How are we to explain pathological male dominance?

A theological blog 9 – vii 19

Contemporary Pathological Male Dominance

The twentieth century saw an eruption of pathological male dominance such as has been sometimes witnessed among chimpanzees, notably in Jane Goodall’s observations of the Kasakela chimapanzees at Gombe, in forms so primitive and barbaric that their most evident analogue is the non-human behaviour of the Kasakela chimpanzees themselves.   Genocides had, of course, occured before. The Medieval pogroms against the Jews and the massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day in seventeenth century France are obvious examples.   But these are almost nothing beside the scale of genocides that occurred in the twentieth century, both in their number and in comparison with the single most immense and defining of all genocidal horrors, the extermination of the Jews in Nazi Germany. How are we to explain this?   Heydrich, the primary architect of the Holocaust, did it, so he said, because in a world of Darwinian competition the Reich could not afford to carry a Europe containing eleven million untermenschen consuming precious resources. But this was patent nonsense. The war economy of Germany was even shorter of labour than it was of resources and the destruction of the Jews was strategically and economically highly damaging. In any case, the Holocaust was only one of the many genocides of the twentieth century and unique in its ideological motivation. How do we explain the rest? We need a far more general thesis than one limited to the particular conditions pertaining in nineteen-thirties Germany.

Nor has genocide been the only point of comparison with the behaviour of the Kasakela chimpanzees. The twentieth century also saw a huge eruption of war time raping. Rapes of course have always happened in war. But not on the scale that occurred in Germany in 1945, or Bosnia and Rwanda in the nineteen-nineties. How are we to explain all this? The comparison with Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees might perhaps give us an illuminating insight.   Just as the eruption of the chimpanzee genocides was preceded by the destruction of habitats and the encroachment of humans into previously undisturbed primate ways of life, so in the human case mass genocides are generally preceded by a prior collapse of the structures of civilization. In Germany this preliminary brutalization had occurred in the trenches of the first World War and in the weakening of reliable social procedures during the economic chaos of the nineteen twenties. The mass rapes of German women in 1945 were performed by soldiers who had already been through the horrors of the war in Russia. In Africa and India ancient cultures which had successfully contained forces of violent disintegration for many centuries were destroyed, ironically in the name of imposing civilization, by colonial administrations which then withdrew, leaving paper-thin democratic institutions which frequently proved entirely inadequate as containers of violence and barbarism.

Once the subjectivity which the structures of civilization nurture and promote weakens then, it seems, it is easily replaced by genetically driven forces which are algorithmic and compulsive.   Our primary resource for understanding genocide remains the Holocaust, for it has been far more extensively studied and considered than any other example. What study after study has shown is that those complicit in it were not moral monsters but quite ordinary people who did what they did with a completely astonishing lack of anxiety, guilt or feelings of moral ambivalence. The corollary is that, given the right conditions, the Holocaust could have happened anywhere and we would most of us have behaved just as most Germans did. You would have thought that the disappearance not of unknown aliens in a far distant land but of Jewish neighbours whom you had known for years, amidst rumours that terrible things were happening to them out in the east, would have cause widespread disgust and disquiet. But it didn’t. How did it come about that Serbs who had lived peaceably next door to Muslims and Croats for years in Sarajevo were in the early nineteen-nineties suddenly able to persecute and slaughter their former neighbours without compunction? How did decent ordinary Soviet citizens in Stalinist Russia allow not just six but sixty million of their fellows to disappear into the gulag, almost all without fair trial, and continue to believe what today seems the most obviously fatuous government propaganda that they were, or at any rate soon would be, living in a socialist paradise?   Ordinary human beings become inhuman at remarkable speed given the right conditions. Sympathy perishes as swiftly as the flower in the field.  It is paper thin. We must cherish it above all things – while we can.


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