Becoming Evil – James Waller

Becoming Evil – James Waller

becoming evilSynopsis

Political or social groups wanting to commit mass murder on the basis of racial, ethnic or religious differences are never hindered by a lack of willing executioners. In Becoming Evil, social psychologist James Waller uncovers the internal and external factors that can lead ordinary people to commit extraordinary acts of evil.
Waller debunks the common explanations for genocide- group think, psychopathology, unique cultures- and offers a more sophisticated and comprehensive psychological view of how anyone can potentially participate in heinous crimes against humanity. He outlines the evolutionary forces that shape human nature, the individual dispositions that are more likely to engage in acts of evil, and the context of cruelty in which these extraordinary acts can emerge. Illustrative eyewitness accounts are presented at the end of each chapter. An important new look at how evil develops, Becoming Evil will help us understand such tragedies as the Holocaust and recent terrorist events. Waller argues that by becoming more aware of the things that lead to extraordinary evil, we will be less likely to be surprised by it and less likely to be unwitting accomplices through our passivity.

My Thoughts

Waller outlines quite brilliantly a new way of thinking – a new model – to explain the perpetration of genocide. In this model, the motivating factors behind the actions of genocide perpetrators are explained in intricate detail. However, explanation does not equate excuses. These acts, these behaviours, are not to be excused – they are meant to be understood, to be analyzed, to open a branch of discourse in genocide studies and open a door for more research.

Waller’s view is inherently social psychological in nature, yet he doesn’t ignore many other, equally important factors These factors include theories and frameworks from many fields of study – including history, anthropology, international relations, legal studies, sociology and so forth. This helps drive home the point that genocide studies – and more broadly criminology in itself – is a multi-disciplinary field which bridges many fields to each other – opening lines of discourse and research.

All of these such factors come together, in this case, in a very dangerous combination which elicits, as he calls it, “extraordinary human evil.” I am inclined to agree. Throughout the book, Waller reiterates that this does not only refer to those whom we wish to see from a pedestal perspective – those at the top of the rankings of “evil” human beings. No, extraordinary evil acts can, and are, committed by ordinary people – the regular Joe off the street who got wrapped up in extreme circumstances of extreme violence. Such factors as the bureaucratic division of labour, in-group thinking, xenophobic ideology, all come together to create an atmosphere ripe with killing intent. (This is just an example – I am in no way authorized to state that this combination of factors is, indeed, behind the acts of a specific perpetrator)

However, this model comes with a distinct warning. We need to be reminded that such ordinary individuals are just as capable of committing vicious acts of violence and genocide as those whose names spread fear when related to highly publicized instances of mass violence. There is an intricate web of factors involved in explaining the motivations of a genocidal perpetrator. Waller’s model helps us unravel the web bit by bit in order to better understand such intricacies.

This book is a fantastic addition to my thesis research, as it pertains precisely to a specific chapter of my thesis – a social psychological analysis of perpetrator motivations. With the benefit of added frameworks from an abundance of fields, I find this book to be a very insightful addition to the field of genocide studies, and perpetrator motivations.


~ by Aubrey Smith on January 20, 2015.

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