Review: Becoming Evil, James E. Waller

A note: I read the first edition of Becoming Evil, published in 2002, because that’s the edition my library had a copy of. Waller did publish a second edition in 2007, which may contain a more robust defense of evolutionary psychology and some refinements to his model.

So one of my things for the upcoming year (two years, four years) is that I want to learn more about the historical, social, and scientific contexts for some of the things I’m afraid will happen under President Trump. One thing that scares me is the heightening of racist speech against Muslims and immigrants. More and more in recent years, America has been rhetorically isolating certain groups, and this worried me badly even before a president got elected on the strength of that type of rhetoric. Laws that target Muslims have been in place since 9/11, and the election of President Trump will almost certainly lead to more open legal targeting of vulnerable groups. This is, to put it lightly, not a good path for us to walk down.

Becoming Evil
luckily the cover isn’t sensational at all, ha ha that’d be inappropriate for the topic, amirite?

I checked out James Waller’s Becoming Evil about a week after the election, as well as an enormous book all about genocide, because I guess I am not an optimist. We all want to believe the “never again” rhetoric; we want to believe that we’re sufficiently enlightened that it couldn’t happen here, but I have read enough books about genocide and its aftermath to know that it could absolutely happen anywhere.

I KNOW THIS IS A VERY DOWNER POST. But, still important, so on we bloodily stagger. Becoming Evil posits a four-part model that explains why people do evil things.1 The first prong of the model depends on evolutionary psychology, a branch of science that makes me want to lie down on the floor for several hours because it is nigh untestable and I find that suspect.2 The idea is that we are prone to love “us” and be suspicious of “them” — which I do believe, based on the way even tiny infants respond in tests, but which I have yet to be convinced is due to How We Lived in Ancient Times. But however it may be with evolutionary psychology, the first prong of the model is, basically, suspicion of outsiders.3

The second prong of the model is personal characteristics that make a person more prone to Evil.4 Cultural belief systems that emphasize submission to authority and externalize the locus of control of one’s life tend to produce people more inclined to accede to the commission of violence like genocide. Moral disengagement also makes genocide more likely — i.e., justifying one’s behavior to oneself, giving euphemistic labels to the bad deeds one is doing, etc. And finally, of course, self-interest plays a role: Very often when genocide takes place, it’s because the perpetrator group believes they will profit by the elimination of the victim group.

Y’all, I know this is a super heavy post. Let’s all take a breather and have a look at this Pomeranian getting blow-dried.

what a warm and happy dog
what a warm and happy dog

Okay, that was a good Pomeranian, thank heavens, because this third element is the one that feels the most controllable and urgent to me. (You can see what you think.) The third prong of Waller’s model is about the immediate social contexts in which we are asked to commit acts of violence and exclusion; he calls this “a culture of cruelty” and explores some ways that we’re socialized gradually into such a culture. Reading the book as “how not to commit genocide 101,” this prong of the model was the most useful to me. Here are two hot tips I gleaned:

  1. Do not do small, harmless-seeming compliances. Waller talks about “escalating commitments,” wherein we (humans) are more likely to commit resources to something “once [we] have been induced to go along with a small initial request.” He describes it as a “mounting momentum of compliance” — once we have done the first thing, we want to believe that we’re doing Right, so we get deeper and deeper in. Waller quotes psychologist John Darley as saying “the individual’s morality follows rather than leads.” Our brains are basically very bad at doing things we don’t agree with, so if we start regularly doing an action like saying “Heil Hitler,” our brains are like “oh yeah we must think Hitler is good, else why would we keep saying this thing?” Don’t comply with the small things, and you inoculate yourself (to a degree) against compliance with the big things.
  2. Related: Get better at not conforming not to peer pressure. I know this is so, so difficult. We are social animals and we want to fit in with the group. But this is a reason that people go along with mass murder: They never got good at resisting peer pressure, and they feel guilty “making” their peers do this unfun dirty work of, you know, literally killing people. Get good at it now while it’s easy, and you’re less likely later to agree to violence and repression against a target group.

The last prong of the model, of course, is inflicting “social death” upon the target population; i.e., making the “them” into the themiest “them” you possibly can manage. This includes rhetorical othering (see why I’ve been saying all along not to do that!) as well as physical separation (into, for instance, camps) and super-intense victim-blaming, which arises from our passionate desire to believe that the world is just and that if we ourselves do everything right, we and our loved ones will be safe and not get genocided.

The scary thing about this book5 is how quickly countries can move from the small things — the rhetoric, the ritual displays of national loyalty — to actual straight-up genocide. A robust democracy with lots of participation by its citizens is a strong line of defense against mass ethnic violence, so it is, again, incumbent upon us to be that. Defend our institutions, and participate early and often in our democracy, any way that you can.

  1. Sidebar, I have thought for years that it’s a bad idea to use the word “evil” to describe people who do particularly awful crimes like child abuse or murder. It’s an othering kind of word that absolves us of any commonalities we may share with the so-called evildoer, and I think that makes us less willing to believe that these crimes can happen close to us. Waller says, “Extraordinary human evil can never be simply distilled to one particular psychiatric diagnosis. To do so is to project evil exclusively onto some small segment of the population instead of acknowledging its imminent presence in each of us.” In other words, if only evil people abuse children, and our kid’s friend’s stepfather does not appear to be evil, then how can we believe our kid’s friend if she says the stepfather touched her inappropriately? He’s not evil, right? And abusers are evil? SEE HOW THIS LEADS TO BAD OUTCOMES?
  2. Man, this post is reeeeeeally how to win friends and influence people 101, n’est-ce pas? “First she said we can’t call child abusers evil, now she’s slagging off all of evolutionary psychology, wot a jerk.” I KNOW I KNOW but honestly I think I am correct on both fronts. Waller addresses some of the criticisms of evolutionary psychology but not really its untestability. Whatever, dude. You know what you did. (Maybe this is better in the second edition.)
  3. This does not reflect well on me, but I admit that I was reading this book trying to see if any of these things applied to me. I am okay on suspicion of outsiders, I think! But I do want to emphasize that this did not happen by magic: My parents taught me to be this way, and I have spent a lot of time in my adult life actively eradicating suspicion of outsiders from my brain by having as diverse a range of life experiences and reading material as possible. I recommend these strategies to everyone. They are not perfect, but they help.
  4. Again, I don’t endorse the use of the word evil. I think it’s a word that’s too unspecific to be of much use in contexts such as these, but whatever, I’m following Waller’s vocab use for the purposes of this post.
  5. aside from, just, everything
  • One of the papers I was most proud of in my history major was a lengthy foray into the everyday, inconspicuous nature of “evil” (like, we hear of the atrocities that were committed in Nazi death camps, and think, those people must have been MONSTERS, but really, the atrocity-committers went home to their wives and kids and thought that what they were doing was TOTALLY NORMAL because it had been a slow build-up of small atrocities instead of one sudden veer into mass killings). Of course I can no longer find the paper, but I wish I’d come across this book in my research for that.

    Regardless, THANK YOU for sharing this. I’m adding it to my own stack of library holds (my library also only has the earlier edition, though, bummer).

  • Jeanne

    Yes. One of the things I tried to teach my children (and pretty sure I succeeded) was not to knuckle under to authority, even mine. An authority needs to establish a basis for their authority, even if it’s “run to me when I yell because there’s a damn good reason I’ll tell you when we have a minute” (I’m happy to report that even toddler Walker responded to that one, because I was on crutches with one of my many knee surgeries when he was 14 months old–this is when an observer at a mall said to me “should have named him Runner”).
    And yes, calling someone–even a whole category of someones–“evil” is making them the other–saying “I could never be like that.” I tried to teach this in the sophomore-level class I taught for years when we read The Laramie Project–students would call his murderers–McKinney and Henderson–“monsters” and I would point out what the Catholic priest and the character in the headscarf say in the play, “we are like this.”

  • I agree that it’s important not to label people. One of the things I find so interesting about people, and love to read about in both fiction and nonfiction, is our ability to go either way (or both ways at the same time!) (or all kinds of ways!) depending on circumstances.
    I find footnote #3 interesting – I think that’s a perfectly good reason to read a book!

  • JeanPing

    Oh! I TOO have my reservations about evolutionary psychology.

    There was a meme going around the other day with a story about a teacher falsely accusing a student in a really obvious way> Because teacher was scary, nobody said anything and teacher then said, ‘See how easy it is to not stand up?’ THEN yesterday I was driving kids home and 14yo neighbor girl started talking about the bio teacher’s short fuse and random punishments (in this case, sending a girl out because she asked to have info explained again, she is struggling in the class, and then sending another girl out for being disrespectful when she was in fact silent). I totally thought the story was going to end with bio teacher re-enacting the meme, but no, he’s just like that. And the kids are scared of him and don’t know what to do. This is SO irrelevant except, this is how we run classrooms and I’m not even sure what to do except I told her to document document document and be really calm and factual when telling admins (she’s an emoter) which I hope will happen. GAH.

  • A couple of weeks ago, we were discussing future trips we wanted to take, and my boss was like, “I’d like to go to Germany and Auschwitz and learn how the Holocaust happened.” And I was thinking to myself, In a few months we might find out first-hand. But hopefully not. In the words of Mad-Eye Moody, “Constant vigilance!”

  • Interesting thoughts on labeling people evil. I use the word a lot, but always (or almost always) with the understanding that anyone is capable of committing evil acts. But I suppose even there, I’m labeling the act and not the person. It seems like the important thing is not to pretend that “nice” people only do nice things. People who do despicable things don’t come with a warning label.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    The book’s cover is not incendiary at all (sorry couldn’t resist). While you read about genocide I am getting ready to dive into neoliberalism and economics, not a topic I ever thought or planned on going into. Have you read Philip Roth’s Plot Against America? Good book about how it can happen here. As a child-free by choice middle-aged vegan woman who dreams of living off the grid in the middle of the city I’ve gotten pretty good at resisting peer pressure, not perfect, but I feel pretty solid on that one. I have this weird closet in my basement that I have been thinking about lately and wondering If I could turn it into a secret hiding place for someone, just in case. That I am even thinking about this makes me all kinds of sick and sad. So I am going to gaze at the happy pomeranian for a little while cuz I need some happy.

  • Alley

    I am SO AFRAID OF THIS and people say it will be fine and not believing that this could happen and OMG IT COULD.

  • Something I’m worried about is the possibility that people, myself included, might be unwilling to make a fuss. I think Trump will abuse his power in any way we let him get away with and I don’t want to stay silent because it’s polite if that happens. I’m currently donating to the ACLU, but really want to find ways to get more politically active personally so I make sure I’m doing my part to fight the coming insanity. Great, timely post!