Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The Root of All Evil

Our ability to objectify other people is both a source of great power and the root of all evil. Converting personal information into abstractions allows us to organize resources and people toward common goals, but it also allows people to ignore the value of the individual, causing harm without feedback about the personal toll.

War is the classic example of the abuse of abstraction. When we identify others as objects, killing takes on the significance of snow removal. We have “taken out” the “obstacles” to getting “what” we want. By dehumanizing “the enemy” in our minds, we can psychologically escape the consequences of ending lives every bit as valuable as our own.

In a more subtle way, bigotry makes it feel okay to deny rights to people who differ from us in trivial ways (relative to our common humanity). The “other” is in some ways less valuable than we are, their lives (and quality of life) less of a concern than the people we identify with.

One possible explanation for our possession of the ability to devalue other people is an inability to process the necessary amount of information fast enough to make timely decisions in crisis situations, or assuage our apparent need for instant gratification. We could compensate by slowing down, taking the time to fully consider the impact of our actions. By doing so, we could we could increase our efficiency and restrict some of the external forces that bring about crises (such as the negative reactions of an environment filling too fast with waste).

If individuals have a hard time slowing down because of the immediacy of their problems, our leaders must do so; we do after all protect them from harm so they can take the time to consider the long view and point the rest of us in the right direction. Leaders, who instead act viscerally and without regard for the value of others, are, with the combined power of those who follow them, capable of doing the greatest evil.

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