Someone asked me this the other day: why are people so ruthless and cruel? I think this is an interesting question that deserves some examination, more than I was able to do at that time. She was talking about oil companies, but the problem can apply to a lot of areas. We can talk about crime, religion, war, and a lot of other things.
In answer, I would like to propose a principle:
If you can make a “good person” believe in anything as moral, then you can make him commit any evil act.
Of course, in practice you can’t make people believe anything as moral. I don’t think you could convince most grown-up Westerners that, for instance, eating other people for a religious ritual is a good idea. But you can convince people of a lot of things simply by constant indoctrination from childhood, social pressure, and threats of violence. With this sort of power, you can convince a whole population that genocide is good, that arbitrary lines on a map make people superior and inferior, that certain people have more rights than others on the basis of a popularity contest, and that people in uniform can assault and kill with impunity.
I did put “good person” in quotes because I am using a turn of phrase. Factually, there is no such thing as a “good person” or a “bad person.” The manichean worldview, used by the State, revolves around these concepts, but they are nonsensical. In fact, any person, “good” or “bad,” can be indoctrinated into doing all sorts of atrocities. Various ruling classes have been successful in creating all sorts of mental mechanisms in their subjects without starting from childhood, so it’s not something that is that demanding anyway.
Our moral compass is malleable, the only difference being how malleable it is. Someone who has a weak will and little principles to begin with, will be far more easily to manipulate than someone who has a strong will and strong principles. Religious convictions, for instance, coupled with a strong will can make someone resist a system or regime that would cow most people.
Of course, the belief in “good people” and “bad people” is a boon for the ruling class because it makes us ignore the whole process that the State itself uses. If you believe a priori than the people who share your arbitrary borders are “good people,” then you will ignore the evil that they will perpetrate against your class interests. Just look at policemen and soldiers: even though they are obviously class traitors and have the power to hold innocent people here and all over the world under siege, we still dismiss their acts of violence and abuse as the work of “bad apples” and that “there are bad apples everywhere.” When a person is part of a system that perpetuates genocide or assault on a widespread scale, we should be way beyond the “bad apples” phase, but unfortunately this will not sink in because people are indoctrinated to believe that those are “good people”.
Collectivism is in the largest part the source of the problem. If we talk about statism, religion, corporatism, all of these modes of thought see the individual as a cog serving a greater whole, where your morality must be subservient to the good of that greater whole. Of course people are greedy, but we always feel the need to rationalize our actions when we would otherwise see them as “bad.” No sane human beings thinks of himself as “evil.” The incentives for crime, for instance, often come from communist class distinctions, and more vaguely, the belief that rich people are evil or undeserving, or that poor people are corrupt or deserve poverty, or that your kind of person (race, religion, age, whatever) brings victimhood and that the crime is one’s way of “getting even.”
Another connection that people often ignore is the connection between belief and actions. In fact, you sometimes hear calls for people who believe a certain way to ignore this or that belief in their actions. But this is incongruous. How else do we determine how to act but from what we believe about the world? What else is there? If you believe that the State is necessary for peace and order, even though the truth is quite obviously opposite, then you will do everything you can to preserve ruling class interests, even if that means killing innocents. As Anarchists, we have to understand how beliefs motivate action, how beliefs are acquired, and what we can do to instill doubt into this process.
Of course, the reverse is also true: the results of actions can also reinforce or break beliefs. This is why groupthink is such an ever-present danger, as we tend to follow people or things we agree with, which reinforces our beliefs as we observe confirmations of it. This is true for everyone regardless of position or belief, although of course the mainstream media, as the main channel of communication, tend to be a very strong reinforcer of statist beliefs. Fortunately the Internet is reversing that to a certain extent, as it is easy to find data about all sorts of beliefs, even though, granted, we don’t have to read them. This is the only reason why the Internet is really such a great tool of communication: because it breaks the statist dominance over what we are allowed to see and read.