The majority of people don’t have to go all in for evil for a society to turn to evil. They need only go one-third or half-way. That’s one lesson to be taken from the work of the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, most famous as the author of The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide.
The book appeared in 1986 and was widely praised. Lifton has just written a new preface to the latest edition, part of which appeared in the leftist magazine Dissent (https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/malignant-normality-doctors). I used his insights to talk about lessons for our cultural trust in doctors here https://aleteia.org/2017/06/14/do-not-put-your-trust-in-doctors/. Doctors are the princeliest of our princes, but as the psalmist said, “Put not your trust in princes.”
What I want to point to now is Lifton’s insight into the way average people—most of us—drift or slide or shuffle or stumble into moral corruption. We are socialized into what Lifton calls “malignant normality.” Evil ideologies shape our thinking even when we think we’re resisting them.
The Nazi’s Malignant Normality
Hitler, says Lifton, preached “a genocidal ideology” that offered
what I call a biomedical vision as a kind of explanation of history: namely, that the Nordic race had once been healthy and dominant as the only culture-creating race; that it became “infected” by destructive Jewish influence and rendered weak and ill; and that it could become healthy and strong again only by ridding it of that Jewish influence.
Taken seriously by enough people, it created the “Nazi normality” and led to the murder of six million Jews, and millions of others. We look at the rise of Hitler and Nazism and wonder how stupid these people could have been. We certainly wouldn’t believe anything at once so silly and so evil.
Maybe not. (Though maybe we would, who really knows? When you think you stand, take care lest you fall, as one shrewd observer of human weakness said.) Apparently relatively few people in Nazi Germany actually believed the whole Hitlerian thing. They didn’t need to, to do what the committed Nazis wanted them to do.
Lifton writes of the Nazi doctors: “Significantly, very few Nazi doctors believed fully in that ideological vision.” Most, he said, held
to little more than the existence of a “Jewish problem” that somehow had to be “solved.” Extreme ideologues do much to create a malignant normality, which comes to pervade most institutions, including medical ones. Then ordinary people who work in those institutions adhere to that normality, often aided by bits and pieces of the extreme ideology. The prevailing normality can be decisive because it excludes alternatives and provides strong pressures for destructive behavior.
That’s the revealing and the scary insight. The average person only needs to hold a milder, diluted form of the ideology. He can feel himself the reasonable one and even feel that he’s on the other side of the matter from the ideologue. And still wind up doing the horrible thing the ideologue wants him to. Because social elites and so many of his peers believe the same thing, he does not see how warped his vision of things has become. He accepts the malignant normality as normality. It’s the way things are. Everyone knows that. So he thinks.
In Our Own History
We can find that happening in our country’s history and perhaps in our own lives. In my New England-college-town youth, I met people who were horrified by outright racism who still spoke as racists.
They’d deny that black people were inferior to white people. They’d denounce Southern racists. But they’d say that black people and white people are “different.” Not intrinsically, but for historical and cultural reasons. And from that idea they somehow got to the idea that segregation, and the inferior facilities it brought about, were normal and for the moment probably inevitable. They’d propose desegregation as a goal for the future. Or they’d demand immediate desegregation in the South but refuse even to discuss desegregating the North.
When we visited friends in the South, I’d hear people talk that way, but even more bluntly. The racists who got on television embarrassed them. They resented the way those people presented the South to the rest of the world. Yet their conversation would eventually wind up with almost the same conclusions. They might prefer to blame the media or argue that the North was just as segregated as the South, rather than speak directly about black people. They still defended segregation as natural.
The process Lifton describes helps explain why so many of our peers, and even our friends and allies, are so bewilderingly indifferent to the open killing of unborn human beings. We have the ideologues and profiteers whose support for abortion is absolute. But even more people support it in general or vaguely. They prefer the language of hard choices and tragic necessities, of a woman and her doctor. They may even speak of abortion as “safe, legal, and rare.” Those are the equivalents of “the Jewish problem” and “black people are different.”
They can’t conceive of a world without legal abortion. On this matter, at least, they live in a world of malignant normality.