Janet Reilly: The Role of Responsibility in Determining Walford’s System of Ideology

Winner, 2000 George Walford International Essay Prize.


“The Holocaust finds a better explanation in unrestrained practice of the ideology of domination, driving forward to a chosen end whatever horrors it may bring, than in evil tendencies peculiar to the Nazis. Neither dictators personally nor their immediate supporters can do harm on any great scale by themselves; their power comes from social support, and the few cannot coerce the many into supporting them.” [1]

Or can they? Although George Walford came to the above conclusion about the nature of genocide based on his theory of systematic ideology, I would argue that with a better understanding of the psychology of genocide and the relationship between responsibility and ideology, systematic ideology can be used to explain why the Holocaust is indeed not the result of evil tendencies peculiar to the Nazis, and why, more importantly, the few so often succeed in convincing the many to support their genocidal campaigns. By understanding the role that an individual’s sense of responsibility for others has in determining his/her concept of community and the development of the major ideologies, we can begin to understand what factors play a part in creating an atmosphere of acceptance for the crime of genocide and how to best prevent them. To begin with, we need to develop a diagram that depicts systematic ideology as a relationship between an individual and his/her community (which is best represented by a system of concentric spheres) and to do that, we will begin with an analysis of the relationship between systematic ideology and A.H. Maslow’s theory of human needs.

Although systematic ideology is most often treated as a political or social theory, its true strength rests in its applicability to and identification with the theories of human developmental psychology. As Zvi Lamm points out, the pyramid relationship between the progressive stages of systematic ideology (the ediostatic, the ediodynamic, and finally, the metadynamic) mimic the hierarchical relationship between Maslow’s theory of human needs (physiological, followed by safety, love and belonging, self-esteem and, above-all, the need for self-actualisation). [2] Just as the higher stages of human need cannot be met until the previous ones have, neither can the more developed ideologies (anarchism and beyond) be achieved without the existence of all the major ideologies. Although systematic ideology is constructed with historical progression in mind (ideologies being listed in the taxonomy according to their order of appearance in history), the true significance of the comparison to the development of human needs emerges only when one understands that the goal of the progression is not to achieve the final stage, but to achieve all the stages.

When looking at Maslow’s theory, it is obvious that even after reaching each consecutive stage in the progression, the other needs must continue to be fulfilled. A person who achieves self-actualisation will only be capable of maintaining it so long as his/her other needs (food, security, love) continue to be met. Similarly, it is possible to understand why there will never be a state of total anarchy^×- in order for anarchism to exist, it must be in opposition to the ideologies that preceded it. The difference between Maslow’s and Richard Walsby’s theories, however, illuminates the significance of systematic ideology. Maslow’s theory depicts the developmental growth of a single individual, whereas Walsby’s theory depicts the intrinsically dependent relationship between individual consciousness and society. As Walford aptly states in trying to explain why anarchism is unnatural, “Anarchism calls for effort from its adherents, and it acquires enough meaning and value to do this only as the person comes to appreciate the failings of the more obvious approaches to society and the problems it poses.” [3] Simply put, anarchism requires effort to correct society’s problems. It is not only a lust for personal freedom, but an acknowledgment of an individual’s responsibility for his/her community^×- be it local, global, or beyond.

But what is the community? In many ways, the definition of community determines an individual’s progression from one major ideology to the next. In the protostatic stage, the individual has concern only for personal or familial needs, but in moving to the epistatic stage, s/he begins to recognise the value in other groups, causing him/her to adopt a more dualistic approach to the world. The acknowledgment of validity within the belief systems of even larger numbers of “external” groups provides the basis for transition to the parastatic stage. And, in the ediodynamic stages (the proto-, epi-, and paradynamic), the individual’s ability to identify with the plight of others and his/her assumption of responsibility for it allows him/her to view society, in so far as it restricts the rights of individuals, in an increasingly negative way.

Diagramming the relationship between an individual’s sense of community or understanding of responsibility and his/her level of self-consciousness reveals a system of concentric spheres. As the ability to empathise with increasingly larger numbers of people develops, the individual moves outside the sphere s/he’s in to a larger sphere, with the goal of self-actualisation and the ideology of all ideologies represented by the entire set of spheres. While this representation is not meant to detract from the pyramid structure used by Walford, it offers a means of better illustrating one aspect of the theory of systematic ideology– the importance of each ideology to the entire system. The concentric spheres also depict the relationship between a person’s progression from one ideology to the next and his/her increased sense of community as each additional sphere represents the acceptance of responsibility for groups outside the previous sphere.

Using this as a starting point, I can now apply systematic ideology in an attempt to explain one of the most horrific and least understood human acts^×- genocide. I have studied genocide extensively both in an historic and psychological context, and while I believe that the theory of systematic ideology can be used to shed light on some of its causes, I disagree with some of the linkages put forth by Walford.

Walford states that, “From their first appearance human beings have lived in ethnic groups, the members of each often quarreling among themselves while uniting against the outsider.” [4] While this is certainly true, it is important not to make any assumptions as to the nature of ethnicity. The tendency for humans to form alliances with each other based on perceived similarities is undeniable. But this occurs on many levels. There is a saying often invoked by children to this effect – only I can pick on my brother, you’d better not try. In other words, a child’s primary allegiance is to him/herself, but his/her secondary allegiance is to a sibling, whom s/he perceives to be more similar to him/her than any person outside the family.

The same is true of ethnicity. It is a relatively new word (in an historic sense), created to separate people from the experience of the victims of genocide. It is a tool used to simplify intensively complex conflicts and situations. In South Africa, ethnicity is determined by race; in the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland, it is religion; and in the U.S., it is often a combination of skin colour and language. Ethnicity is everything that differentiates individuals from one another. It is so inclusive that it means nothing on its own, and, for that reason is used by politicians and media alike to convince people that they are inherently different from the victims of genocide. Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish refugee during WWII, created the word genocide (geno- meaning tribe and cide- the murder of) as a red flag for future generations. He felt that there was no word to describe the horror of the Holocaust and that there needed to be a word that would instinctively alert people to their responsibility to take immediate action should such atrocities ever occur again. In a sense, Lemkin created a mechanism that allows individuals to move quickly from one ideology to the next, from a relatively small concentric sphere, to a larger one. By creating a word to link an individual’s personal knowledge and experience of the Holocaust with atrocities perpetrated in other parts of the world, Lemkin ensured the fact that future generations, outraged by the international community’s failure to act in the timely manner required to prevent the Holocaust, would recognise their responsibility towards other potential victims of genocide more quickly. The use of phrases such as “ethnic cleansing” and “age-old hatreds” by Bill Clinton and other politicians, however, has diluted the power of Lemkin’s message; by avoiding use of the word genocide when speaking of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, media agents and politicians have made it possible for people to remain detached from and to avoid responsibility for these events.

Walford himself in one of his essays, referred to the conflicts in the former communist states during the early 1990s as the result of old hostilities that had been repressed but not eliminated. [5] This is a common viewpoint, but it is not entirely true. While it is true that old hostilities certainly existed, it is a misperception to think that communism was a stabilising force and that once removed, the old hostilities emerged and chaos ensued. Quite the contrary. In the former Yugoslavia, for example, Tito used ethnicity (particularly religion) as a means for determining career placements. Official quotas regarding ethnicity were used by the military and the government, meaning that whenever someone applied for a job, s/he was forced to label him/herself as one ethnicity or another. In this way, the ethnic identifications were kept alive even though individuals rarely used ethnicity to differentiate themselves from one another in social situations.

While the tendency for humans to form alliances with one another based on a shared sense of community or ethnicity is certainly natural, it is very difficult yet very important to understand what determines these connections between people. As Lemkin realised, the assumption of responsibility is directly linked to a person’s ability to empathise with another’s situation.

But what determines an individual’s ability to empathise? Walford believed, and I would agree, that humans are not innately prone towards anarchism, that it is a learned behaviour and that a person’s education is not just represented by his/her formal education, but is the sum of everything to which s/he is exposed. A person must learn responsibility, first for him/herself, then for his/her family, then for the local community, and so on. Walford believed that humans naturally gravitated towards sets of about ten, organised into groups of about fifty, with the largest possible grouping comprising some five to six hundred people. [6] Evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists would disagree as to the exact numbers, but it is probably true that there is a limit to the number of people with whom an individual can identify on a personal level. Beyond that limit, the role of the media in determining a person’s ability to empathise with others (by controlling the information that a person has access to) becomes increasingly important. As Walford pointed out, an individual must expend effort in order to recognise and feel responsibility for society’s problems if s/he is ever to develop self-awareness and achieve a state of freedom.

With this in mind, it is possible to offer a more logical explanation than the one quoted at the beginning of this essay for the Nazis’ success in building support for their extermination campaign. Walford stated that the Holocaust could not be regarded as the result of evil tendencies peculiar to the Nazis, and I would agree. As history has proven, there have been equally horrific genocidal (in intent, if not method) campaigns waged in Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia, to name a few. Yet, Walford attributed the Nazis’ social support to the unrestrained practice of the ideology of domination, claiming that the few cannot coerce the many into supporting them. I would disagree with this last part.

If we remember the relationship between systematic ideology and A.H. Maslow’s theory– that the progression from one major ideology to the next is dependent on the fulfillment of human needs, then it is easy to understand how a person who has advanced to any given stage in the theory is dependent upon and, therefore susceptible to, the preceding ideologies and the human needs that determine them. Just as a person with high self-esteem still needs food, love and a sense of security, a person who has achieved one of the higher ideologies is still dependent on the existence of the other preceding ideologies. Thinking of systematic ideology as a set of concentric spheres, and knowing that the development of each additional sphere (representing one of the major ideologies) is directly related to a person’s sense of responsibility based on his/her ability to empathise with increasingly diverse (relative to him/herself) groups of people, it is evident that a person’s means of accessing information is a critical component in the structure of the theory. In reaching out to groups further and further from the ones to which they belong, people must rely on media agents to inform them. With the advent of mass media in the last century, people were able to connect with one another in ways never before possible, but mass media also became a tool which the relatively few wielded to exert control over the many.

Humans, whether by nature or nurture, are relatively obedient. Stanley Milgrim’s notorious psychological tests performed at Yale during the 1960s showed that when instructed by a person whom they believed to be in authority, more than two-thirds of the test subjects (representing people from all walks of life) willingly administered what they believed to be electric shocks to another person. Even though the person to whom they thought they were administering the shocks (in fact, the person was just an actor) began to scream and begged them to stop, more than two-thirds of the test subjects continued to flip switches that they believed would cause the person to be shocked. Nothing forced them to do it; they simply felt that they were part of an experiment and that they should do as they were told. Once the participants were told the true nature of the experiment^×- to test humans’ levels of obedience, they were horrified that they had willingly followed orders to kill other human beings, and many suffered from severe psychological trauma.

Although the methods used were unethical, the experiment’s conclusions^×-that human beings are extremely obedient, are not so surprising. Milgrim conducted the experiment to show that the Germans’ support of the Nazis was not so unusual^×- that it was not the peculiarly obedient nature of German society that allowed the Holocaust to occur. Since the 1960s, other scholars have argued about this to varying degrees, but one thing is certain, if the Germans were unusually obedient, they’re not the only ones.

In every case of mass murder or genocide, a relative few have used their power to drum up fears to make certain people feel that their security and/or prosperity is being threatened by an “outside” group. In the cases of the exterminations of both the Armenians during World War I and the Jews during World War II, a relatively wealthy minority was portrayed as a threat to the majority. Well-organised propaganda was used to convince the majority that it was in their best interest to eliminate the minority “threat,” when, in fact, the eradication of the minority group directly benefited the few in power who were then able to confiscate the material belongings of those murdered.

When the former Yugoslavia began to break up in the late 1980s, Slobodan Milosevic, the then president of Serbia, convinced the ethnic Serb minority in Croatia that their safety would be threatened should Croatia declare independence from Yugoslavia. Television programs showed dead bodies claiming that they were Serb victims of Croatian aggression when in fact, many of the dead depicted were victims of Serbian acts of aggression in Bosnia. In Rwanda in the early 1990s, it was the national radio that built support for the interahamwe (the first of the Hutu youth militias) and authorised and eventually orchestrated the murders of 800,000 Tutsis.

In his award-winning book on the Rwandan genocide, Philip Gourevitch claims that genocide is not the result of chaos due to collapsed states but an exercise in community building. It is the product of order and authoritarianism. [7] Understanding the role of the individual’s sense of responsibility in determining the development of the major ideologies, we can now see why Gourevitch’s observation makes so much sense. As Walford said, the Holocaust was the result of the unrestrained practice of the ideology of domination, one of the ediostatic ideologies, defined by a relatively limited sense of responsibility and understanding of community. Having shown how the act of genocide can occur as a result of community building and the development of a warped sense of responsibility, some might argue that such an explanation detracts from the weightiness of the crime, but I would agree with Walford– the full horror of the Holocaust lies in the fact that such behaviour is not so very unusual. [8]

[1] Walford, George. DOMINATION, Ideological Commentary Vol. 16, No. 63-13. 1994.
[2] Lamm, Zvi. IDEOLOGIES IN A HIERARCHICAL ORDER, Ideological Commentary Vol. 6, No. 14-2. 1984.
[3] Walford, George. ANARCHISM, Ideological Commentary Vol. 14, No. 55-15. 1992.
[4] Walford, George. EDITORIAL, Ideological Commentary Vol. 15, No. 62-1. 1993.
[5] Walford, George. EDITORIAL, Ideological Commentary Vol. 15, No. 62-1. 1993.
[6] Walford, George. CORPORATION HUNTER, Ideological Commentary Vol. 15, No. 62-4. 1993.
[7] Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families (Picador U.S.A., 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010) 1998. p. 95.
[8] Walford, George. DOMINATION, Ideological Commentary Vol. 16, No. 63-13. 1994.

For more information on Stanley Milgrim’s obedience experiments, the psychological roots of genocide, and the role of media in the Bosnian conflict:
*Gladsjo, Leslie Asako. Truth Under Siege [videorecording] 1994. (Examines the degree to which the war in Yugoslavia was created and sustained by those in control of the media)
*Lazarus, Tom. Moral Development [videorecording] CRM Productions, (McGraw Films, New York) 1984. (Video of Milgrim’s experiments)
*Milgrim, Stanley. Obedience to Authority (Harper and Row) 1974.
*Staub, Ervin. The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (Cambridge University Press) 1992.

Copyright © 2000 by Janet Reilly. Permission granted to reproduce in part or whole for any non-profit purpose providing proper credit and notification is given. For-profit inquiries should be directed to janetreilly at gmail dot com