How the Human Mind Rationalizes Evil
My name is Rayna Gerakian – but I’m known as Rayna Barton. My grandfather, George Gerakian of Armenian descent, changed his last name to Barton for fear of living in constant scrutiny because of his parents’ heritage. But he should be proud. His father was a survivor. Although studied far less in today’s culture the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide was highly influential in creating conditions for it. Genocide is the systematic killing and deportation of a certain race, and the massacre of the Armenians is considered the first modern genocide of the 20th century. My ancestors died at the hands of the Young Turk government. Generations later, the Turkish government still does not officially acknowledge the genocide. After reading the book “How We Decide” by Jonah Lehrer about the human mind and its decision-making tactics, I sought to examine the act of genocide through the psychology of the act. What drives a person to commit mass murder? How does one follow the command to commit mass genocide? In times of war, what drives a person to commit unspeakable acts, and in this case, against Armenian civilians of the Ottoman Empire? In numerous studies done by neurologists and researchers of all statures, evidence has shown that social pressure can drastically change what we deem acceptable – especially in situations while faced with a question of morality versus obeying an authority figure. Eric Hoffer, author of “The Passionate State of Mind” said, “Our sense of power is more vivid when we break a man’s spirit than when we win his heart.” Unfortunately, this is exactly what can be inferred from studying the act of genocide. We can decipher from historical events, big or small, that mankind desires power and control, and I’ve stood by that fact since writing an angry essay during the modern European history AP exam my sophomore year in high school. The greed and thirst for power has driven some of us to atrocious measures, especially in times of need, as most apparent during the aftermath of WW1 in which Germany was destitute and powerless. Hitler promised a return to glory and the German people were all too ready to believe him. He even justified the Holocaust to come, citing the Armenian genocide. At the precipice of WW1, the Ottoman Empire was at the brink of disbanding. On April 24, 1915, the Young Turkish government rounded up hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and government leaders and assassinated them under no pretense. From 1915 to 1923, Armenian civilians were deported to camps located in Saudi Arabia and in remote deserts and slain. In our day-to-day lives, we see examples of social pressure all around us. Whether on a small scale like skipping homework to go to the movies with some friends, or on a slightly larger one such as smoking marijuana with friends although you are aware it is illegal (and unhealthful in some cases). There are many ways people can feel socially pressured to partake in an action that they deem to be unethical, both indirectly and directly. An example of a direct way to pressure someone is to offer him or her something, only to insult them for doing anything but that. On the contrary, indirectly pressuring someone can occur when things are not being spoken, but implied. Although in times of genocide the stakes are much greater, we have examples of these types of pressure occurring in our lives daily. There has always been a leader in which the act of genocide can be traced. The most evident of that in history, was the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. The human mind maintains a certain inevitable connection to a leader, or to a group that one belongs to, that makes one feel like it is acceptable to commit these acts of genocide. In the article The Journal of Hate Studies, author James Waller concludes that basic factors of human nature called ethnocentrism (the belief that one’s own group is the best), and xenophobia (the tendency to...
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