Depersonalized Violence or When Free Will Is Not So Free

Based on The Insanity of Normality (Arno Gruen) and Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein)

You have the free will to choose either to be or not to be… We learn it very early on, almost from the cradle; but as soon as we grow up, we are simply capitulating by giving up our free will to the group we belong to, rejoicing in that we don’t need to make hard decisions, or perhaps we don’t dare to make those choices. We are convincing ourselves that the will of the group is more important than the will of an individual. It’s happening quite often, everywhere from the school level to national level. 

The group’s social norms can often allow us to be both: warm and evil, violent and compassionate, kind and brutal at the same time. In fact, the bigger the group, the easier the process. We merge into one blurry human who is constantly on the edge of being half-holy and half-sinister. This attitude allows us to fool ourselves through denial. 

 Often, some individuals inside the group see themselves as people who are providing help to others, even if their visible support involves an assault, foul play or force. In the case of accusations, such people defend their actions by saying something like, “we just did our job” or “we did the right thing for our group,” and so on.

In his book, Arno Gruen shares an example of the controlled double will (the absence of free will) and resonates with why it happens: “On March 27, 1979, during a political demonstration in Switzerland, a writer was arrested by two policemen who beat him with clubs. One of the policemen, when later cross-examined by a judge, stated: “What do you expect of me? I have always had to obey somebody – as a child, schoolboy, apprentice, soldier, and now as a policeman. So I simply carried out the orders.” 

 What is interesting here is not so much the fact of his action but that he summed up the evolution of obedience per se: we are brought up to obey but not to think or feel for ourselvesWhat remains obscured is that our training is the source of what society fears and thereby seeks in vain to defend itself against – namely, destructiveness.

The destructiveness in this example has two aspects. On the one hand, it leads to continually renewed suppression of one’s potential for aliveness; on the other, to overt violence against anyone identified as “socially deviant” or offensive. And the bureaucratization of life (where you need paper after paper after paper… so familiar, right?) works in yet another way. It doesn’t only permit the use of violence not acknowledged as such, it also destroys people by causing them to distance themselves from their feelings, which is also exactly what happens as a result of accepting the duty to be obedient.

Arno Gruen then quotes Henry T. Nash, a former intelligence analyst for the Pentagon, who describes the process of obscuring reality — the way of neutralization of the language, and the hierarchical structure that helps to divert the attention of humans from the damaging nature of their work. 

 If you’d like to erase human feelings, make people use the mask of impersonality: teach them to talk and feel ‘neutral’ about their daily tasks at work. It distances them from their inner lives, it will protect them from the anxiety of their decisions and it will help to maintain the lie above love. And most importantly, it will make them hate other people. We tend to believe lies when they fuel our hatred, and it’s difficult to believe those whom would arouse our empathy.

Sometimes, we hate the victims. They make us feel uncomfortable; we are ashamed of our empathy because we hate the victim in ourselves.

It seems that our hatred is born from our shame for having allowed ourselves to become victims (even if only in our imagination), by surrendering our autonomy, our special power of free will to the group we belong to. We deny the existence of anything that contradicts our need to believe the myth that everything is alright.

And what is at the end? Well, we learn how to live with an absence of genuine empathy and… hey, look, we feel alright! This lack of feelings takes so many forms that in the end we can quickly become confused about what is real and what is not.

Feelings that are not feelings can be recognized by the various forms of violence they generate. That is also the reason why the world of the ‘well-adjusted citizens’ is so unable to curb the violence engulfing it. 

 I must admit, this excellent tool — being a part of the group, community, congregation or society is our curse and our blessing. We are stronger when we are together (yes, it is true!), but at the same time, we are more stupid, lazy, angrier, and more harmful (=deadly). We lose our free will when we are a part of the group, and often we stop thinking, too. We just want to be neutral people of the neutral land… with the neutral voice.

In the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, the authors provide a clear example of humans easily accepting lies inside of the group.

“Imagine that you find yourself in a group of 6 people engaged in a visual perception test. You’re given a ridiculously simple task. You’re supposed to match a particular line, shown on a large white card, to one of three comparison lines projected onto a screen that is identical to it in length. In the first three rounds of this test, everything proceeds smoothly. People make their matches allowed in sequence, and everyone agrees with everyone else. But on the fourth round, something odd happens. The five other people in the group announce their matches BEFORE YOU — and everyone makes an obvious error. It is now time for you to make your announcement. What will you do?”

 If you are like most people, you think it is easy to predict your behavior in this task: you will say exactly what you think; you’ll call it as you see it! After all, you are independent-minded and so you will tell the truth. But if you are a human, and you were really participating in the experiment, you might follow those who preceded you and say what they said, thus defying the evidence of your own senses. 

 The bigger the group, the bigger the problem.

 In the 1950s, Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments in just this vein. When asked to decide on their own without seeing judgments from others, people seldom erred since the test was easy. But when everyone else gave an incorrect answer, people erred more often. Notice: in Asch’s experiment, people were responding to the decisions of strangers whom they would probably never see again; they had no particular reason to want those strangers to like them.

This experiment seemed to capture something universal about humanity — our submission to the group, where everyone should be alike and similar. Go figure…

 A couple of days ago, I stumbled across Arthur Schopenhauer’s words: “The larger society is, the more impersonal it becomes. A person can be completely himself only as long as he is alone, for only in solitude are we truly free.”

Why do people sometimes ignore their feelings, knowledge, wisdom, or the evidence of their own senses?

  1. Peer pressure and the desire to not face the disapproval of the group
  2. Conformity
  3. Narcissism (people become more likely to conform when they know that other people will see what they have to say)

This also applies to the big environmental movements, the TV news, governments, etc. It looks like we can be nudged into identifying a picture of a dog as a cat as long as other people around us have done so. 

 I know most of us are busy; our lives are complicated. We can’t spend all of our time thinking and analyzing every choice we have to make. We are just trying to cope in a complex world. And we know that we have a limited attention span; we know that we are nudge-able. Despite that knowledge, we continue to believe in our ‘free will.’

When you feel confused, it’s time to be alone with yourself in order to choose consciously and to connect with the world outside through your own feelings and vision. Because somewhere down there, I believe that you have the free will to choose either to be or not to be

Next post – Andrei Platonov