Human Morality and the Sport of Mutual Villification

Virtuous indignation is in high fashion as I write this. To hear them tell it, those who take any interest in politics at all go about in a state of permanent outrage. The stalwarts of both the left and the right are adept at demonstrating that their opponents are not merely wrong, but must necessarily be evil as well. A time-honored way of “proving” this is to first identify a villain whose villainy is beyond question. Then, to demonstrate that ones political opponent is a villain, too, it is merely necessary to come up with some more or less flimsy way to connect him with the arch-villain.

The Stalinists were masters of the art. Their arch-villain was Trotsky, who appears in Orwell’s novels, Animal Farm and 1984 as Snowball and Emanuel Goldstein, respectively. He figured largely in the Great Purge Trials of the 1930’s. For example, from the Indictment of the trial of the “bloc of Rights and Trotskyites” that doomed Bukharin, Rykov, Yagoda, and many other once powerful Bolsheviks in 1938, the arch-villain is identified:

This (the crimes attributed to the bloc) applies first of all to one of the inspirers of the conspiracy, enemy of the people TROTSKY. His connection with the Gestapo was exhaustively proved at the trials of the Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Center in August 1936, and of the Anti-Soviet Trotskyite Centre in January 1937.

The investigation has definitely established that TROTSKY has been connected with the German intelligence service since 1921, and with the British Intelligence Service since 1926.

and then the sub-demons are associated with him:

Thus, the accused N. N. Krestinsky, on the direct instruction of enemy of the people TROTSKY, entered into treasonable connections with the German intelligence service in 1921.

The accused K. G. Rakovsky, one of L. TROTSKY’s most intimate and particularly trusted men, has been an agent of the British Intelligence Service since 1924, and of the Japanese intelligence service since 1934.

and so on, and so on. Today, the “progressive” Left, is playing the same game with their foes in the Tea Party movement. In this case, the arch-villain is the John Birch Society. They would have us believe that there are more Birchers behind every Tea Party Bush than there were Reds infesting the halls of government in Joe McCarthy’s most fevered imagination. Examples of the ploy abound. For example, from’s “Tea Party Reminiscent of John Birch Society,”

The surge of the Tea Party as a potential shaker and mover of the American political system is reminiscent of a movement from the sixties that became particularly popular in the bellwether state of California. The John Birch Society became active and many grassroots members attached themselves strongly to the national political figure they saw as an agent for change, Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona.

From E.J. Dionne’s “Birch and Barry,”

The reaction to Obama has also radicalized parts of the conservative movement, giving life to conspiracy theories long buried and strains of thinking similar to those espoused by the John Birch Society and other right-wing groups in the 1950s and ’60s.

From the Anti-Fascist Encyclopedia’s “Ohio: Birch Society, Racism, More Tea Party Ugliness,”

CityBeat first wrote about the Springboro Tea Party last month, detailing the agenda for a rally planned Saturday that’s heavy with speakers from the John Birch Society and movies about far-right conspiracy theories.

and so on. Google the connection, and you’ll find the meme repeated like a mantra on the websites of the left. Of course, the Right does exactly the same thing, with such worthies as Marx and Lenin in the leading role as Über-villain. The goal is the same in either case. To arouse the emotions associated with human morality by attempting to connect ones political opponents with some indubitable evil, and then use those emotions as weapons against them.  Of course, many other morally loaded tactics are employed for the same purpose. It’s interesting to consider the matter from first principles.

To begin, what is morality? The answer is that it is a term used to describe innate human behavioral traits that evolved at a time when the relations between human groups bore little or no resemblance to those between the massive political parties, nation states, and other social groups of our own time. “Good” and “evil” are constructs that exist in our imaginations for the sole reason that they promoted our survival in times now long forgotten. They have no other mode of existence, and cannot possibly be “legitimate” as objects in themselves, by virtue of the subjective nature of their existence. However, the modes of political conflict described above positively require them to be legitimate and real, else the arguments predicated on the reality of one’s own good, and one’s opponents evil, evaporate into the mist. In other words, the powerful emotions evoked in this process of mutual villification are fundamentally irrational.  Seen in this light, they emerge as what they really are; manifestations of human behavioral traits that are irrelevant to the goals pursued in terms of the reasons they exist to begin with. By evoking them in modern political struggles, one is not serving a holy cause. Rather, one is manipulating the human emotions associated with morality as political weapons.

To the extent that we consider survival an attractive goal, it would be well for us to finally climb off of this treadmill of morality. In our daily interactions with other human beings, that goal is impossible. We lack the intelligence to routinely substitute rational analysis for emotional response, or for behavior according to “human nature” at that level. However, it is to be hoped that the same is not true of political decisions involving the fate of thousands or millions of people. The history of the last hundred years has provided ample justification for this hope. Time after time, the identification of whole racial, social, or religious groups as “evil” has resulted in mass slaughter. The mayhem is still with us today, and can be expected to continue into the future. It is not to be expected that we will invariably be fortunate enough to be among “the good.” We could just as easily find ourselves among “the evil,” and share the fate suffered by millions of others in recent history. The idea that what happened so recently in such advanced countries as Germany and Russia “can’t happen here” is an illusion.

Under the circumstances, we would be wise to keep the genie of good and evil in its bottle. We should at least make an effort to substitute reason for emotion. In practice, this would imply a conscious decision to limit our judgment of the opinions of others to the categories “true” and “false,” and dispense with “good” and “evil.” As weapons, “good” and “evil” can be highly effective. If we routinely use them against political opponents, we are, in a very real sense, threatening them. They may quite reasonably conclude that they have no alternative but to wield the same weapons as the only effective way of fighting back. It would be better to refrain from using the weapons to begin with. The history of the last hundred years has amply demonstrated what is sure to follow if we don’t.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

2 thoughts on “Human Morality and the Sport of Mutual Villification”

  1. Reason does not motivate the faithful or win elections. We will not see an end to appeals to emotion any time soon.

    Besides. Without emotion (or at least certain components of emotion) decision is impossible. i.e. we owe our ability to reason to emotion. You can look it up. It is a very interesting subject.

    You know how it works. You are looking for a solution to a problem and then after weighing as much as possible you pick the one that “feels” right. If you have trained your neural networks well the one with the right feeling will also be close to optimum.

    Reason is good. But when it comes to understanding human behavior it is way over rated.

  2. If you read through my posts, you will find that I am not without sin when it comes to appeals to emotion. This is one of those, “Do as I say, not as I do,” things. Still, I think it is reasonable to avoid blindly indulging emotions that lost any connection to the reasons they evolved to begin with long ago. We do have large brains. If survival remains a positive value, we should try to use them.

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