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Blaming victims, individuals or social structures?

When the Swedish politician Erik Hellsborn of the rather xenophobic Sweden Democrats party blogged that the massacre in Norway was really due to mass immigration and islamization that had driven the killer to extremes (link in Swedish), he of course set himself up for a harsh reprimand from the party chairman Jimmie Åkesson: “I do not share this analysis at all. One cannot blame individual human actions on social structures like this.”

While it is certainly politically rational for the party to try to distance themselves as far as they can from the mass-murderer Breivik (who mentioned them positively by name in his manifesto) this is of course a rather clear deviation from many previous comments from the party that do indeed seem to blame bad actions by people, such as terrorism, as due to Islam or other (foreign) social structures.

It is of course always enjoyable to see political movements you disagree with struggle with their internal contradictions. But this is an area where most of us do have problems: how much of the responsibility of an action do we assign to the individual doing it, and how much do we assign to the group the person belongs to?

We treat in-group (the group we see ourselves as part of) members differently from out-group members: we tend to be biased in favor of our own group and against the other  groups. This happens even if people are randomly assigned to groups and there is no real reason to favour one over the other. We can improve our self-esteem by boosting our group or denigrating other groups. Perhaps this tendency is simply a carryover from our evolutionary past where it was often genetically advantageous to favor whatever coalition one was in. But today, when societies are far larger than in the Pleistocene and we belong to a huge number of nested groups, the in-group-out-group biases can be very problematic as sources of stereotyping, prejudice and outright xenophobia.

In particular, there is the out-group homogeneity bias: “they are alike; we are diverse”. We tend to view members of out-groups as being similar to each other and motivated by shared ideology and culture, while members of our own in-group are individuals, motivated by their own personalities and the current situation. By implication, we are responsible for our individual actions, they are driven by other factors.

Breivik is very much in-group to most West Europeans – male, white, protestant background, connected to mainstream western culture. Had the attacks been done by an out-group terrorist, condemnation would largely have accrued on the terrorist’s group, culture and ideology. Now we will likely see that the acts of Breivik will largely be seen as due to him having psychopathology or being individually ‘evil’, rather than being an example of Norwegian, Christian or right-wing extremism.

There is of course a certain irony in that a person who took out-group thinking to an extreme (being socially isolated made him view practically any group he did not self-identity with as a homogenous and malign out-group that was an acceptable target) now is partially put into our in-group. While he is seen as a monster, he is much more “our” monster than Osama Bin Laden – a man more often described as ideologically driven rather than suffering from some undiagnosed personality disorder.

This is actually where understanding Breivik’s mindset and background naively might blind us to the ideological underpinnings and wider cultural support of his views. Balancing recognition of the individual and collective reasons for actions is hard, but necessary for ethical action. Recognizing our biases is also necessary for doing it well.

It is worth considering that the number of victims of terrorism and individual hate-crime over the past century (perhaps of the order of hundreds of thousands) is minuscule compared to the number of victims of institutionalized democide and war (of the order of hundreds of millions victims). While terrorism is horrific and personal, it is when mistrust or hatred of out-groups become institutionalized they become truly dangerous. In this regard any political ideology or institution that does not try to reduce its out-group bias ought to be viewed as far more potentially dangerous than any individual, no matter how hate-filled or destructive.

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5 Comment on this post

  1. Anthony Drinkwater

    Thank you Anders,
    I think that your view is absolutely right : any political ideology or institution (and I would add religion to this list) that does not try to reduce its out-group bias ought to be viewed as far more potentially dangerous than any individual, no matter how hate-filled or destructive .
    But I'll resist the temptation to name names to avoid being accused of anti-semitism, anti-Islamism, anti-Trotskyism, anti-disestablishmentarianism…….

  2. Hoi Anders

    Yah I noticed this a long time ago and you say it perfectly. Sometimes when I witness all this I am just puzzled. I might conclude I 'suffer' from a disorder where I am less able to fully appreciate a range of societal or 'tribal' rules. I seriously think the past of my brain that deals with group identity has become impaired. As a result I am stunned speechless by the reactions and sentiments on what Breivik did.

    The reflex action is about externalization of the act, dismissal of culpability – i.e. dumping the garbage in the neighbours garden. What Breivik did must be externalized, even of that act itself leads to the comic theatre of resorting to declaring the man insane. Any reading of his manuscript clearly shows the man is rational and lucid, and has weighed his choices from a context extremely familiar to mine – I live in the Netherlands and what Breivik states is a carbon copy of what Wilders states – the only difference is the conclusion.

    The mechanism at work seems to be of this sad consolidatory character – we as humans may feel we soon will face scarcity and turmoil. This would be a genetic emergent behavior – Breivik may actually be making a lucid and rational, within the confines of what society calls such. Our genes may give out warning signals keyed from certain signals in our world – signals that tell our primitive brain hostile competitors are invading and are coming to take our lives, livestock, wives and lay waste to our culture.

    I can already hear the church bells warning us for impending invasion. They used to toll those once when the Vikings came, incidentally.

    I regard this with detachment, as I myself have always lived a comparably isolated, detached life, as an outsider looking in. So when I see the default choice "..he must be mad.." I think I clearly see people denounce the sad reality that the same mechanism may easily yield a lot more Breiviks and quite soon. The variations in the human genome have left us with neurological time bombs were (aside from the reality and potential of actual pathology) people like him may heed imperatives in our evolutionary past to respond to looming threats.

    Sadly most humans have also been born with an uncanny capacity to completely censor out blind spots in the world around them.

    Things for an acutely predatorial human such as Breivik would have been so much simpler in a Pleistocene tribe – he marshals forces or he doesn't and 'his chosen 300' go on a rampage like a leonidas to fight off 'the invaders'. Sadly we became 'civilized' and we came to live in massive population numbers the human mind is not equipped well to function in.

  3. Anthony: There are of course many groups that do not reduce their bias because they don't recognize it. So as a corollary of the previous argument, another important activity is to make people aware of the group biases they hold, why they are bad for everyone, and how to get around them.

    Khannea: I doubt Breivik would have functioned well in a Pleistocene tribe either. My impression is that he suffers from one personality disorder or another, making him bad at being a member of any coalition. He would likely have ended up on the outside there too, but with far less lethal power. It is not the losers that are dangerous, but the people who can coordinate losers to support them.

  4. I agree, he's a classical wild cannon. Out of control – But he sure acts like a traditional 'Berserker' – with insane rage and determination. If only he'd been born in the US, he'd been a well integrated part of the US army, and this would not have happened.

    Oh!….. I think I made the point that the US is more like Pleistocene society I think.

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