My enthusiasm for Arne Johan Vetlesen’s Evil and Human Agency waned the further I got from its promising opening chapters.
In his chapter on “third parties” to collective evildoing, he criticizes those who were responsible for reacting to the Balkan genocide but who instead chose various forms of inaction.
The politicians bowed to political considerations; the diplomats tried to preserve negotiations; the intelligentsia philosophized and tried to see things from all angles.
All this, Vetlesen says, when the only appropriate response was to identify what was going on as unmistakable evil and to try desperately to rescue its victims and stop its perpetrators.
And this may well be true, but I don’t feel like I’ve learned much if all I’ve learned is that in a time of great crisis, when decisive action might very well have saved lives and righted wrongs, politicians acted like politicians do, diplomats like diplomats, and intellectuals like intellectuals, and wouldn’t it be nice if they hadn’t, or if there had been a group of powerful genocide-stoppers who had acted in role-appropriate ways.
What did I do about the genocide in the Balkans? I did fuck all.
Which is what I’m doing today about the genocide in Darfur.
I have not raised my voice in protest, I have not bothered to inform myself about even the broad outlines of what is going on there.
I have not so much as raised a finger to help save a single one of the hundreds of thousands of people who I understand are being butchered there now.
My short answer is that I’ve got my hands full trying to convince my fellow Americans not to butcher people by the thousands.
But more than that: I just don’t care.
I’m aware that I probably should care, but in fact I expend just about no time at all concerned with the fate of anyone in Darfur.
Why should this be?
Vetlesen suggests that this apathy to collective evil and large-scale suffering — or even to visible and individual suffering — may be typical:
“It may well be that the most instinctive reaction to seeing somebody suffer great pain is to seek ways to block oneself off from it, so as to protect oneself from fully taking in the reality… the human import, of the suffering before one’s eyes.”
This, contra Arendt, who appealed to an “animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of human suffering.”
[E]ven granted that there is, originally and in pristine form, such a pity in all normal men, the hard-earned insight is that there is an abundance of methods with which to overcome it, to neutralize it — and that many among us start employing them as soon as we have cognitively registered that suffering is indeed the phenomenon at hand.…
[What people] fear, or even abhor, is getting involved, perhaps sensing (unconsciously more than consciously) that once involved in evil, evil contaminates: once taken in in its human import, in its existential reality, it cannot but leave scars on the subject.
If I knew more about what was going on in Darfur, I might learn that there is something I could do about it, and then I might feel obligated to help or guilty if I did not.
If I looked closely enough I might see faces of victims instead of numbers in headlines and this would haunt me.
So I keep Darfur at arm’s length, and, as Vetlesen would argue, I thereby implicitly side with the perpetrators.
He quotes Larry May: “Once one is aware of the things that one could do, and one does not do them, then lack of action is something one has chosen.”
I think that deliberately shielding yourself from awareness of what you can do also is something that is chosen and has similar consequences.
My decision to remain largely ignorant of the genocide in Darfur shields me from certain emotional consequences, at least temporarily, but not from any ethical consequences.
Vetlesen then goes on to try to preserve the notion of individual agency while acknowledging the bizarre psychology of collective evil — in which the perpetrators do not see themselves as individuals following their own motives to injure other individuals but as representatives of a group acting against representatives of another group:
“The task is to recognize the impact of group-psychological processes on the individual agent, while simultaneously upholding responsibility for concrete choices and actions as a non-reductive property of the individual.”
He, as Arendt did, sees the judicial system as a mechanism that is (or at least can be) designed to honor individual responsibility in this way.
In a court of law, the actual choices and actions of the accused in reference to actual victims are the subject of interest.
Which is all well and good in those rare cases when individual perpetrators of collective evil are brought to justice.
But Vetlesen says that although individual responsibility is a legal fact, “collectivization of agency [is] a powerful mental and social fact” that must be acknowledged when looking for ways to ameliorate or prevent collective evil.
In addition, he says that “guilt possesses both a cultural and a moral dimension in its own right, in addition to the restricted legal one” — which reminded me a bit of Karl Jaspers’s notions of “political” and “metaphysical guilt.”
Vetlesen ends his book with a short chapter decrying neoliberal globalization.
It seems tacked on and forced, the sort of thing that with a few changes could be tacked on to any number of contemporary left-leaning think-tank reports.
Neoliberalism is a “methodical destruction of collectives” which in this context he fingers as “a systemic evil” but that seems unduly harsh, especially considering how much systemic evil he has blamed on pathological collectives in the preceding chapters.
While the exploration of the subject matter was interesting food for thought, I didn’t come away from this book feeling like I had acquired any great insight into the problem of collective evil or any good ideas of what to do about it.
Vetlesen’s program of action is bold (if somewhat vague) when it is retrospective, for instance concerning the Balkan genocide, but mild and even vaguer when suggesting forward-looking solutions, particularly ones that ordinary folks like you and me can do.