How to Kill a Million People

When I taught high school English in Los Angeles, one of our annual units was the holocaust through the lens of Elie Wiesel’s searing novella Night.


One of the follow up assignments was for students to research the Eight Stages of Genocide, the first of which is classification. It’s here the violence begins, in our minds, as we label other people.

In so doing, we limit our ability to perceive those around us accurately. We rob them of their particularity, of their humanity. This can become more and more automatic as we age, since we learn to navigate the world through our categories.

Cleverness and education can actually become a hindrance here. Many have questioned how so sophisticated culture could fall under the spell of Nazism. But if we stay at the level of mental categories, of labels and concept, if we haven’t learned that our forms, our countries, ethnicities, even our bodies, thoughts, and emotions, are provisional, and are not essentially who we are, we’ll continue to project onto others so our egos can stay in control. We find people to whom we can feel superior.

It is noteworthy that in most of the horrors of the twentieth century, the perpetrators framed their own story as that of victimhood. Using their mental categories, they think they are bringing about retributive justice against those who had wronged them. They are setting wrongs to right. They had classified the victim on the level of the mind. They had become abstractions, not people.

We do this whenever we go to war, too. We come up with a derogatory name for the enemy to dehumanize them and make any violence a little easier: Jerry, Kraut, Charlie, Slope, Hadji, Raghead.

This is the Small Self’s way of staying in control, of building internal walls that separate us from others. It builds up the illusion that we are separate. We become trapped in this illusory separate self-sense, reinforce it through labels, creating a sense of superiority through insults. This is ego energy unaware of itself.

Here’s how to lay the foundation for violence:

  • Assign others to unconscious categories
  • Give labels to these categories that separate them from us
  • Identify the person completely with the labels we assign rather than recognizing full personhood
  • Project these people as collectively responsible for our suffering or as a moral threat

The rest usually takes care of itself. This is how we perpetuate a cycle of violence. Without any kind of contemplative practice to help us become aware of these inner processes, it is inevitable that this continues. We’ll continue to get a taste of this as the rhetoric of our own election cycles ramp up. Identifying others more with the categories we assign them than with their full humanity creates the seeds of division, exclusion, hysteria, manipulation, and violence. At our most susceptible, we can even turn this insidious thought process against ourselves, sometimes with tragic consequences.

The opposite of this is communion. In the communion ritual, Christ offers connection through woundedness. So often, we have our judgmental overlays that mediate the world for us, instead of connecting through acknowledgment of our own wounds, of our vulnerability.

This kind of thinking goes back a ways. In the Genesis myth, Eve is tempted to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is the story of how we fall from what Owen Barfield, Inkling and confidant of C.S. Lewis, called original participation into dualism, into abstractions. It’s difficult for us to engage in direct experience. We label and judge and assign people to their categories. In so doing we strip them of their humanity.

But there are prerequisites to enact the kind of love the gospels invite us to: first, we have to see. We can’t love what we can’t see.

When we encounter others through our limited ego lenses, it is only a matter of time until someone triggers an unconscious wound or fear and our violence comes out. This is the same unconscious path anyone who’s ever killed a million people also followed.

Question: Can you describe a time when you became conscious of some of the mental categories you inherited from family or culture? Share your answer on Facebook or Twitter

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