Political Evil and the Family
What is the psychology of political evil, including political violence? By “political evil” I mean evil directed towards groups, as opposed to specific individuals: races, nationalities, religions, party affiliation, educational attainment, style of dress, etc. This kind of evil has a distinctive intentionality: whereas individual-directed intentionality takes in a concrete individual, an object of perception, group-directed intentionality posits a generalized, abstract, stereotypical type, often an object of fantasy. It is a kind of reified meta-individual, created in the mind from disparate sources, seldom rooted in fact, cartoon-like. It is possible to entertain this curious object of thought without knowing any individual instance of its purported type. It is a sort of fiction, though masquerading as fact. It is depersonalized, dehumanized, a symbol more than an actual person (often animal imagery is invoked to accentuate it—pig, dog, rat, cockroach, etc.). The nature of this intentionality allows people to perpetrate evil with less ambivalence, because it doesn’t present its object as a three-dimensional human being with specific characteristics. This may be the result of cognitive limitations: it is difficult for the human mind to represent a multitude of objects in all their specificity; it’s much easier to boil it all down to a few easily remembered features, especially if those features reflect prejudices and predilections. In any case, restraints on evil actions stemming from recognition of a common humanity are removed or reduced by such ways of thinking. This is the power of the stereotype, the meme, the caricature. Political evil thrives in such a psychological environment, especially when driven by external forces (fear-mongering, propaganda, indoctrination)). All this is familiar stuff, one aspect of evil’s notorious banalities; and it is sound psychology as far as it goes. But it doesn’t explain why people engage in evil to begin with: why this need (for that is what it appears to be) to select a group and persecute members of that group? What is the root cause of political evil? Why is the human psyche so prone to it? One naturally turns to the family: is there anything about family relations that could underlie the tendency towards political evil (animosity, violence, oppression)? Family dynamics often leave a mark on the adult psyche, scarring and shaping it—this is a platitude of developmental psychology. The first point to note—and I am not alone in observing it—is that the family is a proto-political system, a mini-society. It is a group of individuals, locked in a power structure, vying for dominance, or at least a piece of the pie. There is much rivalry and resentment, particularly in children. In some families, violence is the outcome, in others strict discipline, in others simple neglect. Families are not all harmony and light (surprise, surprise). There are asymmetries of power: parents beat children but not vice versa. There is a good deal of hatred swirling around the family unit (homicidal, according to Freud). But there is also love mingled with the bad stuff: you love the ones you also hate (resent, envy, dislike). This produces cognitive dissonance: the same object invites opposite feelings, thus giving rise to a sense of intolerable disharmony. The sufferer accordingly seeks dissonance reduction, possibly by denying the love or rejecting the hate, neither being easy. However, there is a third way: sublimation—direct the bad feelings elsewhere. At any rate, point some of the antipathy at someone else, as much as possible consistent with the reality principle. This could be a fantasy object—a bogeyman, a villain encountered in books or films or oral tradition, or some other tribe. Think of it as a negative-affect proxy-object—like a wall you hit when you can’t hit what you really want to. So: family dynamics, cognitive dissonance, sublimation, proxy objects. The psyche is searching for an object of resentment to substitute for the father (say) and it lights upon whatever serves that purpose; what better than an imaginary group that embodies features of the family hate-object? The group may symbolize power, strength, wealth, potency, authority, intellectual superiority, immovability—thus replicating the features of the father (or mother or older sibling). You can hate or attack this group as you cannot hate or attack your family members. The greater the oppression within your family the stronger will be your animosity towards the chosen group. So, it is not so much the broken family that fuels political evil as the intact family—not the dissolution of the family but its continuing stranglehold. When you can’t escape its clutches your need for a sublimated outlet will be at its strongest. Thus, we can predict that young people will be the most vulnerable to engaging in political evil, because they are the most enmeshed in family power dynamics; they are ripe for “radicalization”. And this will be accentuated according to the degree of control and oppression existing within the family. Hatred of out-groups will be higher in societies with oppressive family structures—in what we now think of as traditional families. For example, racism will be more prevalent (other things being equal) in societies that beat children for minor infringements (I’m thinking of eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain). The psychological mechanism is clear: family power dynamics, resentment, cognitive dissonance, sublimation, proxy objects, racism (or any -ism that comes to hand). The psyche will be only too happy to latch onto anything that will reduce the cognitive dissonance produced by the traditional family. But notice that there is no easy way out of this problem for the psyche, since families have to impose some sort of dominance hierarchy (just as in animal families). There is really no other way to bring children up; it’s built into the family unit. This explains the persistence of political evil: power asymmetry is a universal property of families, and cognitive dissonance is a psychological fact, so sublimation onto proxy objects will always be an attractive option (even a necessary one). Combine this with the depersonalizing peculiarities of group-directed intentionality and you get a potent psychological brew for breeding political animosity. People will readily hate the neighboring tribe as long as they have been subject to family oppression, but oppression within families comes with the territory (or at least felt oppression). Still, we can predict that minimizing the oppression, especially actual violence, will work to moderate political hatred, though it cannot eliminate it. Also, explaining the source of political hatred might help mitigate its hold over people, because it reveals its irrational roots; it isn’t that the hated group really warrants the hatred. Such hatred will be less contagious the better it is understood, because its true nature has been exposed.
 Notice how common it is to describe the “enemy” as “animals”: this enables people to deny that they are targeting actual human beings. The tendency is well satirized by Monty Python in the Holy Grail film when John Cleese, as a Frenchman, taunts the British soldiers as “pig dogs”: this is puzzling to them because it has never occurred to them that they might be regarded as sub-human. The French meanwhile are regularly described by the English as “frogs”, because they actually eat such things! This is all grist for the manufacture of dehumanizing stereotypes, which are invaluable in licensing political evil. Such are the powers of human intentionality.
 This essay was prompted by recent events, but I have intentionally avoided discussing actual historical examples of political evil so as not to get distracted by complex and controversial factual and ethical questions. It should be obvious what kinds of events I have in mind. Of course, many factors enter into the causation of human actions situated in historical contexts; my purpose has been to identify the central psychological mechanisms. In a fuller account, behavioral contagion and other forms of conformity would also be added to the picture. It is undeniable that stereotypes spread with the greatest of ease. Why?