The Monsters in Our Minds

This essay has been written thousands of times by other people. Here’s how I explore the issue of genocide and remembrance, as it relates to my work in design research.

In 2014, the organization UX for Good is focused on how to bring the impact of visiting a genocide memorial into everyday thought or action. The description of the year’s challenge is as follows:

“The profound feelings genocide memorials elicit are a powerful fuel. What can we do to convert them into meaningful and sustainable action?”

The UX for Good website goes on to say that memorials and museums about mass killings are “intended as an antidote to genocide itself – teaching us and moving us to ensure we will never again be detached and complicit.” Most of humanity wants to prevent a recurrence of genocide. Yet, killing and abuses of human rights occur in the present day. Darfur. North Korea. Myanmar. Nigeria. The perpetrators keep appearing, over and over. Humanity’s fear of these powerful villains is omnipresent. The re-appearance of a monstrous despot permeates the storyline of much literature: Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc. Even saying the villain’s name is considered bad luck.

Monuments & Museums

How can individuals convert emotional empathy with past victims into prevention of current and future perpetrators? The UX for Good project participants will go to Kigali, Rwanda, to experience the memorial there. I was just in Warsaw, Poland. What happened in each of these places is different, yet similar in some ways. From the first hour of my arrival in Warsaw, I became aware of the history of that city. The taxi passed statues and monuments with soldiers depicted, and right in front of the hotel, there was a sculpture of a railcar full of jagged crosses. Clearly it signified the death of its occupants.

Sculpture for educated people, priests, and officers killed at Katyn Stones surround the memorial to the Jewish dead in Warsaw from WWII.

The next day I walked a few blocks to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is an eye-catching new building with a monument in front strewn with flowers and the traditionally permanent tokens of remembrance: stones. The next day, a group of teens formed a square in front of that monument and performed Hebrew song and dance. I learned later that it was possibly a group of 11th graders from Israel; students are offered a chance to visit Poland to be exposed to history for a week during that year of their schooling.

Warsaw Jewish Memorial, with students making observations

A few days later, I went to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, where the atrocities committed by Hitler and his followers in Warsaw were on full, sickening display. There are so many people still buried beneath the city that archeologists are on call during any new construction. The day before I left for home, the railcar of crosses in front of the hotel was thronged with people leaving flowers and lanterns—in a double observance of the removal and killing of highly educated Warsaw residents, priests, and military officers in World War II in the Russian camps near Katyn, and also of the 2010 plane crash of the Polish president and heads of administration on their way to Katyn to honor the dead.

Museum display of underground resistance armbands. Lanterns and flowers decorate the memorial for those killed in Katyn.

If the monuments and museums of Warsaw seem to be in constant use, the people I met bolstered this sense of urgency about historic events. A number of them mentioned how upsetting and embarrassing it is that conservative extremists in Poland insist the 2010 plane crash of the President was an assassination plot by Putin. At the same time, they spoke angrily about the lack of Russian assistance in WWII as the Nazis took over the city. “The Russians were right across the river, yet they did nothing! They waited for Hitler to stamp out the Uprising so they would have a submissive population to control!” The people in power acted like monsters. They somehow convinced their minions that it was okay to abuse the victims.

Convincing & Influencing

There are many reasons why a population, or even an individual, perpetrates or goes along with human rights abuses. I have not searched through all the academic papers about the psychology of it, but certainly the roots of it lie in manipulation, fear, and dominance. While I was in Warsaw, I spent a lot of time listening to what people think about the history of the place, and about the current push and pull between social philosophies. The annexation of the Crimea by Putin’s forces are causing one young woman nightmares about war coming to her own city. Discussions of personal impressions when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and when the Solidarity movement overthrew communism in Gdańsk, feature unmistakable joy, but also faint undertones of worry. News of Jews being ordered to register by pro-Russian militants in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk causes alarmed reactions when I return home from the trip. Always the psychology of domination and fear and manipulation creeps onto the world stage.

During a discussion with Andrea Resmini and Konstantin Weiss, both speakers at the UX Poland conference, the topic of us-versus-them thinking came up. Konstantin told us the social psychologist Harald Welzer has outlined the process by which one group demonizes another. It begins when Group A sees Group B as a threat to something they have or something they want. Group A then demonstrates to their members the threat by assigning some violence to Group B. “They won’t register themselves, so they must intend to do something subversive.” Group A has an excuse to strike the first blow, to head off the troubles that Group B will supposedly cause. And along with this Group A describes Group B members as not being fully human—sub-human. Inferior. Carriers of pestilence and deformed ideas. Thus Group A members feel little moral compunction about maltreating Group B. Harald Welzer and Sönke Neitzel wrote a book, Soldaten-On Fighting, Killing, and Dying, which includes transcripts from Nazi soldiers in British prisoner camps. These transcripts seem to demonstrate how deeply the soldiers bought in to the idea that anyone not from their own group was deserving of distrust, abuse, or death. The same goes for the other side in that war: the Allied bombing of Dresden. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japanese internment camps in the U.S. and the much earlier Chinese Exclusion Act … and still before that, the Indian Removal Act.

The concept of domination plays a dual role in most cultures. On the one hand, winning (a game, a contest, a better position, an argument) is an almost universal objective. On the other hand, in many cultures and spiritual beliefs, it’s unacceptable to act on a feeling of superiority or debase people you see as inferior. Yet, going on a power trip happens all the time. On my trip home, I flew through London and found myself listening to a couple of guys who bar-tend in a lounge. They were telling me how many celebrities come through their lounge, enthusiastically listing the names of the people they’d seen.

Lounge where bartenders encounter celebrities

Then one of the bartenders said, “Yeah, but there are some celebrities who don’t play nice. I won’t name names, but this one guy who I served coffee to asked me to ‘add the sugar and stir.’ The coffee and sugar and stir stick were sitting right in front of him.” The bartender felt debased. Similar scenarios play out in offices around the globe. It’s a demonstration of power over another. At the same time, this same domination scenario is exalted in movies and literature, for example in scenarios showing new recruits in the military (or a similar organization) toughening up under the scrutiny and abuse of their superior officers. So domination plays a subtle and confusing role in many cultures.

Even more subtle is the human tendency to embrace demographic divisions instead of behavioral similarities. For some reason it’s delightful to talk about how some outward characteristic (gender, the type of car you drive, your degree from the university) causes a certain behavior (lingering in the bathroom, dangerous speeds, tendency toward long-winded explanations). Clearly none of these behaviors are caused by the demographic. There might be an anecdotal tendency, and the connection might be used as a way to joke or be facetious or give someone a hard time—but anyone overhearing the joke could get the wrong message. Words influence thinking. People pick up on it. And the joker himself might start believing the causation in some simpler part of his brain. To clarify the point that demographics don’t cause behavior, move from the beginning to the end of the argument: a behavior doesn’t connote a demographic. A young man who notices the first signs of facial hair as he looks in the mirror wonders what it will be like to have a beard. This thinking does not mean his religion is Sikhism, Islam, or a sect of Judaism. The thoughts are not caused by his religion. The thoughts are caused by the appearance of the facial hair.

Recognizing the Tiny Roots

So there are many overt and subtle things that go into complicity toward abuses. I am less sure what goes into detachment. But complicity itself—that can start small. Habits of thinking can take root in the little everyday encounters. If it’s possible to become aware of the little things, maybe there will be less complicity about the large-scale things. Name the little everyday behaviors (it’s the opposite of bad luck), such as thinking your time is more valuable than another person’s whom you work with … such as associating a behavior with a demographic or outer characteristic. Refrain from acting on it. Train yourself not to say it out loud. Maybe this practice will give you confidence to call other people out on such behavior, or ask someone in a different position to point it out. Articulate the aspects: us-versus-them, domination, power trip, demographic as causation. Agree to work on it together. Agree to shift from dwelling on divisions between groups to focusing on the behavioral similarities. Try to balance out the innate fascination with divisions.

Taking this idea of awareness to the next level: what if political leaders can recognize these patterns in each other? What if they can call each other out on it before it becomes too big? And what if they can do this across borders? Is that enough to prevent more human abuses? Do politicians already do this?

As a species, humanity has only recently started acting more aware. It has only been a few decades since a few laws have tried to stop people from indulging the thrill of domination, the thrill of concluding that a demographic causes a behavior, or assigning blame to a group that seems to threaten another group. It’s still a very young talent, compared to tens of thousands of years of indulging in abusive behavior. Because it’s a new skill, it helps to practice awareness daily.

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