Humans carry a capacity for violence which extremists long to exploit. Still, what drives humans to violence in the first place?
Dr. Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who shot to fame in 2016 after a controversy over transgender pronouns, has insights into totalitarian movements that might make us cringe.
So do a number of other psychology professionals.
In particular, Peterson views Hitler not as a psychopathic dictator who managed to seize control through backroom deals and brainwashing, but as a man who “becomes the embodiment of the dark desire of the mob.”
In other words, the frenzied passion of Nazi Germany was not a top-down imposition, but rather a bottom-up movement that acted out humanity’s propensity for evil.
Psychologist Steven James Bartlett conducted a lengthy study of this dark side in his 2005 work titled “The Pathology of Man.” He concluded that the vast majority of those who participated in or at least did nothing to resist the Holocaust were psychologically normal.
Reviewing Bartlett’s work, peace activist and professor emeritus of social sciences at the University of Wollongong in Australia, Brian Martin concluded, “War and violence provide many deep satisfactions to people who are psychologically normal, and there is no ready alternative.”
These psychologists are speaking to something completely different from the normal theories of brainwashing — theories that suppose that totalitarian leaders push their followers into unquestioning obedience to do tasks they would otherwise find unsavory.
Yet even in these theories that presume that a core of people are genuinely committed to the ideology of the leader, the masses must be willing to use violence and intimidation to implement the leader’s program.
What makes people drawn to such violence in the first place?
Conquest and Status
The “will to power,” a term coined by German philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche, is one of the most basic primal drives humans have. It’s the desire to become stronger, more able to influence one’s environment and other people, and to keep and defend what you already have.
In our day and age, we might ask: If people aren’t innately drawn to fantasies in which they defeat their enemies and exercise power, why in the U.S. have 40 million copies sold of Call of Duty, a computer game in which the players are soldiers and have to shoot their way through various battlefields?
Historically, a man’s capacity for violence was an asset which led to greater reproductive success. It allowed him to defend his family against threats and seize access to the resources which enabled him to provide for that family in the first place.
How important violence really is in that quest is an open debate in the scientific community. There is split between those who think humans evolved to have the capacity for violence, and those who think humans evolved to be proactively violent.
Those who hold the latter view point to research indicating that chimpanzee tribes go to war with each other as evidence that brutal inter-group conflict is an evolved trait. Such scientists point to a number of physical adaptations, particularly in males, that make us better at fighting.
Violence Is Its Own Reward
“There are two things that force us to pay attention,” Professor Douglas Gentile, who studies the impact of violent video games on children, told NPR. “One is violence; the other is sex. Whenever either of those are present in our environment, they have survival value for us.”
This love of violence goes right down to our brain circuitry. Experiments done on mice found that aggressive encounters triggered the reward circuit in the mouse’s brain, leading the mouse to actively seek out aggressive encounters.
This may simply be because of the danger of the world. Humans are not the only animals in the world. We evolved to kill and eat other animals, as well as to defend ourselves against predators.
But why would we have such circuits in place for regulating conduct between humans?
Violence as a ‘Moral’ Response
Tage Rai and Alan Fiske are co-authors of Virtuous Violence, a book unpacking the reasons behind human aggression. Together they analyzed the motivations behind all sorts of inter-group and interpersonal conflicts, ranging from wars throughout the centuries to honor killings and gangland shootings.
Their conclusion was simple and powerful: Humans hurt one another when they believe it is moral to do so.
“Across practices, across cultures, and throughout historical periods, when people support and engage in violence, their primary motivations are moral,” Rai wrote in Aeon. He continued:
“By ‘moral,’ I mean that people are violent because they feel they must be; because they feel that their violence is obligatory. They know that they are harming fully human beings. Nonetheless, they believe they should.
“Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations.”
When do people find violence to be moral?
“The general pattern we found was that the violence was intended to regulate social relationships,” Rai wrote.
In other words, when people are motivated by a value which they feel is sacred in some way, and they see someone violating that value right in front of them, they feel compelled to force the person to stop. If they cannot persuade them with bribery, rational argument, or appeals to emotion, violence is the next and final resort.
The urge to act violently in defense of a noble cause seems to be an ingrained trait. Whether people are innately violent and deliberately seek out causes to fight for, or whether they love causes so much that they are willing to use violence in their defense remains in the balance.
So what counts as a noble cause? That depends hugely on culture, ideology and one’s sense of morality.
However, it is important to note that it does not matter for the brain that the cause actually be noble. It just has to seem noble to the person carrying out the violence.
Peterson discusses how the Holocaust gave an outlet to German anger at their situation after the catastrophe of World War I and the ensuing economic problems in Germany.
Hitler was able to designate a specific target for the people’s frustration as the cause of all their problems. Once this blame was attached to the Jews, savage violence could be unleashed without cognitive dissonance. In the Nazi mindset, killing the Jews was noble.
Violence as a Way of Taking the Easy Way Out
Violence is oftentimes an exercise in the dark side of humanity – specifically, when people let themselves externalize their anger and attempt to fix their problems with the fist.
Instead of taking responsibility for their situation and looking for constructive ways to address it, the dark side of human nature provides a person with excuses and reasons why someone else is to blame and therefore must be punished.
This mechanism works on a personal level, in small groups and all the way up to a national level.
“Folks who’ve failed and want a sense of power, control, and success back in their life always have two options,” character development coach Dr. George Simon writes. They can “blame everyone else for what’s gone wrong and vent rage on them or take stock of themselves and begin the arduous and often lengthy task of self-correction and improvement. Which do you think is easier?”
Jordan Peterson’s message is based on that of his hero — famed Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote in his masterpiece The Gulag Archipelago,
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
In short, violent fascist movements as well as individual acts of violence occur when people stop taking responsibility for themselves and give in to their rage and resentment instead.