During times of disorder and conflict, what causes a person to take action for what they believe in, regardless of known dangers, rather than simply standing by?
Kristen Renwick Monroe’s book, “Ethics in an Age of Terror and Genocide: Identity and Moral Choice,” explores these questions through analysis of the psychological mentality of people during the Holocaust.
A professor of political science and philosophy at UC-Irvine, Monroe’s experience is extensive. She has received numerous awards, including two American Political Science Association lifetime achievement awards as well as the 2010 Paul Silverman Award for Outstanding Work in Ethics.
Monroe spoke to an intimate group of students and professors Thursday at Northwestern. She shared segments of her personal interviews with bystanders, Nazi supporters and rescuers of Jews.
Monroe was first drawn to the subject matter of her book after discovering a compelling similarity between rescuers of Jews and Nazi supporters.
While rescuers all mentioned duty, role models, socialization, religion and innate predispositions as reasons for their actions, Monroe noticed they all omitted choice. Similarly, Nazi supporters told her that they felt they had no choice but compliance.
“Identity constrains choice,” she said.
Although their reasoning was the same, supporters and rescuers clearly had two very different moral perceptions. Something larger was taking place on a mental level.
There is a social-psychological explanation for why individuals do certain things they normally wouldn’t do under a large-scale organization like genocide. “There is a group mentality,” Monroe explained.
During her presentation, Monroe showed personal interview video clips and used them as examples to discuss her findings.
What you do in a moment is spontaneous, rather than a conscious deliberation, she said. “It is not a second, but a lifetime that causes you to act in certain ways.”
Through her interviews, Monroe discovered that personal history and character of people strongly influenced their actions subconsciously.
Interestingly enough, out of everyone she interviewed only one person said they wanted to do something but were afraid; the others either supported the Nazi regime or chose to act against it because ethically they both felt they had no other choice.
“Think of moral choice as coming out of an identity,” Monroe explained.
While rescuers saw life as a gift that comes with privilege and responsibly, bystanders had low self-esteem, a fatalistic worldview and felt they had no individual ability to take action.
Nevertheless, however defined the categories between rescuers, victims, bystanders and perpetrators may seem, they are, in reality, complex, Monroe said. People frequently change their mind, act differently in the moment or don’t do what they think they will do, especially when confronted with genocide.
Despite these complications, change is possible. How events are framed and how history is remembered has a lot to do with how people respond to situations, Monroe said.
“You can only experience your own humanity if you accord it to other people,” she said.