Into the abyss

A while back, I watched Jordan Peterson’s psychology lectures series, which touched on many interesting topics. Peterson is someone who’s clearly spent his life gazing into the darkness of mankind. He frequently quotes Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche and takes an interest in events like the Holodomor in the 1930s, where millions of Ukrainians starved to death. One of Peterson’s book recommendations was Shake hands with the devil by Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, who experienced firsthand the failure of humanity in Rwanda. In just a hundred days, almost a million people were slaughtered to death in the worst genocide in modern times. How did this happen?

It really isn’t that strange. History proves that human beings are capable of awful things. The Milgram experiment from the 1960s showed that we’ll act against what we believe to be right when pushed by an authority figure. In other words, most of us will do what we’re told, even if it means doing the wrong thing. Also, when we become part of a group, we lose our individual morals, and our behavior becomes unpredictable. Individuals who influence crowds have great power, as seen in the Nazi rallies and more recently in the Capitol Hill riots. We act differently in the group than we do if we’re acting on our own. Isaac Newton once said that he could predict the movement of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of crowds.  

Few people born in Western Europe or the US after World War II have experienced the horrors of war. We’re shielded from all violence to the point where we no longer hunt or fish. Many of us believe that guns should be banned from the citizenry. 

Listening to Peterson makes me think about how vulnerable we are as a society. If you’ve never experienced evil, you can’t protect yourself against it. It also reminds me of how madness allowed me to gaze into the darkness I have within me. As a madman, you’re wild and free. You exist as something between a clown and a demon, capable of committing acts unthinkable to most of us. You cheat, lie, and steal. You’re one with your inner darkness. As Nietzsche so succinctly phrased it: 

“He who fights with monsters should look to it, that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

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