When we discuss why people do things, there are certain assumptions which are frequently left unexamined; human behaviour is often only discussed in a particularly moralistic and individualistic way. This may seem like an abstract philosophical issue, but it has very real consequences.
Let’s take the example of the kind of tragic atrocity we’ve been seeing over and over in recent years. When a person kills others, we treat the case on a personal and moral level: who is this person, what was their life like, what did they believe?
That what the person did (whether a mass shooting or a terrorist attack) is wrong is beyond question. But what causes such things to happen? This is where the usual analysis breaks down, or obscures more than it reveals.
The typical response is to attribute causation to the person’s beliefs. He did it because he was a white supremacist. She did it because she was an Islamic extremist. People do things because they believe in them. These connections seem simple and obvious, and they’re not wrong per se; they just don’t tell us half as much as they appear to.
There is a countercurrent to this kind of thinking, but it’s usually quite weak and confused, since it stays on the level of trying to determine the moral culpability of the individual involved. When challenged with simple-seeming facts, it tends to fall apart. She said she wanted to kill black people because she hated them. Then she did so. What does this have to do with factories closing? You’re just making excuses. Or: he said he wanted to kill infidels because God told him to. Then he did so. What does this have to do with the war? You’re just making excuses.
To actually understand such events, we have to take a step back. Considering the life of the individual tells us very little about the bigger picture.
We need to think of society as a system. What produces these individuals?
Imagine that you have a little community you can run your experiments on. A thousand people who live in the idyllic little town of Ideology. They are like people everywhere: some of them are nice, some of them are idiots, some of them are brilliant, some of them are unstable.
In the first scenario, you put the town of Ideology somewhere in the West. People are raised in an environment influenced but not solely defined by Christianity.
Initially, everything is running along more or less fine. Then you start introducing tensions into the system. You cause unhappiness to spread – whether via austerity or bombing doesn’t really matter. Things get worse. People get insecure. The economy pits them against each other in a struggle for limited resources.
Eventually, this causes one of the less stable individuals to embrace a reactionary belief system based on extreme Christianity and commit an atrocity.
In the second scenario, you move the town of Ideology to somewhere in the East. People are raised in an environment influenced but not solely defined by Islam.
Initially, everything is running along more or less fine. Then you start introducing tensions. You make an increasingly large amount of people miserable. Life gets worse. People are afraid. The economy pits them against each other in a struggle for limited resources.
Eventually, this causes one of the less stable individuals to embrace a reactionary belief system based on extreme Islam and commit an atrocity.
A dysfunctional system will always produce errors.
In both cases, to consider the personal history of the individual is to miss the point: in a thousand people, you’ll always have one person who can’t function equally well under pressure. When you look at society as a system, you understand that the existence of such people must be taken as a given, and the problem is the extreme amount of pressure you’ve subjected the system to. You have created the conditions for the emergence of such individuals – and while the individual expression of the system’s dysfunction is random, the overall effect is entirely predictable. This is what always happens to every human society when you create such conditions.
To use a crude analogy: if you whack the aquarium with a stick, some of the vulnerable fish will die of stress while others will behave erratically. The solution isn’t to blame the fish. It’s to stop whacking the aquarium.
Equally important to note is the fact that the belief embraced by the individual is itself irrelevant. You’ll occasionally hear comedians joking about Buddhist extremists, as if that were a contradiction. Meanwhile, in the real world, the history of Buddhism is exactly as bloody as that of every other religion, and atrocities are being committed in the name of Buddhism on a daily basis. In fact, atrocities can be committed in the name of pretty much anything, because just about every ideology can be bent into shape to serve the mechanics of how the world functions.
Belief is not the cause of an individual’s behaviour, it is a manifestation of that individual’s systemic (dys)function, determined by the culture they find themselves in; it is, as we say in games, flavour text. The mechanics remain the same.
The oddest objection to a systemic understanding of why things happen is “you’re acting like people don’t have agency!” – an objection which seems to presume that we live in an ideal world. We do not. The majority of people do indeed not have a terrible amount of agency. We are all born into our place in history, our lives determined by circumstance, our minds battered by ideology. To break out of that, to emancipate ourselves and our species, is the entire point of the struggle.