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Atrocity, Mundanity and Mental State

Abstract: The paper explores the idea that atrocity is an attack on mundanity causing and caused by disturbance to collective mental states. Atrocity caused by a disturbed individual acting alone could be the result of a desire to disrupt the mundanity of others because of a perception offence. Shocking though these isolated individual acts are, they have no political repercussion. Another type of atrocity is the organised group atrocity carried out for political objectives. In this case, there will be severe and long-term repercussions, and in extreme cases, they can even escalate to war. Again perceptions and moods are present, but in this case they will be shared collectively. As collective mental disturbance is becoming globalized, it can be assumed that atrocity and war will continue. After reviewing current thinking about the nature and causes of disturbed mental states, the paper notes that the trauma of atrocity and the burden of mundanity have been implicated in each other. A research agenda using simulated conflict dynamic and conflict resolution techniques is suggested and a program of action to calm a disturbed collective mental state is indicated.
Atrocity, War and Mundanity

…a group of individuals, most of whom are perfectly inoffensive, may, when gathered in a crowd, be drawn into acts of atrocity.
(Durkheim, 1964 [1895]: 5).

This paper will take this observation as its starting point.

Atrocity is an attack on mundanity. Atrocity is an act of heinous wickedness or wanton cruelty that can occur at any time or place, and when it is perpetrated by a disturbed individual acting alone, could be the result of a desire to disrupt the mundanity of others because of that individual’s perception and mood. Shocking though these isolated individual acts are, they have no political repercussion. When the atrocity is perpetrated by an organised group it has severe repercussions of retaliatory atrocity, preventative atrocity (such as genocide) or, in extreme circumstances, war. It is important, therefore, to try to understand the motivations to commit atrocity: whether provoked or unprovoked–as when, for example, it is for allegedly therapeutic reasons.

War is a legitimised atrocity, although particularly gross acts of wanton destruction of non-combatants (including surrendered troops) are regarded as war crimes. The firebombing or nuclear bombing of cities has been controversial, regarded by some but not others as an atrocity. As war is legitimised atrocity, the labelling of an act of atrocity as an act of war will have huge implication as to the legitimisation of the atrocity. For this reason, most atrocity perpetrators will be at pains to have their acts accepted as legitimate acts of war.

Mundanity pertains to the worldly, earthly preoccupations with everyday life, and while in itself it is generally a benign set of activities and rituals, that is, the daily routine of “the ‘unmarked’–those aspects of our everyday lives that typically go unnoticed by us,” as the Journal of Mundane Behavior describes it (JMB, 2002), or the ‘texture of daily lived reality’ (Orleans, 2001: 2). But the mundanity of one individual, group, community, or civilization may be an affront to certain other individuals and groups. Mundanity, when seen through the distorting lens of a disturbed mental state, could be seen as demanding and justifying nothing less than an act of atrocity, though the act probably won’t be seen and interpreted by its perpetrator as an atrocity but rather an act of war, legitimized atrocity, or even of therapeutic value. Atrocity and war causing severe disruption to mundanity have long been regarded as having major implications for mental health, but it can also be argued that they are also a product of disturbed mental states at a collective level.

From a methodological point of view it would be desirable to interview in depth atrocity perpetrators both before and wherever possible after the act of atrocity, so as to test this hypothesis. However, given the nature of the subject, the enquirer must rely on media interviews, memoirs, and the reports of perpetrators’ associates. There is also an alternative approach through the powerful insight of literature: specifically the desire to spread unhappiness to others, so as to make them pay for one’s own unhappiness, as found in the works of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Zola, to name just several sources of this particular insight. Therefore, one can generate intuitively a hypothesis–the cause of atrocity is a disturbed collective mental state–and place this before the reader in the hope of response.

Collective Mental States: Do They Exist?

In Australia there is currently a Minister of Immigration who, when told that illegal immigrants were found by a UN Working Party to be suffering collective depression, replied that he did not know what the term meant (Age, June 7, 2002). Many academics also deny that collective mental states exist, as do some members of the public. This could be because collective consciousness seems to imply a group mind, or the idea of a hypothetical collective transcendent consciousness or spirit which was assumed to characterise a group or community (Reber, 1995: 323). The methodological problem of how such an entity could be tested empirically has had the effect of placing it outside modern empirical social science, which is predominantly quantitative, leading one observer to comment that ‘there has been practically no research directly assessing the reality of collective consciousness’ (Varvoglis, 1997:1).

This notwithstanding, a survey of current social science literature finds a surprisingly large amount of reference to various conditions of collective mental state, such as collective dignity (Smith, 1991: 163), collective fear (Lake and Rothchild, 1996), collective vulnerability (Orleans, 2001), collective memory (Takei, 1998), and collective consciousness (Munayyer, 1999). The health disciplines reveal a longer but also intermittent interest: collective anxiety neurosis was hypothesised by the psychiatrist Kiev (1973), collective habituation to genocide was discussed by the psychoanalyst Shatan (1976: 122), collective retribution by the psychologist Staub (1992: 164) and collective trauma from the perspective of health care by Myers (1999). Collective responsibility (Harff, 1995), collective moral responsibility (Pies, 20001) and collective guilt (Johnstone, 1999) have also been discussed as a problems of moral philosophy while from the perspective of sociolinguistics collective language grief has been discussed in relation to communities that have lost or anticipate the loss of their language (Bostock, 1997). Language itself is a collective right (Kymlicka, 1995) or droit collectif (Breton, 1997: 47).). Psychohistory is another important approach to collective mental states, in particular the importance of trauma during childhood (Scharf, 2000). Organisational theorists have considered collective organisational anxiety as an important factor in their subject of interest which is a collective mental model (Voyer, Gould and Ford, 1996). All of these conditions can be grouped under the general category of collective mental state, but it is possible that there is a particular mixture of conditions that can become a dangerous impulse to atrocity: for example, collective depression over unwanted mundanity, combined with desire for collective retribution.

The Motivations to Commit Atrocity

(1) The Depression of Unwanted Mundanity

Psychological factors are recognised as being very important as causes of depression, and depression can be a precondition for atrocity. For example, depression is often actuated by the illness or death of someone close or other forms of profound loss including loss of hope for the future or other form of grief (Haig, 1990: 7-11). Individual depression is thus characterised by a loss of personal hopefulness which is now becoming recognised as an important part of the mind-body relationship (Nunn, 1996), and this applies equally to group depression.

Another variant of this view is that depression is caused by feelings of learned helplessness, which results when punishment is received without being contingent upon the actions of the individual (Collier, Longmore and Harvey, 1991: 336). Learned helplessness could be considered as similar to a loss of control over one’s life, even in, or particularly in, its mundanity.

The World Health Organization has recognised the spread and significance of depression, noting that mood disorders (including depression) are estimated to affect some 340 million people, that is, of epidemic proportion. In the United States of America alone, the yearly cost of depression is estimated at US$44 billion, equal to the total cost of all cardiovascular diseases. (WHO, 1997).

José Maria Vigil has investigated the psychological well-being of the Latin American continent and diagnosed a state of collective depression, that is, as having actually the same symptomatology as for individual depression: disappointment, loss of self esteem, self accusation, demobilisation, disorientation, depoliticization, escape into spiritualism, loss of memory, withdrawal and psychosomatic problems (Vigil, 2000: 2). It is possible in a similar way, to assess the condition of a large proportion of young people as being one of collective depression.

A mundane condition of starvation, famine, civil war and political oppression, would not always cause atrocity, but one could conceive these as preconditions for atrocity. The burden of unwanted mundanity is not confined to the Third World. Many people, particularly young adults, in affluent developed societies such as those of North America, Europe or Australasia, are showing symptoms of depression.

The epidemic of depression now becoming globalized could be a response to the tension in global culture: on the positive side of this particular stage of cultural development is the promise of infinite lifestyle possibilities, choice, freedom and consumer goods, while on the negative side, which is more likely to correspond to reality, is poverty, disease, deprivation and the loss of hope, with a particular group being seen as responsible for this situation–a mind-set to which many young people, especially those in third world countries, may be particularly susceptible.

As Eckersley puts it,

…(t)he situation may also reflect a growing failure of modern Western culture to provide an adequate framework of hope, moral values, and a sense of belonging and meaning in our lives, so weakening social cohesion and personal resilience…. In investing so much meaning in the individual “self,” we have left it dangerously exposed and isolated, because we have weakened the enduring personal, social and spiritual relationships that give deeper meaning and purpose to our lives. (Eckersley, 1997).

The burden of the deep inner void created by an unfavourably or degradingly mundane society is a dangerously unstable situation because this void can be filled by bad or evil leaders who can instigate atrocity, the classic example being Hitler, who in Mein Kampf promised that “heads would roll.” In the context of modern organization theory, Hirschhorn has confirmed the conclusion that certain types of leadership can have “toxic effects” on organizational motivation (Hirschhorn, 1990: 533), and this insight can surely be applied to societies at the political level.

(2) Revenge

A depressed mental state could not in itself be seen as a cause of atrocity, but it may create the kind of mental disturbance created by events or deliberate manipulation that can end with atrocity. Specific atrocity can cause depression not only in those individuals immediately affected by loss, but also at a collective level. Atrocity can therefore create the condition for further atrocity.

Collective memory of a past atrocity can be a motivation to atrocity. In 1389 in the Battle of Kosovo, Turkish invaders committed atrocities as part of their conquest of the Balkans, and avenging these have been put forward as grounds for attack on Islamic Kosovars in 1998.

Writing earlier on the wider subject of the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, the novelist Danilo Kis identified nationalism as the causal factor: a state of collective and individual paranoia, where collective paranoia is a combination of many individual paranoias brought to paroxysm in a group whose goal is ‘…to solve problems of monumental importance: survival and prestige of that group’s nation.’ (Kis, 1996: 1). Atrocity was thus interpreted as nationalism, not atrocity.

Psychologists and others have long been concerned with explaining aggression or unprovoked attacks or acts of hostility, and many theories have been put forward. Firstly there is the instinct theory of aggression, represented among many others by Freud who recognised a destructively powerful death instinct, and also by Lorenz (1966) in whose view aggression was a survival-enhancing instinct which is present in human beings as well as other animals, and which can be collective as well as individual. A second view is that aggression is a learned response, rationally chosen and dispassionately employed in the furtherance of selected goals by children, adolescents, adults, and groups such as politicians and the military (Gurr, 1970, 32). The third approach is the ‘frustration-aggression theory’ first proposed by Dollard (1939). Here aggression is seen as a response to frustration caused by interference in the pursuit of goals or any other disturbance to the collective mental state. The aggressive response to frustration is seen as a biologically inherent tendency in humans and other animals, and is not necessarily incompatible with the other two approaches. None of the three approaches is exclusive, but of the three approaches, the latter seems to be the most widely accepted. For example, Gurr takes the view that ‘…the primary source of human capacity for violence appears to be the frustration-aggression mechanism…’ (1970, 36), but he goes on to include among the sources of frustration the sense of relative deprivation, which can be infinitely diverse in origin, nature and response.

The desire for revenge can affect certain strata of society, specific groups, communities, nations and even continents, and can be so widespread and generalised that the term collective vengeance can be used to describe the situation. A specific event such as the unexpected death of a public figure such as a political leader by assassination can be the cause of an episode of collective vengeance and ultimately be a trigger for war or genocide, as was the assassination by aircraft destruction of President Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda in 1994.

(3) Reactive or Preventative Atrocity

As already noted, war is legitimized atrocity. While often retributive, atrocity can also be pre-emptive or preventative. War can be open armed conflict, as between sovereign states, but war can also occur within states as civil war, wars of secession (possibly having an identity component) or wars of independence between pro-independence forces and a colonial or other type of occupying state. Here the labelling process as atrocity, act of terrorism or legitimate act of war, is critical, as external support will depend on whichever label is accepted.

Civil war is war within a state where the objective is control of a state, and thus differs from secession of a part from the whole with a view to gaining the power to implement a particular form of government, policy or regime. In civil war both sides are likely to be highly organised and heavily armed, as in the American Civil War (1861-1865), where loss of life was higher than for Americans in World War 2, or the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) where the bloodshed was also very great. Both civil wars were about ideology: the former in relation to the issues of race and central government, and the latter was concerned with class, religion, and land ownership but with an ethnic implication in that Catalonia and the Basque Country, with their distinct ethnic identities, were strongholds of Republican support with some sympathy in Galicia. In some civil wars, ethnicity has played no part: in the English Civil War (1642-1648), ideology and regime change seem to have been the main issues. When civil war has an identity dimension, it can generally be assumed that many grievances will be implicated, either overtly, as in the situation involving the Kurds or the civil war in Sri Lanka (Bostock 1997) or as in the civil war between the IRA and the British Government in Northern Ireland, where the past and present treatment of Irish Gaels is an important item in the store of grievances embedded in collective memory. All of these civil wars have been heavily marked by atrocity.

(4) Collective Fear

Creating collective fear among a targeted population seems to be a common aim among the perpetrators of atrocity. As Orleans states “This is the prime objective of terrorism: to alter the texture of daily lived reality by injecting a blend of apprehension, trepidation, despair and ruin.” (Orleans, 2001: 2). Hitler created and used the mental state of fear of atrocity by the advancing Russians as a means to control the German public and prolong World War 2 in Europe. The orchestration of individuals, families and communities into agents of homicidal/suicidal behaviour through the manipulation by fear is a frequently observed and generalised component of the same dynamic in which atrocity is perceived both as an immanent threat and a potential resolution.

The generalized state of fear does provide another precondition for atrocity.

When a large number of people collectively experience fear, one can say that this fear is a product of the collective mental state. Such a state can be engineered by the controlled supply of information and interpretation, which is used to generate collective anxiety. Lake and Rothchild expanded on this theme when they wrote that

As groups begin to fear for their safety, dangerous and difficult-to-resolve strategic dilemmas arise that contain within them the potential for tremendous violence….Ethnic activists and political entrepreneurs, operating within groups, build upon these fears of insecurity and polarise society. (Lake and Rothchild, 1996: 41).

Most studies of organised violence do not attribute all causality to leadership, as there must be a facilitating followship or at least acquiescent bystanders (Staub, 1989: 23), and very likely a situation where the “raw material” of collective grievances are present.

(5) Collective Desensitization to Violence

Suicide and violence towards others including homicide are closely related. WHO reports that violence in all its forms has increased dramatically worldwide in recent decades. During 1993, at least 4 million deaths resulted from unintentional or intentional injury, including 300,000 murders. Of the violent deaths, some 3 million were in the developing world. In many countries, homicide and suicide account for 20%-40% of deaths in males aged 15-34 and in half the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, homicide is the second leading cause of death in people aged 15-24. It is more frequent among men, increases in direct relationship with age, and is closely associated with depression, personality disorders, substance abuse and schizophrenia (WHO, 1997). It should be noted, however, that sufferers of specific mental illnesses generally have no greater proclivity towards violent crime than other members of a population (Siegfried and Goetinck, 1996). It would seem inevitable that a climate of generalized violence would favour the planning and execution of atrocity.

Borkenau took up this point when he related the mental state of proclivity towards violence to the effect of severe changes to the social and political milieux in which violence becomes commonplace:

Once the carapace of custom is disrupted, the process acquires the characteristics of a chain reaction. Every rift opened by the devaluation of rules widens automatically and produces new rifts in other places….conduct becomes more and more irrational, the area of moral uncertainty is constantly widening, until the typical situation of the “dark ages,” a situation of total insecurity and universal crime, is reached. (Borkenau, 1981: 385).

(6) Therapeutic Atrocity

Sometimes killing is seen as healing, as in suicide, but killing others can also be seen as an act of healing, as in supposedly benevolently motivated collective euthanasia. An example of this is the war of extermination, where a power seeks to completely extirpate a whole category of people by genocide (Kuper, 1981), for the believed therapeutic benefit of the perpetrators and sometimes even for the victims, as in a kind of mercy killing. The war of extermination may be limited in scope, or disguised as resettlement, as in the Black War in Tasmania (Kuper, 1981, 40), or it may be wholesale as in the Third Reich where a considerable number of categories of people were targeted (Hilberg, 1967) or Cambodia under Pol Pot which has been described as an autogenocide in that Cambodians themselves were targeted (Staub, 1989).

In the light of this discussion, it is possible to hypothesise that the impulses towards aggressive behaviours provide a complex assortment of motivations to atrocity, culminating in homicidal, genocidal and suicidal acts (these often being related) and a diverse range of other atrocities including mass rape and mass mutilation. However there is always present a common factor: a disturbed collective mental state.

Philosophical Implications of a Disturbed Collective Mental State

Thus the condition of the collective mental state can be hypothesised as having an essential role in the great question of human society: order or conflict, peace or war, accommodation or genocide, mundanity or atrocity.

The precise nature of the link between mental state and behaviour is the age-old philosophical and moral question of responsibility, which will remain unresolved. Another way of looking at the same problem is to say that antisocial behaviour may not be a result of illness: “… harm to society…should not be part of the definition of mental illness, because to include it would open the door to saying that, for example, all rapists and all those who oppose society’s aims are mentally ill” (Collier, Longmore and Harvey, 1991: 314). However, it is obvious that the necessary task of co-ordinating large-scale violence requires large numbers of willing participants and therefore that similarity of motivation, mood, ontology, information supply and interpretation must be assumed. However, such violence also requires that a moral choice that has been made and, therefore, cannot be excused. As Pies has written: “Terrorism, in short, is a moral choice–and in principle, it is reversible.” (Pies, 2001: 4).

Pies (2001:1) discussed the problem of whether there can be a collective psychopathology when he wrote “only a clinical evaluation can determine whether an individual suffers from a mental illness, and no group can be diagnosed en masse.” He then went on to state that “we justifiably may ask: is terrorism related to certain habitual ways of thinking that have analogies in some psychiatric disorders? I believe so.” Pies thus gives a valuable confirmation to the hypothesis of this article, but his position also creates a problem: if one uses clinical terms for which there might be specific diagnostic tests, then one is making a collective diagnosis which can then only be metaphorical.

An answer to this problem is to avoid the use of clinical terminology such as disorder, paranoia, (noting that depression is both a clinical term and a plain English term), though one can well accept the right of others to use those terms. But it is still possible to describe in plain English the collective mental state of a community both relative to other communities and also in terms of changes to its former self. These conditions could be summarised as having a collective mental state that is either adjusted to its circumstances or disturbed. But how does an adjusted or disturbed mental state in an individual becomes collectivised?

The Functioning of Collective Mental States

Many social scientists have suggested that the mechanism by which collective consciousness comes about is contagious reciprocity. Kiev developed this theme when he saw not only depression but collective anxiety neurosis as being spread by contagion, analogous to an infectious disease (Kiev, 1973: 418).

Another mechanism of change in collective mental state is the result of collective trauma, which works by changing the existing ties between survivors (Myers, 1999: 2). Among individuals, it has been recognised that stress can be a cause of or trigger for disorder, so that when stress is widespread throughout a community, a significant change in the collective mental state can be predicted. At the collective level, it has often been observed that major traumatic events or continuing conditions of extreme stress (such as in ghettos) do produce a heightened incidence of suicide and other indicators of mental illness, though in actual war, suicide rates do drop.

An important mechanism is the feedback loop. In their study of an industrial plant, Voyer, Gould and Ford (1999) found that many efforts to reduce organisational anxiety were counterproductive because of the presence of reinforcing feedback loops between the various elements of collectively held attitudes and perceptions. There were also balancing feedback loops which had the effect of reducing anxiety and helping the organization to achieve equilibrium, that is, its position before a stressful event. The collective mental state of anxiety is therefore increased or decreased through the mechanism of feedback. Voyer, Gould and Ford referred to a Dutch study which showed that in one organization, the leader’s role was in fact the only balancing feedback loop (Voyer, Gould and Ford, 1999: 3), an early confirmation of the idea that leaders or rulers have an important part to play in the dynamics of the collective mental state.

The common element in the various mechanisms of change in the collective mental state–contagion, shared trauma or feedback loop–is communication of memory and perception and interpretation of reality: whether these perceptions are well founded in reality is immaterial.

Conclusion: Calming the Collective Mental State

Atrocity is an attack on mundanity causing and caused by disturbance to a collective mental state. Sometimes a particular mundanity can be interpreted as offensive and calling for atrocity. This process can create the conditions for conceiving further atrocity in a process of endless recycling. Atrocity can escalate to war or legitimized atrocity (which rarely settles a conflict) or genocide (which is the fullest expression of preventative or therapeutic atrocity).

What is needed is the application of atrocity avoidance techniques, and here many experiments have been carried out in simulated conflict and conflict-resolution exercises, often as part of academic courses. Constructive compensation for past atrocity, the removing of the depression caused by both atrocity and mundanity, and major modification of the collective mental state by creating the calming influence of an atmosphere of hopefulness, often while working in conditions of extreme difficulty and discouragement, is the essential task. For reasons of responsibility and therefore atrocity cycle reduction, atrocities must not go unpunished. But the punishment should not be violent, as in capital punishment or state-sponsored assassination, which exacerbates rather than calms the mental state of the associated group through contagion with trauma amplified by feedback loops. Here one could refer to the execution by the British of the leaders of the Irish Uprising of 1916 (with the exception of de Valera who held United States citizenship), and for which, it could be argued, Britain is still paying a price today.

When mundanity is degrading it should be recognised as a potential cause of atrocity, and practical steps at alleviation must be undertaken. One line of investigation has suggested enquiry into the causal power of the group to change individuals when they become part of a group. In this view, leadership is important among the group processes that require research (Forsyth 1996: 5). Leadership can instil a sense of future, and here it could be relevant to be reminded of the phrase attributed to Dag Hammarskjöld: “the future: yes.”


[1] The author would like to thank some anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on an earlier version of this paper.

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Author: William W. Bostock is currently Senior Lecturer in Government at the University of Tasmania. His interests include the politics of ethnicity and race, nationalism and the effects of the ICT revolution on human organization.

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