I am fascinated by escalation in conflict. Roy Bauermeister’s book on ‘Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty’ cites I recall some experiments in which identical minor negative actions done to one or by one are evaluated differently. (This is Roy:)
Specifically, they found that we overrate the negative impact of what is done to us, and underrate the negative impact of what we do to others. And, of course, we may also think that what we did negatively was accidental or unintended, and what they did was deliberate. This sets the scene for escalation: I do action A and see it as no big deal. The other side sees it as a bigger deal and responds proportionately to the bigger deal. We now see their reaction as disproportionate and react accordingly and so on, and before you know it you are in Rwanda.
Think about the last time someone offended you and thought it was no big deal, but didn’t see that you thought it was or vice versa. I guess it takes a special form of empathy to get it about right. Or as our correspondent Victor puts it: some Christian turning of the other cheek to stop the cycle of escalation. (See Matthew Chapter 5 verse 39.)
Bauermeister also shows that almost all really big mass killing is not mainly the result of sadism or psychopathology, (though both may be present in the execution), but of defensiveness and/or idealism, whoever warped. Hence Hitler, hence Stalin, hence Mao, and hence Pol Pot. Preserve us from the idealists.