How much evil is due to simple misunderstanding?

Anyone who has encountered a bully in a schoolyard realizes that “self-defense” is not the only motivator of aggression. The bully and his friends actually seem to be enjoying themselves, and their target is generally weak and isolated, and obviously just wants to be left alone.
But to be the devil’s advocate, perhaps much evil is done by good people who simply don’t see the world correctly?
For a case of undeniable evil, Pol Pot presided over a totalitarian dictatorship.  His government made urban dwellers move to the countryside to work in collective farms and on forced labor projects. The combined effects of executions, strenuous working conditions, malnutrition and poor medical care caused the deaths of approximately 25 percent of the Cambodian population.
We would agree this is evil, but did the enforcers of Mr. Pot’s ideology (the Khmer Rouge) think of themselves as evil?
Lets look at their ideology:
The Khmer Rouge’s interpretation of Maoist communism allowed them to believe that they could create a classless society, simply by eliminating all social classes except for the ‘old people’ – poor peasants who worked the land. The Khmer Rouge claimed that they were creating ‘Year Zero’ through their extreme reconstruction methods. They believed that Cambodia should be returned to an alleged ‘golden age’ when the land was cultivated by peasants and the country would be ruled for and by the poorest amongst society. They wanted all members of society to be rural agricultural workers rather than educated city dwellers, who the Khmer Rouge believed had been corrupted by western capitalist ideas.
In order to be loyal to the state, the Khmer Rouge enforced the breaking of ties to religion and family. All political and civil rights were abolished. Formal education ceased and from January 1977, all children from the age of eight were separated from their parents and placed in labour camps, which taught them that the State was their ‘true’ parents. For the Khmer Rouge, children were central to the revolution as they believed they could be easily moulded, conditioned and indoctrinated. They could be taught to obey orders, become soldiers and kill enemies. Children were taught to believe that anyone not conforming to the Khmer laws were corrupt enemies.
Now if you had a reasonably happy life in the city, and you were dragged out to work all day in the fields, you might object to this ideology. Objecting would get you killed, unfortunately. You might object to losing the right to say what you think, but that would get you killed too. You might object to your children being taken away, but that could also get you killed.
But were all these impositions on you due to a misunderstanding? In a way that is true. The Khmer Rouge believed nonsense. Nonsense with lethal consequences.
We could ask, why did they kill their own citizens? Did they see this violence as regrettable, but necessary for self-defense?
Victims who were tortured or killed or both could be:
  1. Professionals and intellectuals—in practice this included almost everyone with an education, people who understood a foreign language and even people who required glasses.
  2. Other ethnicities, such as Vietnamese and Chinese and other religions such as Cambodian Christians, Muslims and the Buddhist monks.
  3. “Economic saboteurs- many of the former urban dwellers (who had not starved to death in the first place) were deemed to be guilty by virtue of their lack of agricultural ability.
Perhaps people in these categories were seen as a threat to the great classless utopia that was being built. So in a way, self-defense could be considered the reason – or at least defense of something supposedly nobler and bigger than a single person.
But that raises a few more questions. The people who come up with these ideologies that others follow, or are indoctrinated by – are the originators of the ideologies good people?
Could they be charlatans, at least to some extent, and know themselves that they are charlatans and frauds?
Once such an ideology takes root, the end justifies the means. And one of the means is lying.
In the U.S. during World War II, the Voice of America put out pro-Soviet propaganda, which included blaming the Nazis for the massacre in the Katyn forest of more than 20,000 Polish prisoners. In reality, the prisoners were murdered by Russians, on Stalin’s orders. After the war, several of VOA’s foreign-language broadcasters and their spouses left the U.S. to work for Communist regimes as anti-American propagandists. So lies were told then, by people who thought those lies were in a good cause and were working as employees of our government.
So lies get spread, and people believe them, and then people do bad things as a consequence.
The ideological dictatorship of China executes more people than rest of world combined, according to Amnesty International. Surely some of this violence is done by indoctrinated people who might be good people in freer societies?
Russians are told that the United States is a threat.  For instance, many Russians believe the events in Ukraine are due to United States meddling.
Jihadists believe that Mohammed wants them to subdue or kill infidels, and some have said they would be happy to kill millions of infidels.  The misunderstanding here might be in believing that Mohammed is the messenger of God, or it might be in what his message was, but whatever it is, you can bet they won’t debate it with you.
A Jewish teacher in Sweden was discouraged from teaching by her school administration.  She was told that her Muslim students would hate her, and more surprisingly, that her Swedish students would  hate her too.  How do these hates develop?
Certain guidelines do emerge..
First, Lying by anyone is a clue that for him or her, the end justifies the means. The end could be just getting out of trouble, or gaining power, or whatever. We should avoid putting liars in positions of power.
Secondly, free speech is important. One liberal professor, Jonathan Haidt, says that on campus, eventually, ideological conformity (on campus that would be conformity to progressivism) replaces original thought.
“This makes it impossible to teach. This makes it impossible to have an intellectual community,” he said. “I’m a liberal Professor and my liberal students scare me.”
It is not “liberal” to be so sure of a position that you shut out any discussion of it.
Thirdly, misunderstandings can arise for many reasons, one of which is the lies of ideologues and others.
A few days ago (April 28) hundreds of mostly Latino anti-Trump protesters bloodied Donald Trump supporters, threw rocks at cars and smashed windows on vehicles–including police cars–following a huge campaign rally by the leading Republican presidential candidate in Costa Mesa, California. Wouldn’t it have been a better approach from their point of view if instead, the Latin TV station Univision had been willing to host Trump, in a forum where people who object to his statements could call in and confront him and his arguments?.
Some people assume that the greater the violence–the more justifiable the passions behind it must be–but that also is a mistake.  Rational misunderstandings do play a role in the bad behavior we see in our world, but sometimes people believe what they want to believe, or are too lazy to investigate the truth, or perhaps have a nasty disposition that seeks out nasty ideologies.  And people sometimes have entire value systems that don’t match ours – they may prefer to be feared than liked.

3 thoughts on “How much evil is due to simple misunderstanding?

  1. I don’t think Pol Pot falls into the “misunderstanding” category, so much as the crazy, cult leader (and we have had many of these) who appeals to sufficient numbers of disatisfied and deranged persons to enable him to gain power. Many of these persons are evil, in the sense that they are full of hatred and the desire to hurt others.

    1. There is a website “” which agrees with you – it says “psychopathically disordered” regimes have common features with individual psychopaths – – traits such as narcissism and paranoia. For instance Pol Pot believed that he alone had the grand design that would eliminate the inequality between city dwellers and peasants. Also, Pol Pot said the party leadership must lead by use of cutting edge violence. Psychopaths have no regard for other human beings – humans are just instruments to a goal. The Khmer Rouge evacuated cities with no regard to the human cost. They taught children how to torture people before the children learned how to read. The regime was also paranoid, and so there were many waves of purges. But questions do arise: Those children who tortured and killed people – were they evil? They were taught to be evil, but can that be blamed on them? Can we really say there is no “misunderstanding” of the real world here? You say the Khmer Rouge was a kind of cult – but how many people took part in their system of repression? The same question goes for China and Russia, where tens of millions were killed. Can you have a cult of so many psychopaths and sociopaths that they can control a country and massacre vast numbers of people?
      Historian Helen Rappaport describes Nikolay Yezhov, the bureaucrat in charge of the NKVD during the Great Purge, as a physically diminutive figure of “limited intelligence” and “narrow political understanding…. Like other instigators of mass murder throughout history, [he] compensated for his lack of physical stature with a pathological cruelty and the use of brute terror.” That is interesting. You can have a scrawny little classmate who does much worse academically in class than you do, and he can become a mass murderer before whom you tremble. But are there enough of such types to be wholly responsible for that massive evil that came out of all these regimes? What about the “idealists” and the indoctrinated?

      1. These are good questions. Regarding the question of blame being apportioned to the leaders or the followers, one has to say that they are, in a way, partners in crime. The leader — Hitler, say — needed his followers. The followers followed him because he shared and magnified their own prejudices and hatreds. If there had not been, as there were, literally millions of Nazi believers, Hitler, on his own, could have achieved nothing. The indoctrination of children is another question. They are vulnerable to picking up the beliefs and hatreds of their culture in any case, but being deliberately targeted.. now that is truly evil. Certainly the Nazi Youth Movement was such an indoctrination mechanism, and it was made so attractive to the young that I recall seeing a documentary in which a German Jewish lady recalled how unfair it seemed that she wasn’t allowed to join the movement herself!

        The only answer, if there is one, is to educate people to be objective, to make up their own minds, and to be aware of the dangers of group thinking and tribalism.

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