Rabbi Ruhi Rubenstein: When I think about mass sociopolitical violence, there are, unfortunately, several templates in Jewish tradition to which I could turn, but the archetype of the inciter of that kind of violence is Amalek, who is the one who attacks the weak and defenseless, who exploits others’ weakness to do violence.

And so the requirement that we remember this evil, and that we seek to never allow it to take root, is so strong that we actually read this Torah reading not only when it comes into the cycle in the late summer, but we read it the Shabbat before Purim every year on Shabbat Zachor, as a special addition to our Torah reading cycle. And it’s considered a commandment, incumbent on every Jew, to show up at synagogue to hear this Torah reading. As much as the rabbi might like to say so, it’s not actually a commandment incumbent on every Jew to show up on an ordinary Shabbat – it’s considered a nice thing to do, but not required. But this Torah reading is the Torah reading that every Jew is supposed to hear once a year.

“Remember what Amalek really did to you on your journey after you left Egypt, how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when Hashem your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that Hashem your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

So this has been taken as a very puzzling injunction throughout the ages – “remember to blot out the memory.” How do you do that? And there are certainly Jewish thinkers that have externalized that commandment. “Amalek is going to be some particular group of people, and we’re going to have to kill them.”

However, especially in recent centuries, the more common trend has been to internalize the problem of Amalek, to recognize that there is the potential for Amalek not only in every individual, but also in every society. There is the potential to get incited to violence and dominance, and to exploiting a weaker group.

And so these figures in Jewish tradition represent a voice that is very cautious and wary, and understands that in any society, including our own – which we like to think of as a template for a moral society – the Chosen People can be susceptible to incitement to mass violence, and can be susceptible to preying on the weak and defenseless and marginalized. And any given person within a society can be susceptible to those urges, and therefore we need to be vigilant in order to blot them out, so to speak – “we should not forget.”

And so I offer that as a framing, and then we’ll see how much Dr. Saucier agrees with the traditional Jewish commentary perspective that this actually is a risk that we all face and we all need to be vigilant about, and to what extent is he noticing some patterns that might make more people more susceptible. I am very excited to hear from him.

Dr. Gerard Saucier:

I probably don’t need to convince you that sociopolitical violence is a deep problem that actually spirals, like a runaway train, into morally evil outcomes.  I think, actually, this problem is the single most important for social science, and maybe for humanity. And so it should actually be more of a central concern in psychology than this. That’s an interest I have: identifying the central variables for predicting this kind of violence, and then making psychologists pay attention to them more because of their importance.

This is very much about prevention, by identifying the thinking patterns and the perpetrators. I first got into attitude research when I had the idea of studying the way that beliefs vary in a population through “isms.” There are actually 266 “isms” that we extracted from the dictionary that are relevant to attitudes and beliefs. In a sense, what’s going on here is we’re looking for “isms” related to sociopolitical violence. We’re kind of dissecting “Amalekism” here, the ways that Amalek thinks in various ways.

So basically we’re trying to answer the question, “What were these people thinking?”, with the idea that if you can track people’s thinking factors, you can notice them before the violence occurs, and treat them as warning signs and monitor situations more carefully.

I will be using the term “democide” rather than the more common terms like “genocide,” and let me explain why.  Democide is a word that was coined by Rudolph J. Rummel, who’s a political scientist, and this is the way he defined it: “the murder of any person by a government, including genocide, politicide [which is the murder of a political opponent], and mass murder.”  That differs somewhat from the legal definition of a genocide. You could say, more simply, that democide is “death by government,” the title of one of Rummel’s books, perpetrated on a population.

In the study that myself and Laura Akers had published in Genocide Studies and Prevention Journal, we gathered a lot of documents indicating the worldviews and characteristic way of thinking of a lot of leaders that were involved in democides. We selected cases intentionally to make it globally representative, very culturally diverse, and political regime-diverse. Our method was to prioritize, in each case, the text from people higher up in the hierarchy. So we’re not studying the henchmen with crowbars; we’re looking for people who are instigating and inciting from the top as much as possible.

Long story short, there are 20 cases represented in rows here, and we came off with 20 themes that we could identify among them. It’s darkened where these themes occurred in at least half of the cases. You can see that in some of the cases we looked at, there are more of the themes than others. The ones that were the most prototypical, with the most themes, were Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and the Bosnia case. The colonial expropriation cases tended to have more missing, so they sort of fit the convergent prototype a bit less than the Nazi and Rwanda cases, and so on.

There’s a kind of a logic built into this, which is that if you’ve heard the expression, if “you talk like a duck, you may be a duck” – if you talk like a democidalist, good chance you’re actually one of them. “Didn’t Stalin say that, or didn’t Hitler say that, or didn’t they say that in Rwanda?” That’s what we’re thinking about here. We actually use quotes from these leaders, and it really becomes a matter of how much a subject agrees with a quote from one of these people.

We’re currently going down another path where we get self-reported data, which is relevant for it assessing a democidal mindset, or Amalekism, in the general population –  a culture where people in general are sharing this kind of viewpoint. And that would be kind of a dangerous situation, right? So we’d like to actually be able to track this in populations. We had an online questionnaire in the US and India with 150 statements constructed from instigator and perpetrator quotations. I think it would probably be unrealistic to expect our 20 themes to emerge from this analysis; what we got instead was 10. It’s pretty obvious how these statements, and the beliefs behind them, would facilitate sociopolitical violence. One is an attitude that “violence is a good thing,” another is that “hate is a good thing,” or “destruction is a good thing.” And another one was racialism – views that one race is superior to another.

There’s a few of them that have to do with a paranoid style in political thought. I got that term from an old book by Richard Hofstadter from the 60’s called The Paranoid Style in American Politics. There’s quite a bit of a paranoid-style thinking in these perpetrators: labeling people as traitors very readily, believing that there’s some group doing sabotage on the country – “imaginary saboteurs” – or a powerful wealthy elite that’s secretly trying to be in control. And those styles are actually distinct enough that we can measure them as three different things. The people who are using the traitor talk a lot are not necessarily using the sabotage language, or the “wealthy elite” language.

We did find that dualistic thinking, basically dividing the world into enemies and friends, is a separate kind of distinction that can be measured independently. And another one has to do with a belief that harshness and torture and so on are valuable. That’s different from just favoring violence; this is more of a rationalization that you have to treat criminals really roughly, or else you won’t have a good outcome. But it’s applied to more than just criminals in this case. You have to treat people rough, or you won’t get any good results.

And finally, there are a couple more factors that I suspect are somewhat lower risk, because they’re fairly common around the world, but they actually do appear a lot in these sort of texts. One of them is ethnonationalism, which is what A.D. Smith calls a “quasi-religious devotion to a particular ethnic ancestry,” taking a particular group of ancestors and treating them as extremely special – a very attractive sentiment to a lot of people.

And the last one here is thought purification thinking, the view that it’s important to suppress or eliminate dangerous kinds of thinking. There’s actually a little cultural psychology issue that is connected with this. There is a psychologist of religion named Adam Cohen who argued that if you contrast people of Jewish faith and Protestant faith, you get a difference in thinking. Cohen argued that Protestants tend to believe that if you think something bad, it’s a sin, whether you act on it or not. Conversely, based on the evidence he had, in the Jewish context, much more weight is given to your behavior than actually just thinking about it. There’s a distinction made between acting on it vs. thinking a bad thought. And actually what that suggests is that Protestants may be more prone to thought purification thinking than Jewish people. That’s what you would project from Cohen’s research.  

Going forward, a major project we have coming out of this is developing a kind of checklist that we could use for assessing leaders. That could be done by experts, maybe people who are just conversant with the leaders. (If we could get the leaders to fill out the questionnaire that would be great!) And there are two major ways these predictive models could be used. One, you could have national or international organizations adopting it. To give you an analogue, the Fund for Peace has for some years, on their website, been maintaining what was originally called a “Failed States Index,” now called a “Fragile State Index,” tracking conditions within all the countries in the world and indicating how close they are to becoming a failed state, based on expert judgments. So that could be one way it could work. You could have a “democide-prone” index like that, and you could actually see where the alarm could be raised, and use that to inform policy.

The second way is that you might have an effect on the culture. If you identify particular kinds of thinking as kind of bad, or violence-conducive, or radioactive, it can change social norms. Just bringing that into being, pointing out that’s like Hitler and Stalin and so on, you actually could have a cultural change in the general population that recognizes that those sorts of things lead down a bad path. Which may not have been clear enough with them before you spell it out.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post is excerpted and adapted from a talk delivered at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon. You can listen to the full talk here).