible things, and we can see this throughout the course of our history. Adolf Hitler sent his nation into bloody war, attempted to liquidate an entire population of people, and when his country began to crumble, accelerated the rate at which chaos manifested itself by speeding up the rate at which Germany continued its obliteration of people. He was a neurotic, self-destructive man, and when his own personal agenda crumbled, he had no problem taking down an entire nation along with him. Joseph Stalin was a power-hungry egomaniac who destroyed millions of lives by ensuring that prosperity was to be gained only from the hand of the state, which starved entire countries and launched the idea of collective guilt — all in the name of the proletariat working class. These two individuals are textbook examples of the archetypal tyrant, and they both embody the very worst qualities of humans; greed, anger, irrationality, wrath, and what have you. Humanity was left significantly worse off because of their existence here on Earth. You already knew that, though. Why, then, would there be any reason to spend a significant amount of time listing the exact ways Hitler and Stalin were chaotic and terrible? There are two important reasons, and they’re both equally terrifying: the same driving forces that lead to the deaths of millions of innocent people are the same forces that make especially industrious people successful, and not just that, but the power structures that allowed for Hitler and Stalin to take power were built bottom-up, from the individual, and not from the state.

The idea that authoritarian governments discriminate out of fear is laughable and wrong. What reason should a powerful state have to fear a minority (albeit, a significant one) of people that, generally speaking, aren’t acquainted with chaos and evil being inflicted upon them by the mighty caregiver that is the state? No, instead, fascistic societies segregate and discriminate out of disgust. According to Pathogens and Politics: Further Evidence That Parasite Prevalence Predicts Authoritarianism, a research paper and study done by Damian Murray, countries and states/provinces within those countries with a high relative rate of infectious disease tend to be more conservative/authoritarian than countries with lower rates of infectious disease. If we look at Hitler’s policies, we can see this in action. Hitler viewed the Jewish population as a parasite or a pathogen, and the Third Reich as an entire organism. He viewed the Jewish population in Germany, and the diaspora in general, with disgust and contempt — they were a threat to the imagined purity of the Aryan race. The natural course of action, then, would be to get rid of the perceived threat. Hitler was also incredibly compulsive about public health; he washed his hands compulsively and implemented many policies to try and remove imperfections from the country he governed. No wonder the Nazi government took such stringent anti-smoking policies; it was because Hitler was a compulsive health nut. This is where we see Hitler’s true evil, because while the rate of infectious disease in Nazi Germany wasn’t abnormal at all, he viewed the entire Jewish population as an unnatural pathogen; this lead to the high disgust levels that Murray’s paper outlined, and that disgust lead to the obliteration of 90% of the world’s Jewish population in Europe. Perhaps even more disturbing is that the element of Cain and chaos that lead Hitler to his incredible demolition of people in World War II is the same element that we associate Germany’s modern positives with — austerity, orderliness, and a high work ethic; these are all positive traits we associate Germany with now, and we could easily attribute these characteristics to a large number of successful businessmen. You can point to this directly on the Big Five personality theory; all of those above traits are symptoms of high conscientiousness. In no way is this inherently a bad thing. The CEOs and managers of the world; they can only fulfill their job with an incredible dedication to the field they are participating in and a ridiculous work ethic — things that are only found in people who score high in conscientiousness. The world praises Germany for being an austere, responsible country that takes responsibility for their own problems and works diligently within the belief structures they’ve constructed. On the inverse, if you tilt the orderliness and diligence too far, you’re left with obsession, compulsion, and neuroticism.

Conscientiousness is present in one amount or another in an incredible majority of the population; of course, because not only is it a Big Five personality trait, it’s also one of the only ways anything gets done. It is a trait that is universally present at the individual level. If this element is universally present, it would make sense to assert that the potential for and even the willing acceptance of obsessive compulsive behaviours is also universally available. Often times this sort of jealous compulsion is often found in the shadow, but as we know, elements from the shadow manifest themselves in conscious action all the time. People consciously drive orderliness and conscientiousness to dangerous levels all the time. If these assertions are all true (and I strongly believe they are), what reason is there to believe that the fascistic societies of Hitler and the like were built top-down, like we often believe? Why would we be so naive to assume that the average German individual wasn’t a neurotic, chaotic wreck who would be perfectly fine, if not happy, to participate in the complete obliteration of the “pathogens” facing their nation? Leaders are made by the people, not vice versa. Of course Hitler personally was already a disturbed, neurotic individual, but at the individual level, Hitler the leader was created — created by a destructive collective population consisting of destructive individual persons.

Why, then, knowing that the same traits that caused the Holocaust are universally present in some form or another across individuals, would we be so arrogant as to believe that we aren’t capable of committing such disgusting acts? The shadow is a terrifying place, and encountering it means having some terrifying realizations; you realize that there is a part of you that identifies with the camp guards of Auschwitz. You realize that you are capable of malevolence. You realize that under no circumstances can you call yourself a good person. It is a horrifying thing to try and grips with, no doubt. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to grasp, but it’s important, because if you do, you might just be able to stop yourself from being malevolent. If you’re anything close to a decent person, you’ll see your potential for destruction and strive endlessly to never touch it. Of course, if a chaotic and neurotic person looks inside himself and sees malevolence, he just might be inclined to act upon it, but that’s a completely different problem. Using the assertions from before, if the disgust of “pathogens” (which stems from orderliness) is a cause of authoritarian political ideology at the individual level, and political leaders are created from the personality of the individuals, we can say quite confidently that malevolence and disgust absolutely starts at the objective level, and that “normal” individuals are just as much at blame for fascistic and authoritarian societies as the cult of personalities that represent them.

What do we do with this information, this knowledge that individual people are capable of untold acts of malevolence, no matter how good they present themselves to be? You use this information as enlightenment so that you might have another reason to not compound the suffering of life with your inherent depravity! Think about how you and the environment around you would look if you acted upon the elements of chaos within you for 3-5 years, and recognize that by doing so, you’ve made every recognizable problem with life infinitely worse. You can become more self aware and realize the consequences of your potential mistakes before even acting them out. You can improve the world around you marginally just by not being malevolent, and by being aware of your untold potential for destruction, you’ll have even more incentive to steer clear of evil and chaos. The unaware person is at an increased risk of lapsing into chaos because they are unaware that they are capable of being chaotic and aren’t prepared for it. The naivete of the “good person” ironically makes them more likely to commit a heinous act than a more self aware, perhaps calloused person.

In this game of life we’re all doomed to, we can still make things better, bit by bit. By recognizing how malevolence is born and how chaos spreads from level to level from the individual, we as a society will have more incentive to not act for evil, and we as people will be ever closer to self-realization, enlightenment, and maybe even peace. A noble goal to shoot for, no doubt — the road to doing so, however, is a literal walk through Hell.