Three Books on Violence

Forty-nine people at a queer nightclub, then a Member of Parliament in Britain, then 300+ Muslims during Ramadan, then two black men, then five police officers, then 84 beachgoers, then 250+ Turks, then three more police officers.

It's been a long month.

the three books

This is probably not a healthy coping mechanism, but one thing that's helped me – emotionally and intellectually – is to study the psychology of violence. For whatever reason, I prefer a knowable evil to an unknowable evil, even if one can never fully know it.

So, here's three academic books on violence I've read recently. The first one I picked up was Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, which is exactly as lovely as it sounds. I followed that up with The True Believer, a classic book about the birth, life, and death of mass movements. Finally, to end on a sweeter note, I read The Better Angels of Our Nature, on why – despite the headlines – violence has declined, worldwide, a trend that's stood over thousands of years.

Maybe these books will help you too, in making sense of the senseless. Or maybe they'll make you feel worse about humanity. Maybe both.

In any case, here's my attempt to use these books' ideas to understand the violence happening in our world, right here, right now — in this long, long month.


becoming evil

Becoming Evil (2007), by James Waller, starts with a premise that's hard to believe, or we don't want to believe: that extraordinary evil is done by ordinary people. People like you and me. (Most terrorists and génocidaires are psychologically normal, but there's one small exception: lone wolves. Those people tend to have some mental illness, but even then, it's not any one type of mental illness. And I call them a small exception because, despite the media attention, they only account for 1.8% of terrorist incidents.)

This isn't really news to academics – it's been 50 years since Hannah Arendt's report on the banality of evil, and the figuratively-plus-literally shocking Milgram experiments on obedience to authority. But this idea, that regular folks can commit atrocities, still doesn't make sense – how can someone behead, blow up, burn alive another human being and still be "psychologically normal"?

To make this idea more... intuitive?... remember that just a few centuries ago, women were set aflame, humans were sliced into fours, and slaves speared each other in stadiumsall for public spectacle, that average civilians would voluntarily flock to, to enjoy. (More on this in The Better Angels of Our Nature)

So yes, ordinary people are capable of violence, and loving it.

But how? Waller summarized his findings in this diagram, with all its unintentional deadpan humor:

a model of evil

Mmmmm, that diagram sure makes evil look banal.

Becoming Evil focuses on the reasons behind group-on-group violence: genocide, mostly. It doesn't try to explain one-on-one violence, though many of their reasons overlap. I'll briefly explain the main four reasons drawn as ovals in Figure 1, and use them to make sense of what the hell's going on in the world right now.

(DISCLAIMER: in discussing recent real-world examples, I am NOT equating mass shooters with nationalists with cops with cop-killers with ISIS. As stressed earlier, these reasons affect all of us, we "ordinary people".)

Our Ancestral Shadow:

Blood is in our blood.

The good news is that we are innately altruistic to those in our group. The bad news is that it's often at the extreme expense of those outside our group. Us versus them. Tribalism's in our nature – after all, we evolved in tribes. Whether it's the comeback of nationalism in America & Britain, or ISIS attacking Westerners and Shia Muslims, this part of our dark, evolutionary psychology is here to stay. (Evolutionary psychology gets a bad rap, coz sexists abuse evopsych like New Agers abuse quantum physics. But I assure you – evopsych is maturing, making useful and testable predictions, and shining a light into our deep, dark past.)

Remember: an explanation is not an excuse.

The other good news is that fairness is so natural, even monkeys, vampire bats, and computer simulations have evolved a sense of reciprocation. The other bad news is that the corollary of the virtuous "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is the vengeful "do unto others as they have done unto you". (See: ISIS, cop-killers, sectarian violence) Cycles of violence are "natural" – and that's why 30% of prehistoric males died from homicide.

Again: an explanation is not an excuse.

We're not naturally good. But we're not naturally bad, either. We come pre-packaged with inner demons, better angels, and things which can act as both demons and angels.

Psychology of Perpetrators:

Our ancestral shadow is in the flesh, but the mind matters, too.

Now, I'm an introvert. This personality trait correlates with suicide. But as you can tell, I'm not dead yet. There's nothing wrong with being an introvert, it's statistically normal, and it certainly does not condemn you to an isolated existence. Keep that in mind, as I talk about the personality traits that correlate with becoming a jihadist or nationalist extremist. These traits are ordinary and okay, and that's the point: normal psychology can still lead to the most abnormal of crimes.

What traits make one more likely – but not fated – to commit mass murder? Waller lists three: 1) authoritarianism, how much you respect authority, 2) ideological commitment, how strongly you stand by your beliefs, and 3) an external locus of control, how much you accept that your life's journey is mostly out of your hands.

In peacetime, these personality traits might make you respectful, principled, and humble.

In wartime, they might make you a bloodthirsty ruler's toy soldier.

Culture of Cruelty:

Of course, it's not just evolution or personality – the social setting matters too.

Conformity can make someone go along with a mob. Authority can let someone say they're "just following orders". And simply being in a group can diffuse the moral responsibility from any one person.

Some police departments have this culture of cruelty, and that can lead to police brutality. (which by the way is disproportionately against black men) What made Dallas PD such an inspirational role model – and why the recent murder of five of their officers is doubly tragic – is because their chief (who by the way is a black man) fought hard to make a better police culture, one that was more accountable, more transparent, and actively worked with their community.

Social Death of the Victims:

Social forces shape the perpetrators, but they also shape the victims.

Tribalism requires an in-group and out-group, so you must first cut social ties between the in-group and out-group. (Dallas PD did the opposite: they took active efforts to rebuild community ties)

After the two groups are made separate, only then can you dehumanize the "other", be cruel towards them, and say they had it coming. (An ISIS example: Molenbeek was a poorly-integrated neighborhood of poor Muslim immigrants, and it became the neighborhood where many of the Paris attackers grew up)

· · ·

The reasons for violence span several fields of study – psychology, sociology, even roots in our evolution. Yes, there are many explanations for why we're cruel to one another, but remember:

An explanation is not an excuse.
An explanation is not an excuse.
An explanation is not an excuse.


the true believer

The True Believer (1951), by Eric Hoffer, is about all mass movements, not just the genocidal ones. For context, the book was written when Nazism was a fresh memory, Communism was still a threat, but before the Civil Rights Movement got started. (Mass movements aren't always bad!) This book was one of Dwight Eisenhower's favorites, and it gained renewed attention after 9/11, and again after the Arab Spring, and might do so again after this long, long, long month.

Here's a stupid idea: what if Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter have quite a bit in common?

“All mass movements are interchangeable.” That's what the book says, anyway. In Hoffer's time, many Communists & Nazis did switch sides. Nowadays, I doubt you could swap Trump-ers and BLM-ers around, but the book's point stands: all mass movements have the same social & psychological forces behind them – again, it's "normal" psychology and "ordinary" people.

So how does one go from normal to radical?

Hoffer didn't draw a diagram, so here's my visual summary of his thesis:

hoffer diagram

It's a three-step process, with a possible extra step.

1. Individuals feel frustrated.

Hoffer used that specific word: "frustrated". As he put it: “Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more, than when we have nothing and want some.”

This is similar to the idea of relative deprivation, the theory that we're dissatisfied not based on how much we actually have, but how much we have compared to other people.

Frustration is what Trump-ers & BLM-ers have in common.

(DISCLAIMER, REDUX: Again, I am NOT equating these two movements, their goals, their methods, their communities. Just needed to really stress this point.)

Working-class white folks feel deprived. This nuanced, non-cartoon look at Trump supporters explains it well – for all the media focus on his rudeness and racism, Trump mostly talks about trade, and how free trade agreements have screwed over the working class. I hate to admit it, but he has a point. Manufacturing jobs in the U.S are going away – “We've rebuilt China,” as Trump says – and those jobs are never coming back. (If they weren't outsourced, they'd be automated.) This economic anxiety can feed into anti-immigration nationalism, which we saw in Britain, too.

Young people of color also feel deprived. There's the economics – blacks and Hispanics are on average worse off than whites and Asians – but there's an even more fundamental need: to feel safe in your own streets, safe from the police harassing, beating, or killing you. That's what Black Lives Matter cares about, and through non-violent protests, is fighting against.

So once you feel frustrated at the world, what can you do? That's the next step:

2. Individuals want to be part of something bigger.

Why do people lose themselves in a group? you may ask. Hoffer responds that losing yourself is the point of being in a group.

Terrorist suicide attacks are the ultimate form of losing oneself to, and for, one's group. Frustrated by the mess the West left in Iraq, or by Assad's brutal blood-Ba'ath in Syria, some Sunni Muslims choose to join ISIS, to feel bigger, invincible, powerful – in a place where individuals are anything but.

Hoffer's second step reminds me of optimal distinctiveness theory, which says we have two drives: the drive to fit in, and the drive to stand out. And we're always trying to get to our "optimal" level of distinctiveness. If the problems that frustrate you are bigger than yourself, you may join a group to become bigger than yourself.

And that's fine. Collaboration is how any of the world's big problems get tackled. But as Hoffer warns, sometimes...

3. The movement corrupts the individuals.

Hoffer did not look kindly upon mass movements. In his defense, he wrote the book before the Civil Rights Movement, at a time when the embers of Nazism were still hot, and Communism was still a wildfire.

All the social forces I mentioned earlier – conformity, diffusion of responsibility, "just following orders" – come into play, to force the group's members to all think alike, to punish deviants inside the group, and to destroy those outside the group. Terrorist groups like ISIS certainly fit this profile.

Now hang on – it's not like every mass movement automatically becomes ISIS. Aren't there lots of movements that turned out okay? Which brings us to Hoffer's rare extra step:

Bonus Step: The movement "matures"

Very rarely, a mass movement will go from radical to realist, from principles to pragmatism – or to use an example close to my heart, from Stonewall riots to straight alliances.

It's like puberty. All mass movements, according to Hoffer, have to go through that awkward, angst-y phase. And most movements just get stuck there.

Now, as a young queer person of color, I'm very sympathetic to Black Lives Matter. That said, while I care deeply about BLM's cause – reducing police violence – I worry the movement may meet the same fate as Occupy: death by lack of pragmatism. To stress: I'm critiquing BLM not because I want it to fail, but because I want it to succeed.

Last year, I got to see BLM leader DeRay Mckesson give a talk, and one thing that struck me is how practical he is. He's looking for reform, not revolution. (The Arab Spring should tell us how revolutions usually turn out) And later in his talk, he specifically mentions working with police departments, contrary to the mainstream perception of BLM being anti-cop. DeRay's Campaign Zero, with its ten specific solutions to one specific problem, shows that pragmatism.

So, maybe BLM could form alliances with police departments like Dallas PD, who, through community policing and retraining, have lowered crime rates and reduced complaints against police. BLM could be a lot more pragmatic, and thus, a lot more effective.

It's time to mature out of mass-movement puberty.

· · ·

Even Hoffer admits The True Believer is limited. He showed that some movements mature, but he never really explained why some movements mature. Why do some people leave behind violence and ideology, for peace and pragmatism? How do we reveal the better angels of our nature?

That's the title and topic of our final book:


better angels of our nature

The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), by Steven Pinker, shows that – despite the headlines, despite the doomsayers, despite our society's stupid brand of cynicism – violence has declined.

After reading two books that explained violence in an almost-fatalistic way, I was really looking forward to reading this book, to uplift my spirits and give me hope. The book then proceeded to detail humanity's long history of genocide, infanticide, cannibalism, terrorism, oppression, murder, torture, warfare, slavery, rape, and so on.

To make damn sure you no longer romanticize the past. Then, to make you appreciate just how far we've come. Torture is still done in secret, but it used to be public entertainment. Slavery still exists in underground markets, but it used to be an international market. Our better angels are slowly winning over our inner demons.

But how? Pinker's book describes five forces for good, and – heavily paraphrasing from memory – they are:

five pacifying forces

The Leviathan

What if the main cause of our immorality is our morality?

Donald Black argues that most crime is a form of “self-help justice” – the wife who poisons her husband for having an affair, the father who kills his son for being gay, the gang who does a drive-by shooting in retaliation for a previous drive-by shooting.

“Self-help justice” arises in places where law enforcement isn't trusted (e.g. poor minority neighborhoods), or the state is unstable. (e.g. Iraq & Syria, where ISIS grew) Just two centuries ago, even aristocrats would shoot each other in pointless duels – like Alexander Hamilton getting killed by Aaron Burr – to avenge petty insults, in the name of "honor".

To prevent self-help justice, you need The Leviathan: a fair, reliable third party (usually a state) that 1) you can turn to for justice, and 2) will punish those who take justice into their own hands.

However, The Leviathan can only reduce violence within a state. It would do nothing to reduce violence between states. For that, you need...

Gentle Commerce

“When goods don't cross borders, soldiers will.” – a quote often misattributed to Bastiat, coz nobody knows who actually said it.

Pinker puts it more bluntly: with commerce, your neighbors are more valuable to you alive than dead. You can exchange things you have for things you want, and so can the other side. It's win-win! And it's more sustainable than profiting through war, which at best is win-lose, and at worst, lose-lose.

For all the valid complaints one may have about globalization – like how it's alienating the working class, creating the populist resurgence in nationalism we're seeing in America and Britain – it may be part of the reason why world poverty has plummeted and why we're in the most peaceful era of human history. (reminder: "most peaceful" doesn't mean "peaceful")

Girl Power!

The state and economy may be fundamental, but they're just the fundamentals. What about culture?

One cultural shift that correlates with less violence is this: empowering women. Obviously, this reduces the specific forms of violence against girls and women (honor killings, wartime rape, female infanticide), but there's another reason why shifting away from a male-dominated culture reduces violence.

Look – the shooters in Orlando, Dallas, and Baton Rouge were all young men in their 20's. Women are a lot less likely to do this shit.

As someone who's very against ageism & sexism, the statistical finding that “young men are the most susceptible to violence” was uncomfortable for me, politically. Alas, it is true. (Pinker even argues that a population boom of young men was why violent crime in the U.S. suddenly spiked in the 1970's, then fell just as suddenly.) Young male aggression is predicted by evolutionary psychology, but of course, nature interacts with nurture, and many young men are further socialized into that violent, macho "culture of honor". (Also, remember that although men are disproportionately likely to be the perpetrators of violence, they're also disproportionately likely to be the victims of violence. So, reforming "man culture" would benefit men, too. See the man-led Good Men Project.)

There's another cultural force that makes us kinder, and that is...

Good Manners

The stuff of stuffy etiquette books may have saved humanity.

We no longer remember this, but the handshake used to be a way to demonstrate your hands were empty, that you weren't holding a weapon. That's my favorite example of how good manners can be an invisible tool for peace.

Besides shaking hands to prove you're not gonna stab me, good manners also help you exercise self-control, willpower, delayed gratification. Something something marshmallow experiment. Good manners also help create a "culture of dignity", getting away from the "culture of honor" that left Alexander Hamilton bleeding to death. Pinker calls this The Civilizing Process – the way societies are made more pleasant, not just less likely to kill you.

For a practical application, the chief of Dallas PD made a point of training officers to be more, well, good-mannered. Partly to build better ties with the community, (creating a win-win) partly to de-escalate potentially fatal situations. (preventing a lose-lose)

Finally, Pinker brings up one more force for peace, one that's come up again and again in these three books, one that may be a response to the many tragedies we've faced in this long, long, long, long, long month, and that is –

Redefining "Us"

Nationalism. Terrorism. Cop-killers and killer cops. Our ancestral shadow, our evolved mind, means that we're all a little bit tribalistic: we'll help "us", even if it means hurting "them".

But that depends on who "us" is!

First off, fuck empathy. "Empathy" is an overused buzzword, a touted panacea for all our social ills, snake oil for the soul. There's even evidence that some forms of empathy can make you less likely to help others, by making you more likely to emotionally burn out.

What I'm saying is, we can't rely on empathy alone to widen our circle of "us". We're part animal, part angel, and the only solutions that work are those that align the two.

For example, gentle commerce. Trade gives you a selfish reason to care about your neighbors. And it's not just commerce – any "win-win" strategy, like Dallas PD's community-oriented policing, can create peace and genuine positive feelings between groups. In these times of high racial tensions, we urgently need to redefine "us". (Also, I love this article on the psychology of bipartisanship: 7 Habits of Highly Depolarizing People.)

· · ·

Speaking of race relations, I'm reminded of the jigsaw classroom. When America first tried to desegregate public schools in the 1950s, the students didn't take it well. White students would terrorize the black students, and blacks students' disdain for whites would be confirmed. But one social psychologist had a plan: instead of the standard competitive nature of schooling, he'd try making the classroom collaborative, with all students working together on one in-class project. The result: not only did blacks and whites get along better, the kids got better grades and enjoyed school more! Improved race relations, with the side effect of kids liking school? Now that's a miracle cure.

Later studies confirmed that cooperation and common goals are really the best way to get people to get along. By mixing our natural empathy with our natural self-interest, we create the rarest partnership:

Our inner demons and our better angels, working in sync.


what now (photo by lucia whittaker, CC-BY-NC license)

There is no grand unified theory of violence. These three books cover explanations ranging from sociology to psychology to our evolutionary nature, and they're all correct, and they can all help us make sense of the horrors in the world.

That said, these books do have a few things in common.

One – I just realized the authors' names are Waller, Hoffer, and Pinker. Maybe there's something about having a six-letter surname ending in -er that makes you want to study the mind of a Killer.

Two – that ordinary people can and do commit extraordinary evil. Evolution has given us our inner demons of tribalism, vengeance, and selfishness. But evolution's also given us our better angels of altruism, empathy, and reason. Our ancestral shadow can't exist without our ancestral light, which is why...

Three – we can overcome. Waller examined genocide to find ways to mitigate it. Hoffer noted that mass movements can mature into forces for good. Pinker's whole book is about the what and why of a multi-millennia downward trend in violence.

Note that I say “we can overcome”, not “we shall overcome”. I used to be an idealist, as a reaction to our society's stupid brand of cynicism. But now – I'm more of a pragmatist. Pragmatism means not losing faith, but not relying only on faith. It means hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, and acting on what currently is.

We can't saw off the branch of the evolutionary tree we're sitting on. We can't get rid of our inner demons any more than we can get rid of our better angels. But as long as we stay humble, we can find common goals, cooperation, and unexpected win-wins that make us more valuable to each other alive than dead.

Peace is easier said than done.

But it can be done.


Special thanks to Christine, Dan, Jason, Lisa, Martin, Pietro, Rin, Sandhya, and Vanessa for reading early drafts of this piece! Any inaccuracies and shenanigans are my fault alone.

All my words & drawings, I dedicate to the public domain

Buy 'em books: Becoming Evil | True Believer | Better Angels