When we treat someone badly, we are consequently more inclined to think of the individual as a bad person.
This is the reverse of what we know is true. We understand that in order to rationalize cruelty, one of the necessary first steps is to dehumanize those who will suffer. Blaming them for their own misfortune is yet another step toward our absolution.
Full awareness of these psychological phenomena entails accepting that each of us is capable of cruelty. Understanding human nature means recognizing that we all have blind spots concealing at least a portion of our capacity for evil. We’d be miserable if we possessed an utterly realistic view of ourselves.
In front of the Agudas Achim Synagogue in Bexley, Ohio, is a small memorial garden. Its lighted centerpiece is a bronze sculpture by Alfred Tibor titled Remember. Behind it is a map engraved with the locations of former concentration and extermination camps extending from Latvia to Hungary, from the Netherlands to Belarus. The memorial was created to invoke humanity’s conscience. I’ve never noticed anyone lingering in the tiny garden.
We struggle and rarely succeed at balancing the instincts Christian Jungersen illuminates in his novel The Exception. The psychological thriller deals with workplace intrigue among a small group of Danish genocide researchers. Its characters, who turn against each other as the result of perceived insults, typify our self-centered existence.
Jungersen told Klaus Wivel for Weekendavisen:
We all know that the money we spend having a good time in town could save the lives of several people in the Third World. And that thought does occur to us occasionally, but we shove it back into the shadow world where it leads its own life. If there are people in the Third World whose children die for lack of something from our world, it’s easy to understand why they would hate us and think to themselves: how can anyone be so callous? They would call that evil.